To provide plenty of room for foster children, Tom and Nicole Schaer were looking at a big house in the country. But the price tag, approaching $500,000, was too steep.
What they got instead cost $2, with no extra charge for the gymnasium and the lake view.
The Schaers, with their own teenagers and as many as eight foster children, now occupy what used to be the rectory of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in the 1000 block of East Eighth Street.
The Schaers are part of New Hope For Families, a faith-based nonprofit founded in Duluth by Therese Gruba and her husband, Jim, along with Joe and Briar Fischer.
Inspired by a mission to help needy children in Mexico, New Hope’s purpose is to help meet the need for foster care in St. Louis County and provide faith-based support for foster families who desire it.
The county has reduced the average number of children needing out-of-home placement by more than a hundred over the past year, said Holly Church, Children and Family Services director for the southern part of St. Louis County with county Public Health and Human Services. Nonetheless, there’s always a need for more foster parents to replace those leaving the system, she said.
“That's because it's a really hard job,” Church said. “We ask a lot of foster parents who take kids into their care and try to support their needs. These are children who are coming out of traumatic experiences, kids with medical needs, kids with huge behavioral needs.”
The Schaers have learned to have reasonable expectations.
“Our goal is to help calm them, just to bring all that anxiety down and give them as much peace (as we can),” Nicole Schaer said. “Because then the behaviors come down as well.”
The Schaers were sitting with Gruba at a conference table in her office, the former fifth-grade classroom of St. Anthony of Padua School. Large windows behind her revealed a view of three ships on Lake Superior.
Gruba’s vision of a foster care ministry goes back some four years ago to her visit to Rio Bravo Ministries in Reynosa, Mexico, with a group from Lakeview Christian Academy. Inspired by that, and aware of the need for foster care in St. Louis County, she started talking wherever she could about providing a Christian response to that need.
"As I did that, I met Heather and Chase Honer, who decided to get going with the licensing process through St. Louis County," Gruba said. "They were the first family that we became associated with, but they didn't have a home of their own. So we began looking for homes, and praying that God would provide."
The Honers decided to rent a home, and New Hope For Families received a grant to cover their deposit and first month's rent, Gruba said.
The ministry was again looking for a home 10 months ago when Gruba heard that the St. Anthony of Padua complex was on the market. When the Grubas and the Schaers first visited it on a “cold, dark January day” this year, Therese Gruba said, “I thought, ‘Oh, no, this isn't it. This isn't going to work for us. It's way more than what we're looking for. We're just looking for a house.’”
The Schaers, in particular, had been looking. Tom Schaer had been pastor of a country church in Carlton County for 13 years, but he and Nicole felt called to make a change and specifically to foster parenting, he said. (They also own and operate Kingdom Restoration Services.) The church owned the home they and their three adopted children had lived in, so the first thing they needed was a house.
They thought they found a country home near Nopeming, he said. It had 10 bedrooms, and they developed a rapport with the owners, who even invited their family over for Thanksgiving last year.
“So we asked (God) for the $300,000 to $500,000 that we were going to need to purchase a home like this,” Tom Schaer said. “And he didn't answer that prayer immediately.”
Meanwhile, the sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery wanted the church-school-rectory they owned to serve a positive purpose in the community.
“The Benedictine sisters requested when I asked if we could sell the property that we look for somebody who had similar values to ours,” said Sister Danile Lynch, their treasurer. “That would be a Christian, faith-based organization and nonprofit.”
Built in 1922-23, St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church once was the spiritual home to 500 families, according to Jan Barrett, director of monastery development and public relations for St. Scholastica Monastery. Designed by Dutch architects Frederick German and Leif Jensen in Italianate style to honor the church’s northern Italian namesake, the sand-colored brick structure rises amid homes in the East Hillside.
Membership began to decline after 1960, and the Benedictines could no longer provide teachers for the school. The Duluth Diocese closed St. Anthony in 1984, merging it with St. Benedict’s Church.
The diocese sold the complex to the Benedictines for $1, and until recently some of its space was used to store documents for St. Mary’s Medical Center, according to Sister Beverly Raway, prioress of St. Scholastica Monastery. The rectory housed some of the Benedictine sisters, but only one was still living there when the decision was made to sell, Raway said.
“It was just too big of a property to have one person living in it, with the upkeep and concerns about what will you do with it in the future,” she said. “It needed to be repurposed.”
New Hope For Families closed on the deal with Lynch, paying $2, on Feb. 28.
Lynch said their attorney questioned selling the property, valued at around half a million dollars, for a token amount. She pointed out that they were making a 100% profit on the sale. Also, Lynch said, they had found the right buyer.
“From the first time I met Therese Gruba, there was just no question,” Lynch said.
The Schaers moved into the four-story rectory on April 1 and started taking foster children in May. They’re licensed to take six foster children, or as many as eight if there are sibling groups.
As of Nov. 14, they’d had a total of 24 foster children come through, Nicole Schaer said. That included one group of seven, all of whom were age 7 and younger.
“When that happened, Mercy, my now-13-year-old, said, ‘Mom, I'll do the baths,’” Nicole related humorously. “And so it was just this assembly line of supper and then one bath (at a time) and here’s your pajamas, brush your teeth, and go get your (bedtime) story.”
The Benedictines left the Schaers with linens, kitchenware and a hand-stitched quilt on the wall. The house was in move-in condition, although the Schaers decided to tear out the white shag carpeting. It was replaced with carpeting donated by Johnson Carpet One.
It’s a house that seems designed for adventure, with nooks and out-of-the-way rooms and larger areas the Schaers have dubbed “Middle Earth” and “Narnia” after the fantasy creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, respectively.
Next door, in the basement of the school, there’s a gymnasium. Outdoors, there’s play equipment, including a play-inside shoe that once belonged to the Duluth Children’s Museum.
At the time of the interview, the Schaers had five foster children including two sets of twins. With the two teens of their own (the third is at college), they were sending the kids to five different schools. One, a kindergartner, went to school via taxi — accompanied by a school staffer — because there was no school bus service to the child’s school from their house.
By law, the cost for that is shared by the school system and the county, Church said.
The children come and go quickly, the Schaers said. The arrivals and departures can bring mixed feelings.
“Did you hear what Tom said?” Nicole related with a smile during a house tour. “Some we cry when they’re here, and some we cry when they leave.”
The Schaers have a support network of people willing to pitch in when the number and needs of the children become particularly demanding. Part of the work of New Hope For Families, Gruba said, is developing an “SOS group” to respond to such needs.
Including the Schaers, New Hope now has four sets of foster parents in its roster. They meet weekly in a community room of the building for Bible study, prayer and educational sessions. Gruba’s goal is to have 20 foster families involved by the end of the year, whether they’re new to foster parenting or existing parents looking for faith-based support.
Work to restore the former sanctuary is ongoing. A team from Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation mentored by Curtis Bellows repaired the damaged walls. Volunteers from Genesis House, Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge and a Twin Cities-area youth group are among others who have helped out.
Gruba said she envisions the sanctuary one day being a place of worship again, but she thinks it also could serve well for plays and concerts. Community art classes are planned for a room in the former school.
All of this isn’t the answer Gruba was expecting. It’s more.
“We said over and over again: We serve the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills,” Gruba said, referring to Psalm 50:10. “And he can find the mansion that we need to meet the needs of many children.”
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New owners bringing back day care
The East Hillside neighborhood soon will have 42 added openings for child day care.
The Benedictine Living Community of Duluth ran a day care at the former St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church and School until April 2018, when it closed because the Benedictine sisters were looking to sell the complex, according to Sister Danile Lynch, their treasurer.
That meant spots for eight infants and 14 toddlers were lost, said Therese Gruba of New Hope For Families.
“It was a huge loss for the community,” Gruba said. “It was really difficult for families that had been here for years.”
That’s about to change, and in the same place. Heidi Matteson is director of a separate faith-based nonprofit that will provide day care for eight infants, 14 toddlers and 20 preschoolers, leasing the space from New Hope, Gruba said.
The state hasn’t yet finished the licensing process, but it’s hoped the day care will be open by early 2020, she said.
In addition to addressing a community need, Gruba said the day care will provide revenue to help with upkeep of the complex. Heating it in the winter costs in the neighborhood of $3,000 per month.
Foster child number drops in 2019
The average number of children in foster care in St. Louis County has dropped by more than 20 percent this year.
From a high of 893 children, on average, in 2017, the number dropped to 792 last year and, as of October, 626 this year, said Holly Church, Children and Family Services division director with the St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Department.
The drop followed a steep increase in previous years.
“We've had ... placements going up over the last several years, and a lot of that has been related to the opioid epidemic,” Church said.
The decrease doesn’t mean the total number of children going through out-of-home placement is lower as much as that the amount of time spent in foster care is decreasing, she said. Her division is working to reunify parents with their children sooner through, for example, getting parents into treatment for substance use disorder more quickly.
“We are really trying to partner with other resources and services in the community that come around the family to provide what’s needed,” Church said.
The numbers listed above overstate the actual need for foster care, she said. That’s because it includes categories of children for whom foster care isn’t needed, such as a child who is under the jurisdiction of a court but living with a non-custodial parent.
The average number of children actually in need of out-of-home placement this October was 538, she said. About one in five of those, with particularly high needs, are placed in group homes or residential treatment centers. About half of the rest are placed in foster care with relatives.
A child’s relatives don’t have to be licensed to offer foster care if they’re working toward a license, Church said. They also must be eligible to be licensed. A child won’t be placed in a home with someone who has a violent criminal history, even if it is a relative.
“In October, 57% of our kids that were in family foster care were with relatives, which is really good, because it's people in their extended family who know them and care about them,” she said. “They already have a connection to them most of the time.”
But the first choice of social workers is to keep the child in her home, as long as she’s safe, Church said. “Even if there's trauma in the home and abuse or neglect in the home, it's also traumatic for children to be removed from their family.”
In a minority of cases, the child who is removed never will be able to return home. Of the 627 children who left foster care in St. Louis County last year, 15% were adopted, meaning their parents’ rights had been legally terminated, Church said.