Wisconsin campus with deep Episcopal roots considered for new home of Episcopal Church Archives

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 6, 2024
DeKoven Center

The DeKoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin, was founded in 1852 as Racine College. Photo: DeKoven Center

[Episcopal News Service] Documents and artifacts detailing centuries’ worth of Episcopal Church history have been housed for the past three years in space leased in a former furniture store in Austin, Texas. Now church leaders are in negotiations to possibly relocate The Episcopal Church Archives to a permanent home with deep Episcopal roots in Wisconsin.

Executive Council, at its Jan. 26-29 meeting, authorized Jane Cisluycis, the church’s acting chief operations officer, to negotiate a potential long-term lease for the Archives to move into space at the DeKoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin. If successful, Cisluycis would bring a proposed lease agreement back to Executive Council for consideration and a vote at its April meeting.

The DeKoven Center occupies an 11-acre campus overlooking Lake Michigan about a half hour south of Milwaukee. It originally was founded by Episcopalians in 1852 as Racine College under Bishop Jackson Kemper. Today, it is operated by the nonprofit DeKoven Foundation as a retreat center and a popular site for weddings and other events.

The church’s Office of Public Affairs, in response to written questions from Episcopal News Service, described the DeKoven Center as “a historic Episcopal site” that continues to serve as “host to the arts as well as other ministries to the local community.” Its advantageous location between the travel hubs of Milwaukee and Chicago, Illinois, was one reason church leaders identified the DeKoven Center as a top candidate for The Episcopal Church Archives. Also, the region offers lower costs of operations and living than Austin, and the DeKoven Center’s leadership is willing “to work with the church in making the move financially feasible,” according to the Office of Public Affairs’ written response.

The Archives have been without a long-term home since 2021, when they moved out of space they had occupied for 60 years at the Seminary of the Southwest. At the time, the move was necessitated by library renovations and the Archives’ growing collections.

The church had been keeping about 6,500 cubic feet of material on the third floor of the seminary’s Booher Library, including letters, diaries, photographs, motion pictures, plans, maps, certificates of ordination, journals of every diocese, various periodicals and magazines, church newspapers, paintings and parish histories. An overflow of additional archival materials was kept in rented storage at three offsite warehouses.

In 2021, The Episcopal Church Archives moved about 6,500 cubic feet of archival materials from the Seminary of the Southwest to a renovated commercial building in Austin, Texas. Photo: Mark Duffy

In 2009, The Episcopal Church purchased a parking lot across the street from St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin, intending to develop part of the parking lot into a new home for the Archives. The value of real estate in Austin surged, and in late 2018, the church chose to sell the undeveloped lot, realizing a net investment return of several million dollars.

Instead of building a new facility, Archives staff oversaw renovations of the 10,000 square foot former furniture store in Austin to include a lunchroom, bathrooms, a shipment receiving area and an archival reading room. That facility helped address storage constraints but was never seen as a permanent solution.

“Because the current location is a time-limited leased space in a commercial market, it is important to move to a cost-effective–yet specifically designed–space, and under an arrangement that makes a long-term commitment to the archives, the staff, and the important work they do,” the church’s Office of Public Affairs said in its written statement to ENS.

Church leaders, citing the active negotiations, have declined to say publicly how much they estimate it would cost to relocate the Archives and lease space in Wisconsin.

The DeKoven Center is named after the Rev. James DeKoven, who served as warden of Racine College from 1859 until his death in 1879. After the college department closed in 1889, the campus remained active as a preparatory school and a military school until its closure in 1933 during the Great Depression. For the middle decades of the 20th century, it was used by the Community of St. Mary, which eventually bought the property and established the DeKoven Foundation. The Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee agreed to take over the property in 1985 but sold it to a commercial owner in 1996.

With support from a campaign led by local supporters, the DeKoven Foundation purchased the current 11 acres in 1999 and oversaw a program of renovations and upgrades, including to its historic bell tower and spire. The bell now rings hourly, “reminding those who hear it of the incredible durability of the campus and its history,” according to the DeKoven Center’s website.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.