Celestial space: A St. Paul convent-turned-hotel celebrates its legacy

| November 15, 2019 | 0 Comments

Sister Miriam Shea of the St. Joseph Sisters of Carondelet looks at a painting on the first floor of the Celeste Hotel + Bar in downtown St. Paul during a tour Oct. 30 for sisters who lived in what used to be their convent in this building, formerly known as St. Agatha’s Conservatory. This painting and more were hanging at the conservatory during the time the St. Joseph Sisters were there. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

“It’s like it’s got a new life,” Sister Miriam Shea said as she took in the wide first-floor hallway of an almost-opened hotel in St. Paul.

Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, accentuating richly toned wood trim, ornate plasterwork and stone floors. Outside, an elaborate double staircase led to the main doors, and inside, small rooms and large suites boasted views of the State Capitol and the surrounding downtown. “Blessedly close to most everything,” its website said of its “divine location.”

The Celeste St. Paul Hotel + Bar opened Nov. 1, but Sister Miriam and fellow Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet were its first guests of honor Oct. 30, when they received a private tour and reception, and the opportunity to be the first guests to stay overnight — again.

Decades before the Beaux-Arts style building was remodeled as a 71-room boutique hotel, it was home to scores of Sisters of St. Joseph. Built between 1908 and 1910, it was originally St. Agatha’s Conservatory of Music and Art. It was also a convent for the sisters who ran the fine arts school, the first in Minnesota.

The conservatory closed in 1961. Known since as the Exchange Building, the six-story edifice at the intersection of Exchange and Cedar streets has also recently housed the St. Paul Conservatory of Music, McNally Smith College of Music, Books for Africa and a law firm.

Rebound Hospitality, a Northfield-based company that specializes in converting historic properties into hotels, purchased the building in 2017. Its owners discovered that several sisters who had lived at the convent were in their 80s and 90s and living in St. Paul, and they invited them to visit as they restored the building. On Oct. 30, the sisters saw the final product for the first time.

Eleven of those sisters had lived there, some only for a year, and one had taken art classes. As they toured the hotel — many with walkers or canes — they encountered reminder after reminder of their legacy. 

The former chapel is now a kitchen and large dining room, and its former sanctuary is the hotel’s bridal suite, replete with its high arched ceiling and the stained glass oculus window that once directed light to the altar. The sixth-floor suite includes black-and-white photos of habited sisters on swings. In the parlor-turned-bar, the fireplace surround includes the sisters’ original hand-painted tile.

Meanwhile, religious artwork abounds. The first-floor centerpiece is a huge, gold-framed painting of the Annunciation, complemented by a similarly sized painting of Mary’s assumption into heaven down the hall. Both had been on the walls when the sisters lived there. 

The hotel’s name celebrates Mother Celestine Howard, who in 1884 became the first superior of St. Agatha’s Convent, which evolved into the conservatory. She was one of the first young women to join the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet after they established themselves in St. Paul, according to a summary of her life in the sisters’ archives.

The exterior of Celeste St. Paul Hotel + Bar, a former convent and music conservatory of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in downtown St. Paul. MARIA WIERING | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Honoring the building’s history and sisters’ legacy in the new hotel recognizes their wide contribution and the importance of Catholicism in historic St. Paul, said Scott Koester, director of project development for Rebound Hospitality. The direction may have risked alienating people who aren’t religious, he acknowledged in a Nov. 11 interview, but the hotel’s first guests have shown a genuine interest in the building’s art and history.

“What’s fun is the history and the whole living situation they had,” he said of the sisters. “It’s so different from what the hotel is like.”

One sister found her old room; another couldn’t remember the number. They laughed about avoiding getting tapped to play cards with their mother superior — who took the games very seriously — and recalled spending time on the now-enclosed top floor, which was then an open-air porch with plants and a swing.

“We had so much fun,” said Sister Miriam, 91, with a grin. “There were young sisters from five different schools, and the superior that we had … took into consideration that we were young people, and so she provided opportunities to be (the) young kids that we were.”

Most of the sisters who visited had lived there while teaching in nearby Catholic schools, including the since closed parish school of St. Louis, King of France, across the street.

Two had lived there as students in the community’s teachers college, then housed on Summit Avenue at the J.J. Hill mansion, which the then-Archdiocese of St. Paul owned at the time. They recalled the “march” from downtown St. Paul up the hill to their classes, “which was quite the adventure,” said Sister Miriam, who then was called Sister Marie Martin.

Only one of the visiting sisters had taught at St. Agatha. And, unlike some her fellow sisters, Sister Mary Ann Hanley didn’t easily see key elements of her former convent in the building’s renovation. “I can’t recognize where I am!” she said, sitting in what is now the dining room. “They told me this is the chapel, but the choir loft is gone, and the organ — I played the organ here.”

In 1947, Sister Mary Ann, then 24, began a two-year assignment at St. Agatha as a piano instructor. She taught 72 individual lessons a week. That was too many, she still thinks at age 96, but she couldn’t complain to her superior, who was outworking her at 80 lessons a week. They frequently missed communal prayer and taught through supper, she said.

Because she was the youngest on the piano faculty, Sister Mary Ann was also assigned mostly beginning students: “To have 72 kids pounding on middle C!” she exclaimed with exasperation.

During her tenure, the school also offered lessons in the orchestral instruments, art and dance, she said. She recalled accompanying students during their public performances, but always from behind a curtain: Sisters weren’t supposed to be seen performing in public, she explained, because then “we would be singular, and nobody was supposed to stand out, and secondly, we might get proud.”

During an intimate reception following the sisters’ tours, Sister Suzanne Herder, a member of the CSJ’s Leadership Team, prayed a blessing for the new hotel and expressed her gratitude to the hotel owners and staff for making the sisters feel part of the renovation.

For Sister Miriam, it’s the similarities, not the differences, between the hotel and her former convent that stand out.

“It’s not a dead past,” she said. “I see the familiar things, but I also see how it’s changed and has a new function. But it’s a place that we can look (at) with pride when I stop to think of all the people who have lived here. … In this generation, I’m seeing so many more people willing to look at the past and appreciate it.”

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