After 25 years of relative obscurity, the former Alexian Brothers Novitiate in Gresham has found itself once again at the center of controversy.
The state Department of Natural Resources is investigating potential asbestos violations on the site following a demolition job in May, said Karl Roovers, environmental enforcement specialist with the DNR’s Green Bay office. He said the new owners of the property, Whitewater Gresham Estates LLC, which purchased the land in December, demolished a portion of the main structure without giving prior notice to the DNR.
Subsequent DNR sampling of materials on the site revealed asbestos, Roovers said.
“A portion of the building was knocked down, and we believe it contained asbestos in various forms,” he said. “It is serious because asbestos wasn’t removed before demolishing the building.”
DNR officials wouldn’t say how serious because they’re still investigating the project, a process that should end in a few weeks. Citations or penalties for Whitewater won’t be known until after the DNR studies the results of the investigation.
Jodi Arndt, an attorney with Liebmann, Conway Law Firm in Green Bay representing Whitewater, said her clients are doing everything they can to solve the problem.
“We have no idea what kinds of penalties or fines they might be, but our main goal is to clean it up and dispose of it,” she said. “I know there were some development plans, but that’s changing due to the costs of cleanup.”
The Alexian Brothers acquired the 232 acres and buildings at the Gresham site in 1950 as a gift, according to the history of the Congregation of Alexian Brothers. The brotherhood ran a traditional novitiate at the site until 1968, when it moved the program to Chicago.
The Alexian Brothers tried to sell the property, which is located a half mile from the Menominee Indian Reservation, and they were nearing a deal with a group of American Indians from Green Bay.
But on Jan. 1, 1975, an armed group of American Indians, calling themselves the Menominee Warrior Society, seized the vacated property, took the caretaker and his family hostage and said it would hold the facility until the Alexian Brothers turned it over to the Warrior Society to be used as a hospital, according to the Alexian Brothers’ history.
The standoff with the Wisconsin National Guard continued into a second month before the Alexian Brothers struck a deal with the Warrior Society to sell the land to the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin for $1, according to the Alexian history.
Eventually, the tribe relinquished ownership, and the property transferred to the hands of the Crossroads Academy of Milwaukee and the town of Richmond.
Chris Thompson can be reached at 608-260-9790 or by email.