A zoning request to allow the former convent owned by St. Anthony Church in St. Cloud to house temporary workers for St. Cloud-based GNP Company’s Cold Spring processing facility passed in a 4-3 vote by the St. Cloud City Council Jan. 4.
The building, constructed in 1955 and located at 40 25th Ave, N., was once home to 31 religious sisters. Later, when the sisters moved and the convent closed, the building was leased to New Beginnings, which served as a home for single pregnant women and new mothers and their children for over 30 years until closing about a year ago.
Father Tom Knoblach, pastor of the parish, was hopeful that the zoning request would pass.
“Our former convent building remains a solid and functional space, and we wanted to have it used in some way that is consistent with our mission.”
Father Knoblach said the parish finance council agreed that while the income for leasing the building was a secondary consideration, it does help with their remaining debt on the church building and may also help provide expanded ministries in the future.
“We were glad to have New Beginnings as tenants and we were glad to be a part of their mission. It was a very worthy use of our space as an outreach to the broader community, a witness to the sanctity of human life, and a form of support for families,” he said.
When their numbers dwindled, New Beginnings closed. Initially, the parish sought several tenants more directly connected with Catholic organizations but received no viable responses.
GNP Company approached the parish over a year ago, asking them to consider renting them the space for an international worker program. The arrangement was carefully reviewed with GNP and the firm that would support the international workers. It was supported by parish trustees and the finance council along with legal counsel.
The lease, which would allow up to 26 temporary seasonal workers from countries including Mexico, the Philippines and Ukraine to live at the property, is scheduled to last one year at which time all parties involved will have the opportunity to review the process and determine whether the lease will be renewed.
GNP Company works directly with Workforce Development Systems, LLC, to assist in sourcing qualified workers to help meet their production needs. Workers would be approved for nine-month work visas through the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security. All tenants would be required to leave the country at the end of the employment term.
“When we were approached by GNP Company, we agreed that this is an extension of our mission to support families and those who would benefit from the opportunity to provide for their loved ones elsewhere,” Father Knoblach said. “We were careful in our discernment and we would not do anything we felt contrary to our Catholic values.”
The first tenants will arrive in February and are expected to stay through October. If the program is successful, in subsequent years, tenants would arrive around the first of the year and leave in early October.
Tim Wensman, executive vice president of GNP, is a parishioner of Holy Spirit Parish in St. Cloud, which is part of the tri-parish cluster that includes St. Anthony as well as St. John Cantius.
Wensman said conversations about this prospect began after seeing an announcement about the availability of the facility in the parish cluster bulletin.
“Affordable housing in the area continues to remain a challenge, especially for temporary purposes,” he said. “This seemed like a potential arrangement that could create a win-win for everyone involved.”
Wensman also explained that this program is not a low-cost employment option, nor a replacement for permanent staff or jobs for U.S. citizens.
“Low area unemployment rates have continued to challenge us, and we haven’t been able to find enough people with the skills we need, in order to fill all of the jobs we have available,” he said.
“After taking a number of additional steps over the past couple of years including recruitment job fairs and advertising throughout the region, we’ve turned to this option to help us during our busiest time of year, which is February through October. These are not exclusive arrangements for international workers. Anyone can apply for these temporary seasonal positions.”
Both Father Knoblach and Wensman agree that there are understandable concerns and both want to assure the community of its safety.
“These are not refugees or migrants,” Father Knoblach said in a letter to his parishioners. “They are in the U.S. on worker visas in a long-established program. They are not taking jobs from area citizens; GNP Company has participated in this program precisely because they have a shortage of workers in what is admittedly demanding labor.”
Father Knoblach said that, as one of the GNP staff put it, the workers view this as an opportunity to support their families in their home countries, and they understand that if they do not follow the rules of the program, they will lose this opportunity, so they take it seriously.
Wensman said that not only will this help the GNP Company meet its production needs, he also believes the workers will learn valuable skills that they will be able to take back to their own communities.
“This is only one of the programs we are utilizing to help staff our plant,” Wensman said. “We also have done a number of other things to attract new team members including providing affordable transportation from St. Cloud to Cold Spring, English Language Learner classes on site and a full benefit package with health, dental, vision and life insurance, 401(k) plan with employer match, tuition reimbursement for higher education, and of course, employee chicken purchases.”
The city will still need to inspect the facility before final agreements are made. Minor structural modifications like adding additional showers and some cosmetic work is still being completed. Father Knoblach asked his parishioners to welcome the new tenants and GNP staff.
“I expect that at least some of them will join us on occasion for Mass and other parish events,” he said. “As we enter the Year of Mercy, we have a new opportunity to welcome the stranger, give shelter and help these persons support their families with the dignity of work.”