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Christian Neighbor Christian School’s Decision To Move Into Former Mater Cleri Seminary Answers The Prayers Of Many Of The Area’s Residents

By Jonathan MartinThe Spokesman-Review     April 25, 1996



Red and white “No Colbert Jail!” signs still mark the entrance to the former Mater Cleri Seminary, the only reminder that the windswept hilltop campus has ever been anything but serene.

After two years of public outcry and uncertainty, controversy is being put to rest at the 116-acre campus popular with deer and pheasant.

Northwest Christian Schools, Inc., has announced plans to buy the site for $2 million and open a high school there in September.

The news, affirmed last Thursday at a Northwest Christian school board meeting, pleases Colbert residents who fought a county proposal in 1994 to turn the old seminary into a juvenile jail.

“It has just completely turned around the feelings we had two years ago,” said Fern Farrell, a former teacher who has lived next to the seminary since it was built in 1963. “I don’t feel any problems at all with these people.”

The Northwest Christian board is as relieved as the neighborhood. Cramped on a seven-acre site at 1412 W. Central in northwest Spokane, the school has scouted expansion sites “a long time” before settling on Colbert, said board member Jim Greenup.

An 80-student waiting list and rapid growth in North Spokane convinced the school board to buy the old seminary 10 miles north of the Division Y.

Greenup said the commute for some students may be daunting at first, but they would get used to it.

“The first year I think it’s going to take a little psychological adjustment,” said Greenup, a financial planner and real estate developer. “I think eventually we are going to have more students than we know what to do with.”

The campus is nearly ready for students as is. Previously used as an alcohol and drug treatment center, the facility has a half-dozen classrooms, a chapel, a small gym and a kitchen and cafeteria with a postcard view of Five Mile Prairie and Green Bluff.

The board will spend $450,000 to $600,000 replacing the roof and turning a dormitory into five classrooms. An alumnus who is an engineer is donating his time to outfit the school with a high-tech wiring job that could provide Internet access in every classroom.

The Northwest Christian class of 1996 has promised to help landscape the site.

The faculty is enthusiastic about the move, said Headmaster Lewis Button. Several students visiting the school two weeks ago scrawled on a blackboard, “Hello, welcome to the new Northwest Christian School! Where is all the students?”

“We are looking at this as a long-term investment,” said Button. “There seems to be a lot of growth moving toward the north part of town. It is a good move for us.”

The school will open with about 200 students in grades 9 through 12, but Greenup said expansion is likely soon. But it is unlikely more teachers will be hired the first year.

The current school on West Central will continue to house kindergarten through eighth-grade students. About fifty more students will be allowed into the school, but Greenup didn’t know at which grade levels.

Current enrollment is 575 in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Tuition, $3,000 for high school students, initially will not increase, Greenup said. However, a full-size, $1.6 million gym is planned within two years, and if fund-raising falls short, tuition could increase, he said.

“Not many schools have the capacity to have this kind of acreage,” said Greenup. “This will be a special place for 50 years.”

The site, atop a hill on the rolling north Spokane County prairie, has a storied history.

Opened in 1963 as the Mater Cleri Seminary, the property remained in the Catholic Diocese until 1989, when Lakeside Recovery Centers bought it.

Spokane County began negotiating with Lakeside, a Seattle-based alcohol and drug treatment organization, in 1994 to turn the site into a much-needed juvenile jail.

When Colbert residents learned of that plan through the news media, they organized the North Spokane Citizens Alliance. More than 200 residents shouted down a county official holding a public meeting to talk about the proposal. The plan soon died.

The group is still organized to safeguard against further encroachments on Colbert’s sleepy atmosphere, said Farrell. Members met with Greenup and Button Sunday and seem satisfied.

Some wanted to know when the championship-winning boys basketball team would first play.

“It is such a relief to have this settled,” said Amy Johnson-Colwell, who still has a “No Colbert Jail” sign in her yard. “Having lots of adolescents that close to my property could raise concerns, but I don’t have any now.”

Greenup said the school will be a good neighbor. Last week, as a hawk circled overhead, Greenup and Button discussed possible layouts for athletic fields.

Spokane youth sports leagues will be invited to use them, Greenup said.

“I can’t tell you how excited we are for this,” he added.


This sidebar appeared with the story: MATER CLERI’S HISTORY A brief history of the Mater Cleri Seminary: 1963 - The Spokane Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church opens Mater Cleri Seminary in Colbert. The first class of seminarians includes 50 high school students and 15 college freshmen. 1974 - The diocese closes Mater Cleri because of low enrollment. The last graduating class includes just four seminarians. The seminary is turned into a resort center. 1980 - Mater Cleri is renamed the Bishop Topel Center in honor of a longtime Spokane bishop. 1989 - Lakeside Recovery Centers, a private, Seattlebased treatment program for alcoholics and drug abusers, buys the Mater Cleri campus from the Spokane Diocese and opens a treatment center. 1993 - Lakeside Recovery Center quietly closes the Colbert facility for lack of patients. 1994 - Spokane County considers buying the Mater Cleri campus and converting it into a regional juvenile detention center. Opposition from the North Spokane Citizens Alliance convinces the county to drop the plan. The campus remains vacant, with a $2 million asking price.



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