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Brown explained why the school will be renovated into apartments for women with children, especially families that “graduate” from the Maria House, a transitional shelter for women and children.

“There is a great need for affordable housing for women with children. Most are working minimum-wage jobs and can’t keep their apartments, so they cycle in and out of shelters,” she said. “We have identified so many families who would flourish in this setting.”

The families would share staff, support services and a new, large playground with Maria House residents.

Dubuque developer John Gronen is confident the proposed projects can be completed in a timely manner and that funding for them can be raised from three main sources - grants, tax credits and philanthropy. The group is not ready to estimate project costs until some further prices are pinned down, but there is widespread interest in supporting the proposals, Toale said.

“From the point when the funding is secured, we can finish a project in 16 months,” said Gronen, who has spearheaded numerous historic preservation projects in Dubuque’s downtown.

One party was interested in buying the church building to tear it down. The St. Mary Church Corp. would not consider that option.

“This has to be preserved,” Gronen said, looking around at the rich artistic decorations on nearly every surface of the church interior. “When this was built, the parish hired some of the best people in the world to create all of this artwork.”

Chicago historic preservation consultant Duane Hagerty has done hundreds of hours of research at the St. Mary's campus over the past three years. “My jaw just dropped the first time I stepped into the church,” he said. “The common misconception is that these buildings are in terrible condition, but actually they are in good shape. They were built to last forever, and their bones are solid.”

The church alone was built using more than 2 million bricks, he said. Hagerty, who grew up near Bankston, Iowa, stressed the importance of the St. Mary Church steeple, the highest in Dubuque at 252 feet. After several feet of pigeon and bat droppings are removed from its interior, the graceful steeple will be restored.

“Imagine how it towered over Dubuque in the 1860s, when it was a prairie town. It has always been a prominent point on the Dubuque cityscape,” he said. “It would be missed terribly if it disappeared.”

Plans are to light the steeple once again as the church is being restored.

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Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com