Tucked into the southeast corner of the Christ United Methodist Church, surrounded by parking lots and apartments, there’s an unassuming, pale yellow house. The wonderfully stubborn fixture has stood proudly since 1938 as construction projects crept up around it.
In its long and winding life, the building has passed between a handful of owners, transforming from a residential house to parsonage to now serving as a respite for Mayo Clinic patients.
“It feels like it's right in line with our mission, and our sense of why we are where we are,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Macaulay. “It (is) the power of someone providing safe space when people feel so vulnerable.”
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The house on the corner of the church's property piqued Hollis Feeser's interest 60 years ago when his work with IBM brought him to Rochester and he began attending Christ United Methodist Church. Though he didn’t know much about how the house was being used at the time, he saw its potential.
“I somewhat educated this church staff on what they had and how it could be used,” Feeser said.
For much of his early years in Rochester, the church didn't own the house. That changed in 2005, according to Olmsted County property records. Feeser was out of town that weekend, but when we returned and heard the news, he was overjoyed.
“Hooray! We finally got that going on the right side,” he said.
With a burst pipe in the basement and a yard filled with unruly weeds, Feeser knew the house needed some repairs. But he wasn’t about to give up on it. He jumped into action.
“Nobody else was that active. They didn't push it into these things like I do,” Feeser said with a laugh. At times, he got a little overzealous with his renovations. “I got involved personally until they kind of kicked me out,” he said.
As Feeser, who is 92, became less active on church boards, new members picked up the torch and cared for the house.
Wendy Francis was one of them. She transformed the lower half of the house (the top half had a long-term tenant, and continues to be rented out) into a respite for Mayo patients. The whole idea came together frantically a couple of weeks before Easter in 2018, when the church decided to offer it to a pastor from Michigan who was receiving medical care.
It was the pastor’s first Easter out of the pulpit, Francis said, making the stay extremely emotional.
“We got so wrapped up in how we could minister to this family of ministers. It became somewhat all consuming,” Francis said. “It was just exactly what we envisioned the hospitality house to be.”
After that family’s stay, Francis had space and time to dedicate to more extensive furnishing. She paid great care to every aspect of the unit, knowing that those who would inhabit it would be undergoing difficult procedures and would need a space to decompress physically and mentally. Members of the congregation gave items for the house, which all seemed to match, although the donations weren’t coordinated or pre-planned.
A certain amount of medical care was necessary to keep in mind. Things would need to be as sterile as possible, especially for transplant patients who require extremely sanitary conditions. The linens are all white so they could easily be bleached — a weekly laundry service provided by a clergy member is included in the cost of stay — the bed is adjustable for muscle pain, and a dedicated cleaning person scrubbed down surfaces between stays.
“We quickly became aware that we were being guided to do this, more so than just a casual conversation in the office. We were in mission in this house,” Francis said.
After a trip to England where she visited the grave of John Wesley, considered one of the founders of Methodism, Francis came back to the church with an idea: name the property The Wesley House. So it remains.
A respite in high demand
After the first resident’s stay, Macaulay, Francis and others decided what to do with the empty floor of the house, which sat unused for some time.
They opted to transform it into a Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO), costing between $42 to $70 per night, depending on length of stay. This is about one-third the cost of an average downtown hotel. For patients traveling to the area to receive extended medical care, that cost savings can be an immense relief.
“In a time when there's a housing shortage, certainly affordable housing shortage, it feels like a good thing to have as part of our ministry palette,” Macaulay said.
The Wesley House is rarely available: it sat vacant for 16 days in 2018, 44 days in 2019 and 49 days in 2020. Jenny Cordry, who is director of operations at the church and manages bookings for the VRBO, said the house is booked up through July and already have some reservations for 2022.
“I was familiar with the gentle nature of dealing with those people that need care and the amount of stress that they're under. So my goal as the person managing the Wesley House is to — priority number one — always make sure that their experience is stress free,” said Cordry, who has previously worked hotel hospitality.
The testimonials from patients who stayed there are some of the most rewarding parts of the job, Cordry said. She recalls a woman battling leukemia who stayed for eight months. Her family rotated in and out to support her, and she made the space her own.
While residents aren’t required to come to the church at all during their stay, many do.
“If they're interested in praying, or if they want to stop by one of our parking lot worship services, it's pretty easy,” Cordry said. “They're already in the parking lot!”
More small houses with big missions
Driving around Rochester, you may see small houses adjoining church properties that are used as storage spaces, Sunday school areas or as a living space for preachers. But one local church expanded its footprint to three surrounding houses to provide free stays for Mayo Clinic patients.
Philoxenia charities, which grew out of Sts. Kosmas and Damianos Greek Orthodox Church, purchased its first home in 2004. They provide housing to any Mayo Clinic patient on a first-come first-served serve basis.
The nonprofit is funded through a mixture of donations and grants, and hopes to buy more houses in the future.
“We'd love to grow. And we'd love to be able to make it our mission to be able to care for folks that are in need,” said Tia Maragos, administrative director.
Right now, guests are limited to two-week stays as the organization faces high demand during the pandemic, in addition to one house being under construction.
Maragos said the organization’s goal is to transform the space filled by two homes into one larger building, similar to a Ronald McDonald House, so more families can stay.
“They would have a nice shared kitchen, and we could accommodate more than the families that we have right now. Because there is a need in the community,” Maragos said.