Old church finds new mission of salvation


The stone building stands at the corner of Buford and Cleveland avenues in north St. Anthony Park, across from the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. It spent most of the last century in service to the spiritual hunger of several generations of Roman Catholic congregations.

Now the structure that formerly housed Corpus Christi and St. Andrew Kim Catholic churches will be used to address the problems of another kind of hunger.

The church has been sold to the Emily Program, the Como Avenue-based clinic specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. In December it is slated to reopen as the Anna Westin House, a 16-bed, inpatient treatment facility.

Jillian Croll, the Emily Program’s director of education, research and program development, suggested that repurposing this church as a therapeutic center makes sense.

“There is a pretty diverse spiritual dimension” to the work of the Emily Program, she said. They hope to promote a “sense of peace and healing” in the new Anna Westin House, and she thinks the “solid beams and space of the church will support the sense of healing.”

Architects’ plans call for enlarging the current choir loft to accommodate eight double-occupancy rooms. The main entrance will be moved to the side of the building. The large stained-glass window that now overlooks the east door of the church will have its glass replaced with clear panes and will become the focal point of a new two-level meeting space, where it will face a patio built of old stone like that used in the former St. Paul courthouse.

“We’re striving for an Ivy League, collegiate look,” said Lindsay Brown, director of business development for the Emily Program. “Homey, but strong.”

The Anna Westin House, which previously operated on a smaller site in Chaska, was founded in memory of a young woman who died in 2000 as a result of her encounter with anorexia. Anna Westin was 21 when she committed suicide after a five-year struggle with the disease that, according to Croll, takes the lives of one in five sufferers, either through suicide or malnutrition.

Anna’s parents, Mark and Kitty Westin, believe that her death could have been prevented if Anna had had access to an inpatient care facility. They used an insurance settlement to found the residential treatment site, and Kitty Westin has become an advocate of and therapist for others suffering from eating disorders.

Although anorexia is the most deadly eating disorder, it is not the most prevalent. Croll said that about 30 percent of the residents at the Anna Westin facility will likely be anorexics, and another 30 percent will suffer from the binge-and-purge disorder, bulimia. The remainder will probably fall into the category of “eating disorders, not otherwise specified” a catch-all medical term that includes compulsive overeating.

As with most groups of patients suffering from eating disorders, women will outnumber men by about a 9-1 ratio.

Although it might seem unlikely that the obese and the painfully thin could benefit from similar therapies, Croll said the issues they face are actually quite similar.

“They’re driven by the same thin ideals,” she said. “Whether it’s overeating or starvation, the all-or-nothing idea is the trouble when someone believes that eating should be externally monitored rather than internally regulated.”

Anorexia is often stereotyped as an ailment of teenage girls, but the age range for eating disorders is “quite diverse,” according to Croll, and the average age of a patient entering the Anna Westin House is 26.

Patients at Anna Westin go on outings in the community, but the main work of the program is therapy. There will be a vegetable and herb garden on the site, and a cooking group, which can present a special challenge when half the participants are compulsive overeaters and the other half regard food as a “toxic substance,” according to Brown.

“We’ll teach basic cooking skills and knife handling,” she said. “Maneuvering around their feelings will be very interesting.”

A stay at the Anna Westin House isn’t cheap. Costs range from $900 to $1400 a day. Although insurance usually covers most of a patient’s expenses, Brown said that life-threatening health crises like anorexia have their own scale of financial reckoning.

“Nobody suggests that heart-attack victims reconsider their level of care based on cost,” she said. “In Minnesota we’re so lucky that families generally don’t have to mortgage their house to pay for treatment.”

Even if financial hurdles are overcome, inpatient care is often regarded as a last resort for those unable to respond to other treatment. Certainly, no one signs on for a round-the-clock regime of therapy without serious consideration of other options.

Work and family responsibilities must be put on hold in order to enter a treatment facility, which makes it remarkable that almost 20 percent of anorexics eventually receive inpatient care, according to Croll. So intractable is the disorder that sometimes less intense treatments cannot overcome the mental barricades that patients erect in the face of the illness.

That’s because eating disorders are adaptive functions that help their victims cope, however maladroitly, with life’s stresses. To achieve peace with their bodies and souls, sufferers need to learn new skills.

“The purpose of a 24-hour care facility,” said Croll, “is to make sure people are getting support to make the changes they need.”

In the end, an ivy-covered, collegiate atmosphere may be just the right note for the former church. Like the church, the Anna Westin House will be a place of spiritual growth. Like the University of Minnesota campus across the street, it will also be a place of education.

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