An Immodest Proposal

Why two little schools want to buy an old seminary that's too big for both of them

by Doc Searls

September, 2003 — Here's the short of it: we need a lot of money in a fairly short time. The purpose: to buy St. Anthony's Seminary, one of Santa Barbara central landmarks.

We're two small local private schools — The Waldorf School of Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara Middle School — that have been operating at St. Anthony's since the mid-80s. We love the place, and we want to keep growing there.

Over the last year we have been forming a group of local nonprofits and public-spirited developers in a partnership to purchase the property, which has been held since the mid-1800s by the Franciscan Friars of California. The friars announced their intention to sell the property last year, and since then have welcomed our joint effort.

We're still in a fund raising effort to secure permanent homes for our schools. Eventually, we hope to have the opportunity to make the whole St. Anthony's facility even more a part of Santa Barbara than it is already.

To put it simply, St. Anthony's is the most beautiful buildings in Santa Barbara, which is the most beautiful city in the country. For proof, take a quick photo tour. I shot those pictures on a digital camcorder, and they look like a slide show from a visit to Spain or Italy.

The West Wing, home of Santa Barbara Middle School
St. Anthony's was built by the Franciscan Friars in 1899, and enlarged in the 1920s, both before and after the big earthquake in '25. The building totals more than 122,000 square feet and sits on 20 acres behind Mission Santa Barbara, which any Catholic school kid in California can tell you is the "Queen of Missions" in the state. The Mission is a looker, and a major tourist attraction.

Here's the irony: St. Anthony's looks better.

When our family first came to Santa Barbara two years ago, we spent the summer renting a house up in the foothills overlooking the town. When guests would step outside to take in the view, they'd point at some spires in the valley below and say "That must be the Mission."

"No," we would reply. "That's St. Anthony's Seminary. The Mission is that thing next door. See?"

For a long time after that, we had no idea the Seminary had long been a been a high school for boys and had closed in the 80s. Then we went looking for the Waldorf School and found it nestled in the East wing of the old place, like a hermit crab in the shell of a giant conch. Santa Barbara Middle School had the West Wing. In the middle, we were told, were a few remaining Franciscans who appear occasionally in their soft brown robes to offer friendly greetings, wander over to the Mission complex or visit the stations of the cross, which circle the far side of the vast soccer field that was once the Seminary's front lawn.

Then we discovered that there was much more going on at St. Anthony's. In addition to housing the pair of schools, the campus serves as a local park, a ball (soccer, baseball, volleyball) field, a playground, a garden and a performing arts center that is renowned for its acoustics as well as its beauty.

We even found it was also the home of a local Catholic community which has been saying Mass in the Seminary's spectacular chapel for decades.

On the down side, we also learned that the Franciscan Friars' reputation was deeply stained when it became apparent that certain members of the St. Anthony's faculty had molested some of the students at the high school there. (Here's the Franciscans' 1993 report on the matter.)But while that remains a terrible controversy, it is also clear to us that the Franciscans are working hard to heal the wounds, and that part of this process involves selling St. Anthony's to local parties with an interest in respecting and improving the property.

Here's our case (for our school — we don't speak on behalf of the partnership):

Some donations have been coming in, but we need a lot more. $4-6 million is the current total.

This is a huge opportunity to do a terrific thing for a terrific town. If you want to help, or just to give us some good advice, write me, or call the Waldorf School at 805-569-2558. They'll tell you what to do next.