Christ's Household of Faith, an independent, insular church with vast real estate holdings and a reputation for running successful businesses and a small but high-achieving school, is exploring whether to leave St. Paul after 34 years, its founder said Friday.
Donald Alsbury, a sometimes controversial self-proclaimed prophet who preaches communal living and a return to Christianity's roots, said the group may sell dozens of St. Paul properties — including its Marshall Avenue campus, the former St. Joseph's Academy — and move to a 140-acre campus near Sauk Centre, Minn.
"We'd all be in this one little community, this one little town," Alsbury said. "In a city, there are so many things to do. There are so many distractions. We want it to be a little bit more quiet."
The Sauk Centre site once housed a reform school for girls, Alsbury said. Moving there would allow the 500 members to be more tightly knit, since many of them are now spread throughout the Ramsey Hill neighborhood, he added.
But Alsbury stressed that there are several contingencies before a decision is made, including the sale of its 6-acre church headquarters at 355 Marshall Ave. The church must raise enough money from the sale to relocate.
"The key is the academy," Alsbury said of the church's current home. "To duplicate it (in Sauk Centre) would be a considerable amount of money."
According to Ramsey County property records, the group owns at least 43 homes and commercial properties, the vast majority in the Ramsey Hill area of St. Paul.
Together, the value easily exceeds $10 million. The historic Marshall Avenue complex, which operated as a Catholic girls school from 1861 to 1971, is valued at $3.3 million alone, according to the Ramsey County assessor's office.
Alsbury said he has approached neighboring St. Paul College about buying the building and the college expressed interest. Readus Fletcher, a college board member, confirmed that Alsbury had done so, but other school officials could not be reached late Friday for comment.
The potential that the campus might be on the market immediately raised speculation that it might serve as a site for a new Kroc Center, a community center being planned by the Salvation Army that has run into problems finding a suitable site.
Mayoral spokesman Bob Hume said Friday the site likely wouldn't be suitable because it is so close to the Martin Luther King Center, one of the city's existing multi-use recreation centers.
Christ's Household traces its roots to Mora, Minn. The group incorporated in 1971 and moved to St. Paul the following year.
Members turn over their worldly possessions to the church and in turn are provided for. The church owns dozens of homes near its Marshall Avenue campus, and members work for the church's several businesses or teach at its K-12 school. A fleet of cars is available to church members.
One of the businesses is North Star Kitchens, a high-end home renovation firm with a showroom in Minneapolis' International Market Square. The company's success is owed, in part, to work first generated when people started buying and restoring homes in St. Paul's historic Hill neighborhoods years ago.
Driven by the disciplinary ethic of Alsbury, who has supported corporal punishment and says perfection can be achieved on Earth, the church's small school has achieved big things both academically and athletically.
The girls basketball team won the 1998 state Class A title. At the time, high school-age enrollment numbered 35 students. In 2001, the boys team lost the state title game, this time with an enrollment of 34 high-schoolers.
Alsbury said the church's leadership includes several former Lutheran pastors, and he attributed the group's success to fidelity to original Christian doctrine and concentration on the tasks before them.
"What makes us so successful is that it's a truly miraculous community. That God is real, and he's still around us and still doing his thing," Alsbury said.
But the church has seen periodic controversies.
In the 1970s, the group sought tax-exempt status for its many residential holdings, arguing that they had a religious purpose and should not be taxed. Those claims were largely denied.
In 2003, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ordered the church to pay child support to a former member whose ex-husband still belonged to the church. Because members who work at church businesses earn only a small stipend, the court held the church responsible for the payments.
There also have been allegations of physical violence. In one controversial 1969 incident before the group moved to St. Paul, Alsbury told a newspaper that he beat a 17-year-old church member to rid him of a demon, saying at the time that "if God would have said kill him, I would have killed him." In 1993, Alsbury was accused of encouraging members to beat their wives.
No charges were ever brought, and things have otherwise been quiet over the years.
"We haven't had, as a police agency, an extended number of calls or concerns over them," said Tom Walsh, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department.
Leah Harvey, president of the Ramsey Hill Association board, was surprised to hear of the possibility that the church might leave.
She also said that she's sure her neighbors would prefer to keep the historic campus intact. "I think people would prefer that it find another use" if Christ's Household decided to leave. "I don't think anybody wants to see it knocked down."
Alsbury said no final decision has been made and there is no timeline to make one. But making the move would be easy, he said, because there is no special attachment to St. Paul.
"My ministry, my mission from God, is to take care of the people that he gave me," Alsbury said.
1970: Christ's Household of Faith founded by self-described Christian prophet Donald Alsbury.
1972: Church moves to St. Paul.
1976: Christ's Household of Faith purchases former St. Joseph's Academy, a Catholic high school for girls that had closed five years earlier after 110 years on Marshall Avenue.
1993: Former members of the congregation charge that Alsbury directed members to beat their wives and children and claim he inappropriately touched a young woman on the basketball team. Prosecutors declined to file charges, although one congregant was charged with threatening his stepson with a gun.
1998: Christ's Household of Faith girls basketball team wins the Class A state title. CHOF students have since won National History Day contests and advanced to national spelling bee finals.
Tim Nelson Christ's Household of Faith moved to a 6-acre Marshall Avenue site in 1976.
The church has about 500 members.
The group owns at least 43 properties, most of them near its headquarters.
Members operate several businesses, including North Star Kitchens, and a K-12 school.