The big red-brick house at the corner of Portland and Summit avenues in St. Paul has been home to a lot of people over the past four decades. But in all those years, it’s had the same owner: Father Martin Fleming, a retired Catholic priest and Army colonel who once led mass in the jungle as a chaplain during the Vietnam War.
Fleming found an unusual way to put his huge, turn-of-the-century home to use. He rents out rooms and operates it as Bethany Manor, a Christian community for people in transition, such as those in recovery after chemical dependency treatment.
“The idea was to provide a beautiful, safe home for addicts, alcoholics, people going through depression or divorce,” said caretaker Robert Paulsen. “Just a nice place to land after a rough time.”
“Nice” is an understatement.
Bethany Manor is a grand 12,000-square-foot house with rich, well preserved mahogany woodwork, crystal chandeliers and 15 fireplaces, including one in the library with a surround made of hand-beaten copper.
Designed by renowned architect Clarence Johnston, the house was completed in 1902 for James Skinner, a fur wholesaler and banker, and his wife, Annie. The architecture reflects Georgian and Neo-Classical influences, and its hand-carved woodwork was crafted by the same artisan who carved the woodwork for the James J. Hill house. The home’s attached carriage house is one of the largest, most expensive ancillary buildings Johnston ever designed.
Fleming, who grew up in West St. Paul in a family with 10 children, bought the place in 1977, when the neighborhood’s big Victorian-era houses were relatively affordable.
At first he lived there with some of his siblings, nieces and nephews. But as his vision of creating a Christian community evolved, he began renting rooms to people who needed a place to live in while in recovery. He also bought the house next door, and a duplex behind it and converted them into Catholic-based sober houses.
The whole complex is known as Bethany Village. It includes “The Upper Room” (the finished attic), “The Tomb” (the lower level), Mary and Martha Manor (the duplex) and Lazarus (the detached house next door). Fleming, now 90, lives in the carriage house, which is separated from the mansion by a courtyard.
“I’d like it to be, first and foremost, a place which is open to all kinds of people who are looking for camaraderie,” said Fleming. “My favorite thing is that there are so many people who are interested. We have no difficulty getting people interested in living here.”
Bethany Village also has an expansive garden behind the carriage house.
“He [Fleming] always had a love for beauty and flowers,” said Paulsen. “The gardens are for everybody — the people who live here, live nearby and the people who walk by.”
Paulsen first came to Bethany Village 11 years ago, after completing treatment at Hazelden, to work part time in the garden — and ended up staying on as year-round caretaker. “It’s been a wonderful place to live,” he said.
Managing a home filled with people in challenging circumstances can be its own challenge, Paulsen acknowledged. “We have our troubles. Some people don’t act right. Some don’t make it. But we’ve had quite a few recoveries.”
Every year, Bethany Village hosts a Christmas party to which former residents are invited. “People come back and talk about how they appreciated being here,” Paulsen said. “The people in the building — that’s what makes it beautiful.”