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Church may raze Sylvania slave stop

Almost $15,000 was pledged at a hastily called meeting last night to save one of the oldest houses in Lucas County and one of the few remaining that experts say was a local stop on the underground railroad.

Nearly half of the 55 people in attendance said they were members of St. Joseph Catholic Church, which has bought the house. Church leaders say the house, thought to have been built about 1835, may be razed.

The church purchased the home and its nearly four acres on Wednesday for $350,000 and wants to expand its school and other facilities there, according to a letter from the Rev. Richard Wurzel that was distributed at Mass yesterday.

The property is across Main Street from the church and connects to another eight acres owned by the diocese. It is just north of Ravine Drive. The church - with nearly 10,000 parishioners- is one of the largest in the diocese and the school is one of the largest parochial schools in northwest Ohio.

Sylvania city council is to consider a resolution opposing the destruction of the house at its meeting tonight, according to city council member Bonita Scheidel. She is also a member of the parish and led last night's meeting in the Sylvania Historical Museum.

Church committees are meeting early this morning to discuss “the current political environment,” said Marty Werner, a member of the church's finance committee who was reached after the preservation group's meeting.

Mr. Werner, a lawyer who lives in Sylvania Township, said he did not know when the church plans to raze the house.

The letter given out at St. Joseph's yesterday said: “We are seeking the approvals necessary to clear the site. As this process proceeds, we are willing to hear from individuals with viable plans and the financial resources to relocate the house, and we would be willing to contribute financially to these efforts, but the time is very short.”

An answering service for the church said that Father Wurzel was refusing media calls last night.

The house is one of six in Lucas County and one of 12 in northwest Ohio that are listed by the Friends of Freedom Society as underground railroad stops.

Built with beams that are whole black walnut logs - with bark still intact - in the cellar, the house is one of the oldest in Lucas County, said Ted Ligibel, a Sylvania resident who is director of the historic preservation program at Eastern Michigan University. He attended the preservation group's meeting.

The house is structurally sound and was lived in weeks ago by Marie Vogt, founder and retired director of the Toledo Ballet Association, who for years had allowed school children to tour the property.

Gaye Gindy, a secretary in the Sylvania Police Department and a local historian, was one of those children impressed by the property. Her research shows that the house was built by Elkanah Briggs, a builder who came to Sylvania from New York state. She said the house is listed in his will. He died in 1840.

The group that met last night wanted to save the house at its present location, saying that the history is in the basement and in the view of the ravine from the back porch where slaves would have hustled to their next stop.

“I cannot imagine right now with the uncertainty of our future in this country that we should be tearing down our past,” said Mrs. Scheidel, a retired bookkeeper. “The city was founded by abolitionists. This hits right at the heart of this community.”

Mr. Werner, the church committeeman, said he had been told that church leaders had earlier asked city leaders if the city would pay to move the house and found little interest. Mrs. Scheidel said she had heard only rumors and the matter never came up at council.

Last night's meeting was called by word of mouth. The nearly $15,000 in pledges included several promises of $2,500 and $9 in cash from a 9-year-old boy.

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