The sale of the former St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church at 1200 W. Iowa Ave., in Indianola the Karen Buddhist Association could close by Dec. 15, said Bob Harmon of Des Moines, who is working with the Association on the sale by Simpson College.
The Indianola Board of Adjustment approved a special use permit last week for the Association to use the former church as a temple and the parsonage on the property as a monastery.
“I think it’s going to be a win-win between this group and the city,” Harmon told the board. “We do have a lot of work to do.”
The Karen Buddhist are a small group of ethnically Burmese people who fled their original home in Burma, now called Myanmar, after more than a century of persecution, explained John Woell, senior vice president and academic dean at Simpson College, which now owns the former church and parsonage, along with the 8.73 acres of land along Iowa Avenue that it sits on.
About 50 to 60 families have settled in Des Moines and support a monk who leads religious worship for the Des Moines group as well as a group of Karen Buddhists in New York, said Woell.
Most gatherings at the site will include about 20 people, said Charlie Dissell, director of community development for Indianola, with about seven celebrations per year with 100 people or so attending.
The first such celebration will be in February, said Harmon.
“It’s not like the Methodists, they don’t come every Sunday,” he said. “They will come intermittedly and bring food to the monk.”
The monk who will live on the site, Pamokkha, will likely travel between Des Moines and New York, said Harmon.
There are conditions on the approval, Dissell told the board of adjustment.
The group will have six months to remove overgrowth and volunteer trees and install handicap access stalls and related signage, said Dissell.
They will have nine months to rebuild the access drive off Iowa to align with North J Street and remove dead and diseased trees. Remaining items, including parking lot improvements and landscaping, must be done within four years, he added.
A landscaping plan that is part of the site plan shows that the Buddhists will keep 18 trees on the site, remove nine dead or diseased trees and add six new trees, said Dissell.
“The site plan does note that it does provide for over 70,000 square feet of a timber area, which is generally on the northwest side of the property, which provides a tree credit for our code of approximately 70 trees,” he added. There are 106 total trees on the site, he said.
Stan and Eileen Thompson, who live across the street from the property, said they are excited to welcome the Buddhists to the neighborhood, but less happy with a plan to allow Simpson College to continue to maintain a prairie reconstruction area on the property.
“This prairie grass thing is a mess,” said Eileen Thompson. “It’s not prairie grass, it’s weeds — it’s thistles and trees and 5-foot tall weeds. We think it needs to be reevaluated and relooked at and mowed off.”
Dissell said that concerns about the prairie grass are a code enforcement issue rather than a zoning issue.
“It sounds like, really, the prairie area in itself isn't the issue, the issue is that it's not really being maintained as it should be,” said Dissell, suggesting that those concerns can be addressed separately.
Harmon said the Association plans to allow community access to the sledding hill that descends from the church and plans to add fruit trees around the property.
“I hope that after a year it looks pretty good,” said Harmon, adding that they are not sure how much work will need to be done on the two buildings on the property. Whatever is needed, he said, the Buddhists will rise to the challenge.
“They are pretty resourceful, they’ve been through a lot,” he said. “It’s a big, big deal for them to get this.”