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Monks campaign to build visitors center

Staff Photo: Erin Evans . The original 1944 barn that Conyers' first monks lived in still stands today. The 21 Cistercian monks lived, prayed and worshipped in the hay barn until they built a pineboard monastery later that year. The historic barn will be renovated for the Monastery's new Visitors Center.

Staff Photo: Erin Evans . The original 1944 barn that Conyers' first monks lived in still stands today. The 21 Cistercian monks lived, prayed and worshipped in the hay barn until they built a pineboard monastery later that year. The historic barn will be renovated for the Monastery's new Visitors Center.

CONYERS -- Phase I of construction for a new public gathering project at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit is under way, though the monks still need to raise the rest of the funds for the $6.5 million project.

Father Francis Michael Stiteler explained plans for the new Visitors Center came out of a sustainability study and feasibility study, as the monks were evaluating their future. Stiteler said they have been running $4,000 to $5,000 a year "in the hole."

"The whole thing started off with the question, 'How can we become more sustainable, economically?'" Stiteler said. "Then, very quickly to that question, 'How can we do that and remain cloistered and contemplative monks?'"

The answer was bringing in more visitors and extending more facilities -- including parking spaces -- for monastery guests.

The monastery currently welcomes an average of 70,000 guests a year, according Stiteler, and is very easily the county's second main attraction behind the Georgia International Horse Park. The monastery is also one of the gateways into Arabia Mountain in neighboring DeKalb County. Once the bike path is complete, Stiteler anticipates the number of visitors to the Monastery will double or triple.

A garden will be the nucleus of the new Visitor Center, surrounded by a Monastic Center, the historic barn, gift store and cafe.

Foundations and friends of the monastery have already pledged or contributed $3.5 million since plans for the Season of Renewal campaign started at least three years ago. But "we're still shy (of the needed total costs)," according to Stiteler.

"That's why we're taking out a loan, but we're going to continue to try to get contributions and support to pay that debt," Stiteler said.

Once they secure the loan, the monks will make plans to break ground, according to Stiteler.

Construction for the Visitors Center is estimated to take about nine months.

One of the buildings in the new area will include a display of the history of types of monasticism, which Stiteler hopes may serve as a field trip opportunity for area schools. The historic barn, which was the first home monks built when arriving in 1944, will be revitalized to serve as a museum for guests. The book and gift shop, or the Abbey Store, and the bonsai sales area will also make up the public gathering space.

"I think it's going to be attractive -- we're already seeing it's attractive -- to newer, younger people who see we're concerned about our future and we're not stagnant," Stiteler said. "There's growth here."

Support for the project is coming from across the region, including a recent special collection from the Catholic Atlanta Archdiocese. And the monastery hopes the local community will also chip in and support the Renewal Campaign.

The Catholic-based monastery draws people from across county lines and religious denominations, even the non-religious.

"So I think from that perspective, the monastery is a really special place within Rockdale County," Stiteler said.

The Monastery of the Holy Spirit is Rockdale County's largest privately owned greenspace and is home to first natural conversation burial cemetery in the state.