Rochester’s Own: Historical Places of Faith

What is Rochester’s oldest building in continuous use for the same purpose? If you are playing Rochester trivia, you may score points with the answer to this question:


Calvary Episcopal Church

Located at 111 Third Avenue Southwest, the red brick church is nestled among its towering neighbors, which are part of the Mayo Clinic campus. Touted as “a spiritual oasis,” the extensive park-like gardens and chapel are available to all for meditation and reflection. On any given day, you’ll see staff and patients of Mayo, as well as passers-by, enjoying a few moments of solitude amid the hustle and bustle of downtown Rochester.

The parish itself was founded in 1860, when Rochester had a mere 1,180 residents. Construction of the church was delayed by the Civil War, yet perseverance allowed the first service to be held in 1863. The structure has indeed grown and changed over its 152-year history, but the brick chapel remains the heart of the church. Calvary had the first church bell in the city, which rung to mark the end of the Civil War and the death of President Abraham Lincoln. It cracked shortly after and wasn’t replaced for decades. 

Breckenridge Hall and other parts of the building were designed by the notable Harold Crawford.  The exterior is quaint and remarkably maintained. The interior hosts a hand-carved altar, stone baptismal font and numerous stained glass windows (four of them made by Tiffany Studio of New York). 

The list of church members reads like who’s who of Rochester history and includes, in part: Mayo, Graham, Waters, Plummer, Judd, Berkman, Harwick and Crawford. They, and many more, have contributed to the vibrant life of the church, much to the delight of visitors and members alike.

The Motherhouse

What is known as the Motherhouse, and who owns it? If you answered Assisi Heights, you would be right (though Motherhouse is an outdated term). If you answered Mayo, you would be wrong. RochesterWomen magazine incorrectly stated in the March/April 2015 issue that Mayo Clinic had acquired Assisi Heights and the Wilson House on Walnut Hill. More accurately, in 2005, Mayo partnered with Assisi Heights and agreed to lease portions of the building as Mayo Conference Center.

The Sisters of Saint Francis were instrumental in the establishment of Saint Marys Hospital and the growth of Mayo Clinic, as well as many educational institutions. When the order outgrew their convent on West Center Street, they purchased acreage in Northwest Rochester from Dr. Louis Wilson and others.

With an architectural style intentionally like that of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy, the Romanesque design was carried out in Mankato stone, with a Spanish red tile roof. It sits majestically on top of a high hill, with an incredible view of Rochester. Construction of the 410,000-square-foot structure took nearly three years and 200-300 workers (which included 30 stone masons). It was completed 60 years ago in 1955.

A portion of Assisi Heights is used as a Spirituality Center, offering  the opportunity for educational and spirituality programs. Office space is also used by individuals and organizations. The Choral Arts Ensemble and Honors Choir are two tenants who have held concerts in the chapel.

Assisi Heights is a private home to more than 100 sisters, many of whom have retired. Another 100+ sisters work throughout Rochester, greater Minnesota and 10 other states, as well as Bogotá, Colombia. They minister to prisoners and work as therapists, administrators, artists and writers. They serve in parishes as pastoral ministers and on institutional and community boards.

Opportunities for the public to visit Assisi Heights are varied and many. For information on upcoming events, as well as tour and worship times, visit Assisi Heights is located at 1001 Fourteenth Street Northwest.

Debi Neville is a Rochester freelance writer who finds it difficult to abbreviate the history of these interesting properties.