PRAYING AGAINST THE ODDS

Developers of a Lemay casino have political muscle on their side. But the School Sisters of Notre Dame are betting on a higher power.

Up the rutted cinder track that winds by the deserted chemical plant, a deer forages among piles of concrete debris. Once this place teemed with industry; the smokestacks belched and the tipples roared. But it has been more than 20 years since the freight trains and the barges stopped here. In their absence, the dark hulks of abandoned storage tanks still stand in stark relief against the sky, vestiges of another time. It would be wrong, though, to assume that the former National Lead property has been forgotten.On the contrary, the site is now in the thoughts and prayers of hundreds, if not thousands, of residents of South St. Louis County, including more than 120 School Sisters of Notre Dame who live next door to the abandoned property. The focus of their concern is a plan that calls for a casino to be built on 30 acres at the south end of the 80-acre tract. It worries Sister Ruth Speh.

"We've been there for 105 years," says the 72-year-old nun. "This is a place where people pray and meditate. So to have a casino less than 500 feet away is really a desecration. It wouldn't fit. It's just not right."

Members of the Roman Catholic order, which originated in Bavaria, have lived and worked at the convent in Lemay since 1895, when Mother Bonaventure Wagner and six religious sisters moved onto the Grand View estate and renamed it Sancta Maria in Ripa (St. Mary on the Bank).

Over the years, the School Sisters have taught at more than 111 parochial schools in the area. Nearly 500 students currently attend Notre Dame High School, located next to the convent on Ripa Avenue. The sisters run a preschool, tutorial center and Head Start program at the same location, and they offer their sanctuary as a religious retreat for laypeople. In addition, the nuns allow their conference facility, the Maria Center, to be used for meetings of nonprofit organizations. With about 90 percent of the nuns over 60 years of age, the Notre Dame complex also serves as a retirement home.

It's impossible to measure in dollars and cents the kind of stability that the School Sisters of Notre Dame contribute to society. It's safe to say, though, that they are an integral part of the South St. Louis County community of Lemay. Their mission and the future of the surrounding area, however, are now both threatened by powerful political and business interests.

In recent months, the conflict has escalated into a pitched battle between church and state, with the nuns being joined in their opposition by an ecumenical coalition and a group of small-business owners from the South County area. Prayer vigils have been formed, letter-writing campaigns initiated and pulpits politicized in a community that is not noted for taking up activist causes. The sisters' most notable ally in their David-and-Goliath fight is the Rev. Gary Thomas of St. Luke's United Methodist Church on Telegraph Road. Thomas has organized South County First, an anti-casino group that has attracted well over 100 citizens to its hastily called forums.

The battleground in this holy war is confined mainly to 30 acres of the former National Lead property, which is owned by St. Louis County. But the controversy over the issuance of the next state gambling license is already beginning to spread. Military veterans are angry about another proposal to anchor a gambling boat near Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, and farther downstream, merchants in the Jefferson County town of Kimmswick are up in arms about plans to build a casino there.

At all these locations, the opponents cite the same litany of problems they associate with gambling, including increases in bankruptcies and addiction. The difference in the Lemay site is that the proposal by Las Vegas-based Ameristar Casinos Inc. has the blessings of key Democratic politicians, including St. Louis County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall and Councilman Jeff Wagener, who represents South St. Louis County. Also weighing in is U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-3rd), who has urged state gaming officials to put the state's next casino in his congressional district, which includes Lemay. Gephardt hasn't specifically endorsed Ameristar's proposal, however.

Westfall and Wagener say that, as the landowner, St. Louis County could gain as much as $5 million in annual lease payments if the Ameristar proposal is approved. But they are more reticent about how the proposal would benefit influential contributors -- politically connected businessmen like former brewery executive Dennis P. Long and restaurateur J. Kim Tucci -- who control the lease on the property.

The casino proposal has stirred up a rebellion in this normally staid quarter of South St. Louis County. As a decision by the Missouri Gaming Commission approaches, the Notre Dame sisters are in the vortex of a political controversy that is having an unsettling effect on the entire South County area.

The proposed casino site, as plotted on a map, appears as a large empty space, hemmed in by the Mississippi River, the River Des Peres and a dense grid of streets to the west. On the backstreets of Lemay, the Mississippi River can't be seen as much as it is felt. What the map fails to reveal, too, is the small cemetery where some of the sisters of Notre Dame are buried. The nuns have called this corner of the St. Louis waterfront their home for a long time. Their convent adds a certain dignity to the surrounding working-class neighborhood, which seems like a forsaken company town with its small frame houses clustered together.

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