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Our Lady of Good Counsel’s iconic Red Barn did not belong to the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) when the land was first purchased. SSND’s former province of Mankato, Minnesota, was established in 1912. Several parcels of land totaling roughly 50 acres were purchased or donated for the motherhouse and girls’ academy. The property became known as Good Counsel Hill or The Hill, due to the entire campus being located at the top of a large hill in the valley town.

Historic photo of the barn at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Mankato, Minnestoa.One parcel that was not part of the original property was the 40-acre Hedde farm, located on the northern edge of the Hill. Joseph and Susanna Pyrbylla purchased this land in 1911 and farmed it with their horses Jack and Julie who resided with the family’s dairy cows in a barn on the property. It is not known whether the barn was on the property when purchased or if Joseph Pyrbylla built it. 

In time, as the need grew for farmland to sustain the motherhouse and academy, SSND began leasing the Pyrbylla land. In January 1947, Joseph Pyrbylla offered to sell the farm to the sisters. The sisters offered $11,000; the family asked $18,000. No sale was made at that time, but SSND continued leasing the land. The Pyrbylla’s moved off the farm in 1950. One of the lay employees, Francis McMullen, and his family later moved into the Pyrbylla house.

SSND finally purchased the farm with its 28 tillable acres in 1956 for $15,000 and continued to use the buildings as needed. In 1966, the house was demolished. Because of its past ownership, the barn was often referred to as the Pyrbylla barn.Historic aerial view of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Mankato, Minnesota showing dairy barn and Pyrbylla (red) barn locations. Farming on Good Counsel Hill was phased out around 1976, leaving The Hill with both the Pyrbylla barn and the dairy barn that were located on the western edge of the property. The dairy barn was eventually torn down in the late 1990s.

Fast forward to the 1990s, Sisters Kathleen Storms and Mary Tacheny saw a need for a rural connection and formed the Center for Earth Spirituality and Rural Ministry (CESRM), which is now the Living Earth Center. One of their initial projects was to reclaim land for garden plots that was used first by sisters then by staff and finally, by citizens of the Mankato area. In the midst of these garden plots stood the Pyrbylla barn, which was being used for tool storage, but was in need of repair.

Sisters Kathleen and Mary prepared a proposal to restore the barn. They felt that in addition to being functional for the gardeners, its visibility near the road leading up to The Hill served as a symbol of SSND’s commitment to rural people and the land. The barn also held an emotional connection for many of the sisters. The barn was structurally sound and remained dry inside, but the needed repairs included replacing the mortar between the foundation stones, the roof, along with windows and doors. While the loft was sturdy and well designed.

In 1997, Sisters Kathleen and Mary presented their proposal to the Kierlin Family Foundation. Robert Kierlin, Minnesota State Senator from 1999-2007, was a nephew of Sister Sabina Kierlin, who spent much of her SSND life tending the gardens on The Hill. Robert and the Kierlin Family Foundation approved funding for the project, and the surrounding gardens became known as the Kierlin Gardens. Dedication of the restored Red Barn, as it became known, took place in October 1997. The Kierlin family and Sister Sabina were present for the dedication.

In addition to being a storage location for garden equipment, the barn was presented as an alternative meeting space on Good Counsel Hill. A brochure printed shortly after the dedication described the hayloft as, “An inviting classroom or meeting space. Folding desk chairs, picnic table with benches, and lounging chairs allow for a variety of learning or quiet reflection situations.” Electricity and lights were available year round, but the barn was not heated for winter.

In April 2013, fire broke out in the hayloft, causing damage to the upper level and exterior as well as water damage to the lower level. The barn was again restored in the summer of 2013. New siding replaced the damaged exterior, and the interior supports, walls and wiring were replaced. The roof was also replaced and a fire escape was added to the building. In 2014, a barn quilt, designed by Our Lady of Good Counsel’s Director of Nursing Ellen Graham, became a permanent fixture on the front of the barn.

In all seasons, the Red Barn continues as a symbol of SSND’s commitment to the precious gift of land and its responsible use. Learn more about the activities at the Red Barn and in the gardens from the Living Earth Center, formerly CESRM.


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