The Merrill city fathers invited the Holy Cross Sisters to establish a hospital for this central Wisconsin community in 1923. Since they opened the doors of Holy Cross Hospital in 1926, the Holy Cross Sisters have been an integral part of the Merrill community.

Bell Tower Residence planning - Fall 1989



The Holy Cross Sisters continued serving the community through their efforts with the hospital, a high school, a junior college, and a spirituality center. In 1989, the Holy Cross Sisters chose to make Bell Tower Residence their sponsored ministry and converted the convent to a community-based residential facility for older adults, pioneering high quality affordable living for the elderly.​

Bell Tower 2006

Major renovation/additions were completed in 2006 adding 24 new units to the existing Bell Tower Residence. Five neighborhoods have been created where services are available to meet changing lifestyle needs and allow residents to "age in place". The Mission Integration Team at Bell Tower Residence have put into place Core Values for Employees, Volunteers, and Board Members. Our Mission Integration Team is committed to improving the experience of living out the Mission and Values of the Holy Cross Sisters through celebration, education and serving as role models in Bell Tower Residence.



Many Bell Tower residents, managers and employees  are unaware that this building, now known as an assisted living facility has a long history of response to need, bold change and clever adaptation. In this series of brief articles we will fill you in on this imaginative story:      


 I. A Dream Fulfilled         II. Under One Roof


                    III. Recognizing a Call

Laying of cornerstone for Our Lady of Holy Cross High School by Mother Alena in 1941

Sitting on steps of Holy Cross Hospital Chapel steps. 1941. Pictured left to right: Marian Duginski, Louise Larkin, Ann Elsen, Ann Wittman, Irene Heckman and Elaine Eckert

OLHC Students with Sister Maria Theodosia and Sister Heliodora Haag (sitting)

Students who lived in the dorms at Holy Cross Convent (now BTR) circa:1948

Graduation that took place in the chapel, now known as Assisi Hall circa:1948

Last graduating class of 1968 from Our Lady of the Holy Cross High School.

Ground Breaking for New edition in 2004.

All photos courtesy of The Holy Cross Sisters

I. Dream Fulfilled                                                                 When the Holy Cross Sisters first arrived in Merrill in October of 1923, it was in response to a call to open a hospital here. Although the original group from Europe had settled in Dickinson, North Dakota, they had since spread out to other missions there and in Illinois and Missouri. Among them were women who had been educated and experienced as teachers in Europe.

Following the motto of the founder, Theodosius Florentini, they were not long in Merrill when they saw the need for Catholic education beyond grade school.

So it was that they opened a Catholic high school for girls welcoming both day students and boarders. By this time they had been joined by American girls aspiring to become Holy Cross Sisters. Some of these had received university educations preparing them to teach also. The Scott Mansion and some rooms in Holy Cross Hospital offered spaces for classrooms and even dormitories. In spite of sometimes inconvenient  and makeshift facilities, the first graduation was celebrated in 1937.

But a building devoted entirely to Our Lady of the Holy Cross (OLHC) High School was already in the planning and was completed in January of 1942 providing further classrooms as well as dormitories. We know this building today as the Menard Center.

However, the U.S. Superior of the burgeoning group, Sister Heliodora Haag and her advisors realized that their project was not yet complete. There was need for more dormitories for high school students, for space to house and train women who wanted to become Sisters, for kitchen and dining areas, for offices for the new Holy Cross U.S. administration and above all, for a chapel that would be the center of the house and place of many religious celebrations as well as OLHC graduations.

Thus, Holy Cross Convent (originally called Holy Cross Institute) was born and brought to completion in 1947.

II. Under One Roof

One could say that convent seriousness and high school silliness met under the one roof of Holy Cross Convent! More accurately, this large new building in Merrill provided living spaces for women of two very different lifestyles. Sisters and young women in training to become Sisters (called novices) occupied the second floor and teenage boarding students of OLHC (Our Lady of the Holy Cross High School) lived on the third. A major innovation in those days was the placement of kitchen and dining  areas on the fourth and top floor of the building. Dining rooms for OLHC boarding students and day  students, for Sisters and women in the novitiate (training to become Sisters), for guests and resident chaplains surrounded the central kitchen - the only area which remains today where it was originally placed.

Both the third and second floors housed dormitories. The second floor was reserved for the Sisters and Novitiate and was strictly off-limits to the students whose living quarters were on the third floor. Each dormitory held four beds. Between every two dormitories was a bathroom with eight sinks, a tub room and a toilet. In the center of each floor was a large recreation room, still pretty much intact on the third floor of BTR. Here the boarding students gathered (after study hall) in the evenings and on weekends for games, music and fooling around. Study hall followed immediately after supper and was held in the library of the school classroom building (Menard Center now). Because all buildings on the hill were connected by tunnels there was never any problem going back and forth, even on winter evenings.

The first floor of Holy Cross Convent was dominated by the chapel, which extended from the present chapel (then the organ and choir area) into the main area, now called Assisi Hall. There was no wall separating the two. Here many young women took their vows as Holy Cross Sisters and many more younger women formally graduated from OLHC.


The two wings which extend north from the first and second floors today were added only after the establishment of Bell Tower Residence. Originally, the east and west wings of the first floor housed offices for the USA headquarters of the Holy Cross Sisters, small parlors, a kitchenette, the print shop, a guest suite and the resident chaplain’s quarters. As it does today the lobby welcomed visitors and provided areas for visiting, but the floor, like all the floors in the building lacked the luxury of carpeting. Instead they had a shine that would do a sailor proud, courtesy of novices.

The campus also looked quite different than it does today. The area between Bell Tower and the Menard Building, now black-topped and devoted to parking was green and in the spring often full of yellow dandelions and at times passing yellow finches which flitted up and down confusing theviewer. There was also a tennis court and an area for archery. No parking lot blotted the back campus either. Rather a lovely green lawn gave way in the winter to an ice skating rink used by both students and at times, Sisters.

But a description of Holy Cross Convent would not be complete without noting the many touches which made it a thing of beauty. An accomplished artist and musician, Sister Heliodora, who was the superior at the time wanted the building to be inspiring as well as serviceable. Still today the visitor approaching the front door with open eyes will first notice the soft colors of the Wisconsin Rainbow Stone of which it is built. Rising above the front is a bas relief of a vine with the Greek Chi-Rho at its top representing the words of Christ, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” Inscribed in stone across the top of the two east/west wings is this biblical injunction: Teach me goodness and discipline and knowledge and in Godliness love of brotherhood, the bond of perfection.

The back door of the building, intended to be the front door of the chapel (now Assisi Hall) also welcomes the visitor with these words from Psalm 35: With Thee is the Fountain of life and in thy Light we shall see light. What enhances the top of the bell tower is for the reader.

 III. Recognizing a Call

In 1968 Our LADY OF THE Holy Cross graduated its last class. Many factors contributed to that  decision, chief among them the development of a number of Catholic high schools in nearby areas at the same time the Holy Cross Sisters were experiencing an increasing number of young women  applying to become sisters. The first year of their training called for basic liberal arts courses in addition to scripture and theology. With a qualified faculty it was thought that these courses could be opened up to the general population and so, Menard Junior College was established. Seven years later, faced with financial questions posed by the accrediting agency regarding its long term viability, the administration decided to close the college.

Now what? The Menard building stood empty and Holy Cross Convent across the way housed only a small community of sisters, in addition to the provincial administrators and the candidates and novices preparing for religious life. There followed a period of unplanned and experimental activity on the hill which, in retrospect is a hodge-podge of unrelated efforts all in need of space.

The vacant classroom building, now named the Menard Center became a place for formal retreats with programs offered both daily and on weekends. Overnight guests stayed in the former student dorms on the third floor of the convent. The large recreation area in the basement of Menard became a daycare center for elders. Today the building belongs to the hospital.

Bell Tower Residence

In keeping with the motto of the founder of the Holy Cross Sisters, The Need of the Times is the Will of God, the Sisters launched a study of the needs of Merrill and the surrounding area. In 1987 they sold their three hospitals in Merrill; Dickinson, North Dakota; and Breese, Illinois, thus paving the way for investment in a new enterprise. The Sisters had already opened a small assisted living facility in what is called the Hurd House on Riverside Avenue, but the study showed an overwhelming need for a for a large facility to accommodate the elderly population of this area.


Thus, in 1990 Holy Cross Convent and Chapel were converted into an assisted living facility and renamed Bell Tower Residence. Major renovation/additions were completed in 2006, adding 24 new units to the existing building and creating five “neighborhoods” where residents receive needed services and enjoy the recreational and educational programs provided by an exceptional Activity Department.

This brings the evolving story of a vision and a building up to date. Indeed, IF these WALLS could TALK, the stories you would hear would bring you to laughter and tears but, above all, to gratitude for the faith, endurance and adaptability off a group of dedicated religious women known as the Holy Cross Sisters.