Overview: How a fire and a land swap prompted a visionary Episcopal parish to create a nonprofit organization and bring affordable senior housing to Burlington – and how that mission has evolved and expanded in the 40 years since


by Jess Clarke

In February 1971, the 140-year-old Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Paul, a historic Burlington landmark, was destroyed by a catastrophic fire. Located at the time on the parcel of land now occupied by the soon-to-be-demolished Burlington Town Center, the church was rebuilt on an expansive tract of land at the corner of Battery and Pearl streets, overlooking Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks — land the city traded with the church in order to realize the city’s “urban renewal” vision and build the downtown mall.

Recognizing that the new parcel was much larger than the church needed for itself — and mindful of the church’s strong social mission — parish leaders decided to use the excess land to help address the desperate need in Burlington for affordable senior housing. They established a separate nonprofit organization, secured funding and went on to build Vermont’s first affordable multifamily residence for older adults — and Burlington’s first high-rise: the nine-story, solar-panel-topped building just east of St. Paul’s Cathedral, with 108 apartments for older adults.

This year that organization, Cathedral Square Corporation, turns 40. Now an independent nonprofit, it nonetheless retains its original “Cathedral Square” moniker — and it still maintains a close relationship with St. Paul’s. But the organization and its mission have expanded significantly in the years since its founding in 1977 and the opening of its flagship building two years later.

Early on, the Meals on Wheels program was established at CSC’s original residence, where it remains today. HomeShare Vermont, which matches older adults seeking housemates with people seeking a place to live, began as a program of Cathedral Square. So too did Burlington’s Joint Urban Ministry Project (JUMP), a coalition of religious groups that helps families and individuals who have emergency needs, and the former Samaritan Connection, which provided a variety of services to older adults.

Thanks in whole or in part to Cathedral Square, today in Vermont there are 58 housing communities providing nearly 1,700 affordable apartments for older adults and another 530 for people with special needs. Cathedral Square brought the first licensed assisted-living residence to Vermont in 2003; today it comprises 28 apartments in the organization’s flagship building. Today there are nearly 30 residential communities owned and/or managed by Cathedral Square — nine in Burlington, three in Essex and three in South Burlington, and one each in Colchester, Hinesburg, Jericho, Milton, Richmond, St. Albans and Williston.

With a staff of about 130, Cathedral Square maintains these properties, develops new ones and provides a variety of programs and services to residents, including SASH® (Support and Services at Home), the comprehensive, nationally recognized program of care coordination designed by Cathedral Square and implemented statewide since 2011.

Continue Reading: Part 2: The impact of Cathedral Square on the health and well-being of older Vermonters and people with disabilities