For generations, the white-clapboard steeples of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church presided over life in the northern Minnesota town of Terrebonne, a farm community that once had a flour mill and cheese factory before mostly dying off.
Still stately, still standing after nearly 100 years, the abandoned church building could be the next piece of the town swept away.
“You tear down the church, Terrebonne really doesn’t exist anymore,” said Dan Derosier, the head of a small group working to preserve St. Anthony’s.
A letter sent to parishioners this week confirmed rumors that have been circulating for weeks: The Crookston Diocese plans to knock down St. Anthony’s by the end of the year, a victim of leaning walls, uneven floors and broad demographic shifts across rural Minnesota.
News of the pending demolition comes as preservationists and the Vatican have expressed alarm at the fall of Catholic churches nationwide. Minnesota lost 59 Catholic congregations between 1980 and 2010, even as the number of Catholics grew statewide by 109,000 people, according to data from the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). Some churches, like St. Rose of Lima in Kenyon or St. Bridget’s in Greaney, were closed for mass and then preserved by tireless volunteers and summer fundraisers. Others have existed in limbo, like the historic St. Michael Catholic Church in St. Michael.
The number of Catholics in Red Lake County fell from 3,288 in 1952 to just 1,800 by 2010, according to ARDA. That was enough for the bishop in nearby Crookston to close St. Anthony’s in 2000. The dwindling number of parishioners now drive to one of two neighboring towns for Sunday mass.
Most parishioners voted to tear down St. Anthony’s rather than pay to preserve it, said Rev. Bill DeCrans, who ministers at St. Joseph’s in nearby Red Lake Falls.
Demolition was put off after a group led by the Derosiers loudly called for preserving the church, and ever since Dan or one of his brothers has led a dozen die-hard preservationists in a lonely fight to keep St. Anthony’s standing.
Using $36,600 from fundraisers over the years, the group has twice painted the church. After an F2 tornado hit St. Anthony’s, toppling a chimney, they repaired a bathtub-sized hole in the roof.
Then in late 2013, Derosier told Crookston Bishop Michael Hoeppner that the church needed about $20,000 in repairs, things that would be paid for with more donations. Hoeppner told him to wait.
Derosier’s simmering fear that Hoeppner planned to raze the building boiled over when he learned recently that a local contractor had been asked to put in a bid for tearing it down with an excavator. The contractor confirmed that he bid on the project, but said he hasn’t been formally told to proceed with demolition.
An engineering study completed last fall found a sloping floor due to frost heaves and black mold.
DeCrans said the diocese is in the midst of making a decision about St. Anthony’s. “I know many people who have come to me, they have been baptized there, their marriage was there. That’s special. But you know that the building is not the church, it’s the people, so you need to make decisions.”
Razing the church would require a decree from the Crookston diocese, and Derosier said he plans to appeal it. It’s an avenue available to him under canon law, according to Brody Hale of the Catholic Church Preservation Society. Appeals have proved successful in recent years, and two years ago the Vatican issued a letter that clarified canon law, urging bishops to prevent closures.
“To raze it you need a ‘grave’ reason,” said Hale, meaning it’s damaged beyond repair or there’s no money for upkeep. Hale, a law student based in Boston, said he’s helped preservation groups across the country form 501c3 organizations to take over abandoned church buildings and raise funds.
“I don’t think people are aware of how common this has become,” he said.
At least three such former churches in Minnesota have been saved this way — in Kenyon, Greaney and Bechyn — and 54 nationwide, Hale said.
Former St. Anthony’s altar boy Carl Schindler still lives just three miles from the church. He said he’s been told by church officials this week that the church will be torn down, but like others he’s holding out hope for its preservation. “It tells who we are as a community.”
Built in 1923 on the site of an earlier church erected in 1882, St. Anthony’s is one of a trio of three-steepled churches built in northern Minnesota that are associated with the first Bishop of Crookston, Timothy J. Corbett.
The much larger Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Crookston, built in 1912, closed in 1990. A portion of the brick structure was temporarily used as a homeless shelter. A local group, the Prairie Skyline Foundation, drafted plans to convert it into a performance space, but today it sits unused and is closed to the public.
A third church, the neo-gothic Sacred Heart Cathedral in Duluth, once was home to the archdiocese of Duluth. Corbett, then a priest, helped organize its construction in 1894.
A century later, Sacred Heart was closed, sold for $1 to its longtime organist and converted into the Sacred Heart Music Center, a performance space and music recording studio. The Crookston and Duluth churches are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places. No such plans exist for the Terrebonne church.
Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.