The fire that ravaged a Melrose Catholic church two months ago was arson, authorities said Friday, and a $7,500 reward has been offered for information about the people or persons who set it.
The news saddened longtime churchgoer Mel Roehrl, who said no amount of money could fully restore the granite, brick and slate church first erected in 1898 at a cost of $50,000.
"I suppose I still don't want to believe that somebody would set this deliberately," he said, after learning of the reward.
The March 11 fire caused $5 million in damage to the Church of St. Mary as it incinerated the high altar and the pipe organ and shattered six large windows in the church's sacristy. Extreme heat melted ceiling fans and air conditioning units. Firefighting efforts saved the rest of the building, but smoke and water damage was extensive.
An insurance company review determined last week that the restoration project could move forward.
"We can restore it; that's the important thing," said Melrose Beacon newspaper editor Carol Moorman, who was baptized at St. Mary's.
Officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Minnesota Department of Public Safety State Fire Marshal Division said they hope the reward they're offering will provide new leads to investigate. Anyone with information should call the ATF hot line at 888-ATF-FIRE (888-283-3473) or the Minnesota Arson Hotline at 800-723-2020. Callers may remain anonymous.
The Romanesque Revival-style church towers above Melrose, a city of 3,600 about 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
A pair of 130-foot-tall bell towers topped with onion-domed caps can be seen from all over town. Its main altar, handcrafted in Germany and installed before the dedication of the church in 1899, featured details in gold leaf.
With seating for 1,000, it was originally a mostly German Catholic church named St. Boniface before the local bishop merged it with a nearby Irish Catholic church — St. Patrick's — in 1958. The new congregation was called St. Mary's. In 1993, the building was placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Church officials will meet with someone from their insurance company, Catholic Mutual Group Insurance, on May 31 and may learn the amount of an insurance settlement, said Roehrl. Just replacing the high altar could cost $1 million, he said. The insurance company has chosen J.S. Held of New York to oversee the project.
An electrical box behind the main altar was suspected in the fire early on in the investigation, but as more clues emerged, it became apparent that the fire was not an accident, said Roehrl. Investigators have not said what evidence they found that led them to believe it was intentionally set.