MELROSE, Minn. – Melrose newspaper editor Carol Moorman had just turned off the police scanner in her office on Friday and was about to leave for the night when her phone rang.
The church is on fire, someone said.
“I said a prayer, turned the corner and saw flames coming out of the sacristy,” Moorman said Monday, three days after a fire that burned for hours ravaged the historic, 118-year-old Church of St. Mary.
A lifelong member of the church who was baptized there, Moorman said she and other shellshocked townspeople watched with dismay Friday night as smoke billowed out of broken windows near the church’s main wooden altar, which reportedly was destroyed along with several important statues.
“Some were hugging, some were crying,” she said. “We were witnessing it, but it was unbelievable.”
As of Monday, the fire’s cause had yet to be determined. An estimate of the damage was not immediately available.
Inspectors for the state fire marshal’s office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were at the site, along with local police officials, sifting through the damage in hopes of finding a clue as to what started the blaze.
While the ATF typically investigates church arsons, there had been no official determination Monday that arson was a factor.
Videos of the fire shot by townspeople show large groups of onlookers watching from the church grounds as firefighters trained jets of water onto the church’s broad roof and through a series of six large windows that shattered in the church’s sacristy area.
Despite the damage and the emotional toll of the scarring of a cherished local landmark, townspeople were grateful Monday that no one was injured and that the fire was extinguished before the entire church burned.
“If the rafters would have went, the whole doggone thing would have went,” said Mel Roehrl, a lifelong church member who has served on its council for years.
“They did a wonderful job,” he said of the town’s firefighters.
A historic place
The Romanesque Revival-style church built of granite, brick and slate in 1898 for $50,000 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 throughout the 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 — 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.
More recently, a shrine of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, was moved from Mexico and installed in 2003, reflecting an influx of immigrant workers and the area’s changing demographics.
The church sits across the street from a Jennie-O turkey processing plant, one of the town’s largest employers and one of the reasons Melrose has seen a large increase in its Hispanic population.
Jose de los Santos, a Jennie-O employee and member of the church for the last seven years, was married there three years ago. His two sons are altar boys. He attends the Spanish-language mass on Sundays, and he has a picture of the church from before the fire displayed on his cellphone.
De los Santos said neighbors told him the fire caused $1 million in damage that will take more than a year to repair, but he doesn’t know if that’s true.
City administrator Mike Brethorst said it’s too early to know the cost of renovations. He said firefighters saved what they could Friday evening, removing photos, plaques and a small box containing sacred relics.
Brick walls 22 inches thick
St. Mary’s custodian Allan Wiechmann said he was in the church at 3 p.m. on Friday, making his rounds. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Although he hasn’t been back inside since the fire, he knows that the church’s votive candles sit in an area that was not damaged, ruling out one possible cause.
Despite extensive damage near the main altar, much of the rest of the building appeared intact from the outside, including most of the roof, the steeples and bell towers, and most of the stained glass.
Wiechmann said it’s a stout building, with 22-inch-thick brick walls and a latticework of timbers supporting the roof.
Roehrl, meanwhile, said he heard that plaster had fallen from the ceiling onto the pews and that the basement has 4 feet of standing water.
That said, the building, before the fire, “was in very good shape,” Roehrl added.
He said that several fundraising campaigns in recent decades had generated more than $1 million for iron cladding on the steeples, rooftop shingles, a renovated church kitchen, repairs to organ pipes and upgrades to the stained-glass windows. New varnish was slapped on the pews and new sky-blue paint dressed up the church ceiling, too, he said.
Sitting in the entryway of the church rectory on Monday, the smell of charred wood lingering, Roehrl fought back emotions as he recalled seeing the church’s pastor, the Rev. Marvin Enneking, on the night of the fire.
“I gave him a hug and he gave me a hug,” said Roehrl.