Football, faith on a collision course at Basilica

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 22, 2012 - 12:46 PM

The Rev. John Bauer fears damage to the landmark church and its mission

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The Rev. John Bauer, pastor at the Basilica.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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The Rev. John Bauer intends to do everything he can to protect Minneapolis' Basilica of St. Mary against what he considers its greatest threat -- a new Minnesota Vikings football stadium.

In recent weeks, the basilica's rector has emerged as the key figure opposed to a potential site for the stadium at Linden Avenue, near the historic church. On Friday, Bauer met privately with Gov. Mark Dayton at the basilica to discuss the site, a location the governor and Vikings officials appear to be giving serious consideration. Afterward, both men said it was a cordial meeting and that they had agreed to continue talking.

The priest hopes to resolve the conflict, but says the church is ready to file a lawsuit in an effort to stave off stadium construction, which Bauer argues would damage the nearly century-old structure. Parking also is limited at the basilica, which would have to compete with football games and other events for spaces, Bauer says.

"We are a landmark on the Minneapolis horizon," Bauer said. "I'm in this discussion to protect the basilica as a church, a cultural and civic center, as a haven for those in need. My hope in all this is he [Dayton] does take our concerns seriously ... and understands they cannot be dealt with easily. We'd like to persuade him to focus on another site for the stadium."

It's not the first time Bauer has found himself embroiled in controversy since taking over the prominent leadership post in 2007. He's been accused of making insensitive statements about homosexuality, and he removed the basilica's artist-in-residence, who planned to create artwork with copies of anti-gay marriage DVDs. Bauer also played a vital role in the reorganization of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which has left several churches either closed or merged with other parishes.

Priests and others who know him say he's not afraid to stand up for what he believes.

"He's a man of integrity," said the Rev. Paul Feela, pastor at Lumen Christi Church in St. Paul and a longtime friend to Bauer. "He's going to try to do the best he can for the church community, but also I think for the wider city, too."

Fear of further damage

Though Dayton and Vikings team officials have warmed to the Linden Avenue location, the governor has yet to recommend any of the three front-running sites. Dayton says he believes the Linden site has potential for future commercial and other growth, and is less expensive than the Arden Hills site in Ramsey County.

Since Interstate 94 was built close to the church nearly four decades ago, the basilica has experienced strong vibrations, causing plaster to fall and stones to crumble, as well as damage to the church's stained-glass windows, Bauer said. About $30 million has been raised for restoration of the basilica campus, church officials say.

Bauer fears stadium construction would further damage the already fragile church.

"Unfortunately, when they built the freeway they didn't do any kind of structural analysis to see what would happen," he said. "As a result, we're not able to prove there's been structural damage, but we believe there has been. We're very concerned the driving of pilings, heavy equipment being operated less than a block and a half away from our buildings, could be very detrimental."

Parking is limited at the church, which celebrates five mass services on Sunday for the nearly 6,300 families in the congregation. Parishioners would likely be vying with stadiumgoers for spaces, Bauer said. The priest also believes a new stadium would make the basilica "less accessible" to the neighborhood's homeless, who depend on the church's charitable outreach programs.

Gary Schiff, a Minneapolis City Council member and chairman of the council's Zoning and Planning Committee, said the basilica may have legitimate arguments, but potential effects to the church won't be known until government officials further study the site. Even if the Linden Avenue site is chosen, Schiff encourages the basilica not to "disengage from this process."

Even an adversary agrees

Among priests, Bauer is regarded as a leader skilled at unifying parishioners. Before becoming the basilica's pastor, he orchestrated the merger of three St. Paul parishes, which became the Lumen Christi parish. He has also served as executive director of the Presbyteral Council, which advises the archbishop. In addition, he has played a key role in the archdiocese's reorganization as co-chairman of the Strategic Planning Task Force.

Bauer's actions have at times sparked heated debate. Last year, he ignited a Facebook campaign calling for the boycott of the basilica's biggest fundraiser, the Basilica Block Party. The campaign began when a blogger wrote that she wasn't going to attend after exchanging e-mails with Bauer in which he referred to Catholic policy that describes homosexuality as a "condition."

Lucinda Naylor was an artist at the basilica for nearly 15 years until she created a Facebook site in 2010 seeking discarded copies of a controversial anti-gay marriage DVD -- mailed to nearly 400,000 Minnesota Catholics by the state's bishops -- in order to build a sculpture. She was suspended from her job indefinitely.

Naylor, who still attends mass at the basilica, said she believes that she should not have been let go and that her departure was handled badly by Bauer.

But on the issue of a Linden Avenue stadium site, she agrees with him.

"A couple of years ago there was a big crash right in the middle of a mass service where a big chunk of plaster fell off," Naylor said. "When I've been up in the dome ... to hang banners or something like that, you can feel every vibration from a large semi truck going by on the freeway. It's quite scary almost. I don't see how it can handle much more vibration. I think the stadium would add a huge amount of vibration to the building."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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