MELROSE, MINN. - A Catholic church that for generations towered over the fields in this central Minnesota farming community will come crashing down this week, perhaps as soon as Tuesday, when construction crews raze the former Church of St. Mary.
The demolition ends a four-year campaign by some parishioners to preserve the 122-year-old church after it was damaged in an arson fire, a preservation effort that grew acrimonious as the community split over renovation costs and Catholic authorities.
Local resident Mindy Thull, whose grandparents had their funerals at St. Mary’s, said she’ll miss seeing the distinctive twin spires of the church about a block from her home.
“It’s just hard,” she said, watching construction workers on Monday morning make preparations for the razing. “A lot of people got married and baptized there.”
The loss of local history will be profound, said another woman watching the construction crews, but church leaders were in a no-win situation.
“Many Catholic churches all over, big cities, small cities, they’re struggling with how [to] preserve what now has become a dinosaur to maintain,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. The costs of maintaining a century-plus building of granite and brick are too great, she said, especially for small towns.
“This breaks everybody’s heart, but every community is struggling with it,” she said.
St. Cloud Bishop Donald Kettler ultimately decided to replace the church with a more modern $10.7 million building on land nearby, and has raised $2.24 million from parishioners and others who support the plan. St. Mary’s collected an insurance payout of about $7.3 million after the fire.
The cost to tear down the church will come to less than the $300,000 budgeted for it, according to a church statement.
On Monday, a pair of construction workers cut the metal crosses off the roof and domes of the former church, some of the last pieces marked for preservation. Another crew disconnected the building’s water and sewer pipes to prevent demolition debris from washing into the system.
A handful of die-hard preservationists arrived early Monday to witness the building in its final hours. Gerry Osendorf, a member of the group Friends to Restore St. Mary’s Church, had hoped to see an investor take over the church and preserve it for city use.
“It’s an amazing structure built by our ancestors in one year’s time. It was built by horsepower and manpower, and they did a fantastic job,” he said.
The 2016 fire engulfed an elaborate wooden altar, and smoke and water damaged much of the interior. But Osendorf said a structural engineer hired to examine the church after the fire determined that the walls, roof and foundation were sound.
An arson investigation determined that the fire was set by a local boy.
Parishioners at first strongly supported using the insurance money to restore the building, but a church task force assigned to examine all options eventually recommended building a replacement.
Osendorf and the Friends to Restore St. Mary’s Church group eventually filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the bishop, a remarkable sign of discontent in the German Catholic community. Efforts on social media to rally support for preservation of the church sometimes fanned the activist voices within the parish. In a video shared online, a woman confronted Kettler in the church parking lot over the decision.
This week the local pastor called for healing, acknowledging the difficult recent history.
In a “liturgy of commemoration” posted on YouTube, the Rev. Marv Enneking asked parishioners to come together.
“The past four years have been difficult for all of us here at St. Mary’s,” he said. “It’s been a difficult journey. We grieve the loss of our beautiful church and miss and cherish the memories and the many blessings we experienced there …
“Difficult to let this go? Absolutely, it was a beautiful church. But I believe God is asking us to continue forward.”