The Rev. John Kutek walked through the charred remains of his northeast Minneapolis church, scanning the pile of blackened priest vestments, chalices eerily warped by flames, and marble altars covered with chunks of debris from the fire that last month nearly destroyed his historic church.

Days after the April 19 blaze ripped off the roof of Sacred Heart of Jesus, Kutek and church members surveyed the damage and scrambled to salvage the remnants of this Polish National Catholic church, one of only two in Minnesota.

Now the priest's priority is to restore the scorched emotions of his faith community.

"There's a lot of grief and anger and questions we cannot answer," said Kutek, who invited a counselor to mass this Sunday, a service now held in the church social hall.

"Right now we're concentrating on healing the community," he said. "We're a very special church."

Kutek was referring to his congregation's close-knit community, as well as its historic roots. Sacred Heart of Jesus belongs to a little known Catholic denomination that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1800s to give U.S. Polish immigrants a greater voice in running their churches. There are only about 130 of these churches nationally.

The cause of the fire continues to be investigated by the Minneapolis Fire Department. But church members have suspicions. Kutek believes dents on the church doors indicate someone broke in and purposely set the blaze, which exacerbates the heartbreak.

The fire made national headlines because of the church's history and its scale.

Walter Lach, whose grandparents were among the founders of the church, heard about it while on vacation.

"We were in Cancun, Mexico, and it was on the news there — 'historic Minneapolis church on fire,' " said Lach, of Blaine. "It's super sad. I love that church."

Different Catholics

Sacred Heart of Jesus was part of the wave of churches joining the National Polish Catholic Church at the turn of the century.

The breakaway Catholic denomination, started in 1897, differs from mainline Catholics in several key ways: Priests can marry and are encouraged to, so they can better relate to their parishioners. Congregations select their priests. Churches own their own property.

They also democratically elect church administrators and are not under the jurisdiction of the pope or Vatican.

The National Polish Catholic Church is headquartered in Scranton, Pa., and has four dioceses in the U.S. There is just one other sister church in Minnesota, St. Josephat Church in Duluth, a small congregation to which Kutek commutes twice a month for mass.

Kutek, who moved to Minneapolis from Poland in 1972, is the sole National Polish Catholic priest in Minnesota. Larger numbers are in places such as Pennsylvania, New York and the Chicago area, he said.

The Minneapolis church was once a bustling hub of Polish-speaking immigrants, with their own men's clubs, women's clubs and community events. With the passing of each generation, the community declined. Sacred Heart still has about 150 members on its roster, and about 50 attend Sunday services, Kutek said.

Janet Ray, one of the church members who rushed to the building to try to salvage items after the blaze, said her grandfather was an original member of the church when it opened in 1914. Memories run deep.

"My dad died when I was four years old and I can remember the pew where I sat," said Ray, gesturing to the left side of the church. "I remember where my uncle was standing on the right side of the altar, crying. … Talk about having a special church."

Last Monday, church members solemnly gathered at its doorsteps at 7 p.m. to mark one week since the fire flared. They placed flowers on the steps of the church and prayed together. Later, they walked across the street to the church social hall and prayed the rosary "for the healing of all members," Kutek said.

"It was very moving," he said. "Everyone could talk. We were sharing, reflecting on the church, on the building."

Meanwhile, its social hall has been converted into the church's religious home. Folding chairs replaced the pews. A surviving marble altar stands in front of a small stage, with a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the church's namesake, above it.

"Amazingly that statue was saved," said Kutek, noting the hands have some damage.

"I tell them [the congregation] that now we have to be Jesus' hands."

Kutek also marveled at everything painstakingly removed by volunteers from the church after the fire. The statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A broken but repairable statue of St. Joseph. Pews.

The church volunteers even managed to dislodge three heavy marble altars and carry them through the narrow church doors. Most of it is now in storage.

Uncertainty ahead

With grief still gripping the congregation, Kutek said plans for the future of the church are on hold. There are options, he said, such as keeping the services in the social hall or trying to rebuild.

But finances are a challenge for a small faith community, he noted. The church launched a GoFundMe page with a $50,000 goal to cover costs of restoration, cleaning and other needs. More than $21,000 had been donated as of last week.

In the meantime, Kutek said he wants Minnesotans to know "we are here, and everyone is invited."

"The church is not just a building, it's the people," he said. "I have no doubt we will continue to exist. We're not going anywhere."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511