Already angered that an arsonist targeted their beloved Church of St. Mary a little over a year ago, some parishioners in Melrose, Minn., now have organized against a new foe: their bishop.
Their plans to restore the 1898 structure to its original condition after a fire damaged its interior were derailed this spring when Bishop Donald Kettler of the Diocese of St. Cloud said he would rather start anew.
“That church is Melrose,” said parishioner Santina Lovelace. “That’s our town.” Razing the church would devastate the community, she said.
The March 11 fire caused $5 million in damage, incinerating the high altar and the pipe organ, shattering six large windows in the church’s sacristy and melting ceiling fans and air conditioning units. Firefighting efforts saved the rest of the building, but smoke and water damage was extensive.
The church, originally built for $50,000 and capable of seating 1,000, has two 130-foot bell towers that can be seen from Interstate 94 as motorists pass Melrose, a city of 3,600 about 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
No reliable estimates exist for the cost of restoration, but a Braun Intertec structural engineer said the building is structurally sound.
Kurt Schwieters, a local physician who sits on the Church of St. Mary’s Parish Council, said he originally supported restoration, but that was before meeting this spring with the bishop and a diocesan commission that oversees church construction projects.
“Over the last three months, the facts of the matter have changed our direction,” he said.
The Diocesan Building Commission rejected the parishioners’ plan to restore the church, saying poor insulation, inadequate gathering space, accessibility issues and even the columns within the church, which block views of the altar, make it necessary to start over.
What’s more, a liturgical code adopted as part of the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s says the pre-fire structure could not be rebuilt since some of its design elements are no longer allowed, Kettler told the parish.
That message has not gone over well in Melrose, where some locals can trace their history back to the families who settled the area and built St. Mary’s.
Some parishioners have left or joined other parishes. There’s talk that some older ones have altered their wills to cut back their donations to St. Mary’s. And weekly collections at mass have fallen sharply in what most people see as another sign of the community’s discontent over plans to raze St. Mary’s.
Some locals have pushed back against the Parish Council and the bishop, sharing their frustrations on the “Restore St. Mary’s Church” Facebook page.
A video shows a recent sidewalk meeting between Kettler and women who ask him to not tear down the church. Kettler, his patience wearing thin, says it’s not up to him, but that the restoration of the church wouldn’t meet codes.
Kettler wasn’t available for comment, but Joe Towalski, editor of the diocesan newspaper, said Kettler has been praying for the parish. “He’s aware of the pain that the community is going through,” Towalski said.
Tim Vogel, former mayor of Melrose, said restoration supporters are now exploring legal options to save the church.
Parishioner Jesse Lovelace said he met with the bishop last month but came away feeling frustrated.
“He wants a new church and that’s the end of it,” said Lovelace. With plans to tear it down coming from the diocese, the local community feels betrayed, he said.
“To have their church destroyed just doesn’t set too well with many of them,” he said.