It was while shoveling the front steps of her beloved Church of St. Mary last week that Micki Lovelace realized just how bitter the town’s divisions have become. Here she was, clearing the area of snow for an upcoming prayer vigil, when the priest approached and asked her to leave.

This was trespassing, he said. A police officer was called to reinforce the message. Others with Lovelace complained that they should be allowed to clear the snow, but they eventually walked to their cars and drove off.

Days later, a fence was erected in front of the church, and then chains, yellow police tape and a “no trespassing” sign.

This is the state of St. Mary’s Parish two years after an arson fire consumed the 120-year-old church’s wooden altar but otherwise left standing its stout brick walls and distinctive twin steeples.

Parishioners like Lovelace, some of whom have started a group called Friends to Restore St. Mary’s Church, have fought to keep it even as the St. Cloud Diocese lays plans to replace it with a $12 million building on land nearby.

The divisions have wounded this largely German Catholic community of 3,600 people about 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.

The Friends group has filed a lawsuit against the Diocese and Bishop Donald Kettler, hoping that it can forestall demolition. They’re using social media and letters to the local paper to rally people to their cause. And on Sunday, the second anniversary of the 2016 fire, they plan to hold a one-hour prayer vigil in front of the church, despite the “no trespassing” sign hung there by church officials.

Lovelace and other supporters of restoring the structure say they feel ignored by Kettler and said plenty of people talk of leaving the parish, or even switching religions.

“He’s the shepherd who’s throwing us all to the wolves,” she said.

New church

The day after the fire, a reporter for the St. Cloud Times captured an interview with Kettler in which he said the church would be restored. It was the common assumption made at the time, in part, because the fire damage didn’t appear all that serious.

From the exterior, the only significant reminders of the fire are sheets of plywood where several large windows were shattered near the sacristy. Local firefighters prevented the blaze from spreading to the roof timbers, but water, smoke and fire damage left the interior in need of extensive restoration.

Still, at the time, everyone thought restoration was soon to get underway, said Jesse Lovelace, Micki’s husband.

“At first everything was ‘Restore, restore, restore,’ ” he said.

A pair of insurance policies thought to cover the losses would help pay for everything, the parishioners believed, and a December 2016 report from structural engineers Braun Intertec said the walls, roof and floor were not fatally compromised by the fire.

Then, in April of last year, the St. Cloud Diocese issued an order saying their Diocesan Building Commission had determined that a new church must be built. The news stunned the Lovelaces and other parishioners, some of whom trace their family history back to the founding of Melrose.

Kettler, who didn’t return a phone call for this story, told a parishioner that he needed to replace the damaged St. Mary’s due to church rules that call for a more modern architectural style. That conversation was captured by cellphone video and put on YouTube.

In it, Kettler says liturgical codes created by the Vatican II council of the 1960s require a more modern layout than the churches built a century ago.

That reasoning hasn’t convinced people like Marilyn Weber, a member of the Friends group who wants to see the church restored. She said she’s eager to see a plan expected later this year from the diocese meant to address a priest shortage. She’s wondered if the plans for a new St. Mary’s might be part of a longer-term strategy to consolidate some of the area churches and ease the burdens on a shrinking pool of priests.

“It doesn’t make sense to me, how this is happening and why it’s happening,” she said.

Locals followed along last month as the Parish Council held a presentation at the Melrose high school showing the first designs for a new church. A video set to music showed a digital image of a red brick building that hinted at some of the same architectural elements of the old church, albeit with a more modern layout inside.

A financial presentation given at the same time said that the diocese had received an insurance payment of about $7.3 million.

The St. Cloud Diocese recently declared bankruptcy, a move deemed necessary over some 74 claims of clergy sex abuse, but Parish Council spokesman Kurt Schwieters said it was a separate issue and won’t affect the plans for St. Mary’s.

Schwieters said in an e-mail that the Parish Council has been told that construction will take about one year once ground is broken, but a start date hasn’t been set and no permits have yet been granted for a new building.

Schwieters also acknowledged that the fire has left the community shattered.

“There are many aspects of our journey that have been very difficult,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Many that initially thought that ‘restore’ was the only viable option are now very encouraged and positive about the new plans.”

Attorney Erik Hansen, who was retained by the Friends group, said their lawsuit can’t stop the construction of a new facility, but it might prevent the razing of St. Mary’s, which was added to the National Register of Historic Properties in 1993.

“Under Minnesota Law there are mechanisms to protect buildings that are significant and a sign of that significance is inclusion on the National Registry,” he said.

Restoring the church would cost about $5.2 million, according to the Friends group, but those estimates have been challenged by others.

“I don’t believe it’s a cost issue,” said Hansen. “There’s money to rebuild the church.”

Hansen said he’s waiting to hear about a court date for the lawsuit.

Gerry Osendorf, a parishioner who plans to be at Sunday’s prayer vigil, said he’s lost faith in the bishop and the planning process for St. Mary’s.

He escorted an engineer into the fire-damaged church last year, and watched as the man took in the view of the structure’s soaring ceilings.

“He said, ‘Why would anyone want to take this down?’ ” Osendorf said. “That’s exactly what we’re asking.” 612-217-1747