The unincorporated village of Rosen in far western Minnesota's Lac qui Parle County boasts a beautiful old Catholic church, a well-kept ballfield that's home to an amateur baseball team — and not much else.

There's not a single store, no restaurant or town hall. Not even a bar. Just St. Joseph's, whose first pastor, the Rev. Peter Rosen, gave the village its name in 1895.

That's one of the reasons parishioners are so upset that the church — the only community space they have — is slated to be merged with another parish in July, then potentially closed and demolished as part of the Diocese of New Ulm's strategic plan to deal with priest shortages and shrinking congregations.

The villagers are fighting to save their church by filing an appeal with Bishop Chad Zielinski and raising money in what supporters call a David-and-Goliath battle. They hope to be among the few parishes in Minnesota and other states that have managed to stave off closure and keep their church buildings. (One Duluth church even reopened in 2021 after being shuttered for two years following a successful Vatican appeal.)

"This will take perseverance, and lots of prayers," said Cindy Henrich, a board member of the St. Joseph Society of Rosen, a nonprofit organization that aims to keep the 1907 church open as a sacred space. Members have donated or pledged a combined 210 acres of land to the society and raised an additional $40,000.

"Those of us appealing are just concerned for the welfare of our community, of our church. This community is like a family," Henrich said. "The threat that we won't be here has brought people together and strengthened our faith."

Currently, one priest — the Rev. Brian Oestreich — travels between Rosen, which is less than 3 miles from the South Dakota border, and three other churches in the area. A retired priest fills in at St. Joseph's on other days — and if he can't make it, parishioners hold a prayer service, reciting the Litany of the Sacred Heart together.

In July, the church will be officially merged with the parish of St. Michael's in Madison, Minn., and Rosen's schedule will be reduced to two weekend Masses a month, on Saturdays only. By spring, Oestreich will evaluate whether St. Joseph can continue or should close, based on "finances, Mass attendance, volunteer involvement and participation in various ministries," he wrote in a letter to parishioners.

In a statement to the Star Tribune, Zielinski said the merger was a "necessity."

"As we experience demographic changes, trying to balance the pastoral needs of the diocese with its resources, there are decisions to make, which can be very difficult and painful," he said. "Today in the Diocese of New Ulm, there are fewer households, much larger farms, and family size has decreased significantly. The population's average age is rising, and the older generation is passing."

Mergers and closures are rocking Catholic communities across the country, but are especially pronounced in rural dioceses like New Ulm's, where 27 parishes have folded into others since its founding in 1957. The diocese has also seen a significant drop in the number of active priests and parishioners through the decades. It began with 98 priests but had just 32 in 2022.

The diocese's strategic plan to cut parishes, boost attendance at the remaining churches and lighten the load for priests who are stretched thin has been in place since 2013, well before it declared bankruptcy in 2017 and later reached a $34 million settlement with sexual abuse victims.


On June 12, Henrich drove to the diocese's pastoral center in New Ulm to file an appeal to the bishop's merger decree. Zielinski has 30 days to accept or reject the appeal, or start over with a new decree. If the appeal is rejected or ignored, church supporters can file another appeal, this time to a Vatican office in Rome.

Henrich and other parishioners say they want to meet with the bishop to see if there's another way forward. They've been getting advice from Massachusetts lawyer Brody Hale, who has helped parishioners at more than a dozen Catholic churches make agreements, following canon law, with bishops and archbishops to take over their churches and maintain them themselves. This could be an option in Rosen, Hale said.

"If they don't want it, then take advantage of this provision of canon law and allow it to be transferred as a Catholic sacred space to those who do wish to care for it, at their own expense. Do it now and avoid the mess with the canonical litigation," Hale said.

This month, as St. Joseph's final Sunday Mass approached, parishioners gathered in the basement of the old parochial school — closed to students since the 1970s — for coffee and muffins after weekday services.

When the conversation turned to the merger, Madonna Adelman wondered out loud what Jesus would do if he were feeling as angry as the parishioners.

"In Rosen, the church is the community," said Adelman. "What is God's will? To close? I don't think that's part of God's plan."

Deep rural roots

Church members' connection to the place runs deep — with German immigrant ancestors buried in the adjacent cemetery and relatives who grew up in the church and became priests and nuns. Many have special favorites among the church's striking stained glass windows.

Jeanette Abramowski is partial to one colorful pane showing Jesus as a shepherd, a fitting choice for a sheep farmer.

"Do we have to close? Can we just agree to do less here? We're willing to do whatever it takes and work as a group," said Abramowski. "We still have an annual festival. We still use the school. We try to gather as a community as much as we can, you know, even in the wintertime, but we're here to support each other. We want the church to remain, to know that there's God within our community."

Parishioners first learned of the diocese's plans to merge their church in 2019, when they spotted a line in a church bulletin that referenced St. Joseph's stained glass windows being used in a planned building addition at Church of St. John in Ortonville, Minn.

Over coffee this month, the mood was resolute: Those windows aren't going anywhere, if they can help it.

They were planning their annual Fourth of July festival — with a church Mass, followed by hot dogs and potluck side dishes, activities for kids and a Rosen Express baseball game at their community's "Field of Dreams" next to a cornfield across the street from the church. Two years ago, the festival was also a celebration of the church's 125th year, drawing hundreds to Rosen to mark the occasion.

The tight-knit group was also looking forward to an upcoming "farm Mass" to pray for a successful growing season in one parishioner's renovated barn. Community members feel like Rosen was picked to merge simply because the village is the smallest among area parishes — on Adelman's count, Rosen's current population is 41 — even though Mass participation isn't flagging and their church building is sound.

"We have 75 to 100 people on a Sunday. Our numbers aren't down," said Robyn Rademacher, who lives in Rosen and works as a principal at the elementary school a half-hour's drive away.

"I'm not quite understanding the why. It's frustrating, because bigger isn't always better," he said. "And out here, everyplace is bigger than us."