Valerie Gerlich was helping plan the church’s sesquicentennial dinner in September when she got the news: St. Michael — a church nearly as old as the state of Minnesota — would be closing its doors. Its last mass will be celebrated Sunday.
The dinner became a modest luncheon — ham sandwiches in the gym — devoted to saying goodbye to a 150-year-old West St. Paul parish.
“It was devastating,” said Gerlich, a 20-year member of the parish. “The timing couldn’t have been worse.”
Church leaders say a depleted parish and dwindling contributions led them to the painful decision to close. Parishioners, some crestfallen or angry, are now scrambling for new places to worship.
It’s a familiar scene. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis called for a dramatic round of church closings and consolidations about five years ago. Things have stabilized since, and St. Michael is the only metro-area church to close this year.
Between 2012 and 2015, St. Michael was “clustered” with two nearby parishes, meaning they shared a pastor. In 2012, its school combined with several other schools to form Community of Saints.
It wasn’t enough to save St. Michael, a church that served about 230 households, according to the archdiocese’s newsletter.
“I’m just really sorry that St. Michael has to be closed,” the Rev. Andrew Brinkman, a parish priest, told the congregation recently. “I feel my own helplessness in the midst of it all.”
About 110 people attended the penultimate mass on Nov. 20, spread throughout a building designed as a gym but used as the church since the 1950s. Intricate, stained glass murals masked old glass block windows, a stark contrast to the dated oak paneling, rust carpet and brown-and-green floor tiles.
Lily Lacap cried a little while reading announcements at the end of the mass. A parishioner for 31 years, Lacap can recall people squeezing into every oak pew, sometimes pushing latecomers into the crying room.
But like her own children, families left West St. Paul and their replacements never came. Lacap also wonders whether some were driven away by the church’s ongoing scandal of pedophile priests.
“Most of the church community is having a difficult time,” she said of the closing. “Every one of us, it’s like one huge family.”
A rich history
St. Michael originally was founded in 1866 in what would become St. Paul’s West Side neighborhood. It initially served Irish immigrants who couldn’t afford the $1 toll to cross the bridge into downtown every Sunday, according to the archdiocese. In the 1950s, the church moved to an eight-acre site in West St. Paul.
A school was built first with plans to erect a church later. The church never materialized so the school gym became the worship space, said the Rev. Stephen Adrian, a retired St. Matthew’s priest and Community of Saints canonical administrator.
When the church clustered with St. Matthew’s and later Our Lady of Guadalupe, fewer masses were offered, Adrian said, leading to even lower attendance and diminished donations.
Carole Mulcahy complains that the new Community of Saints school has paid only nominal rent to St. Michael over the years. More income, among other things, might have helped save the parish, she said.
“Had we been paying attention or had a stronger leadership a few years ago, we could have and should have done something [about church finances],” Mulcahy said.
But Bridget Kramer, school principal, said that Catholic schools traditionally don’t support parishes financially, and St. Michael was operating at a loss, regardless. Kramer said the diverse school of 140 students is strong and will survive. An all-school mass will be held at St. Michael on Thursdays and former parishioners may attend, she said.
“I hope some can find some comfort knowing that there is something continuing on this property,” Kramer said.
St. Michael parishioners are dispersing to neighboring parishes, including St. Matthew, Our Lady of Guadalupe, or St. Joseph — West St. Paul’s last Catholic church. People are resilient, Adrian said, and will find a place to worship.
“It’s a human story,” he said.