Outside, thousands of people were downing beer and partying to loud indie rock. Inside the booze-free, air-conditioned Basilica of St. Mary, newlyweds Diane and Tanner Stevens were exploring the precious architecture and religious statues, but fully intending to later listen to music at the 20th annual Basilica Block Party.

For the Stevenses, the tour of the Basilica on Friday evening was their way of seeing firsthand what their $55 Block Party tickets were going to: the multimillion-dollar renovations of the church.

"It's an added bonus," Tanner Stevens said of his ticket purchase going to the Basilica Landmark.

More than $5.2 million has been raised for the restoration of the basilica since the block party began modestly in 1995 with a bunch of local bands, plus Widespread Panic, 10,000 Maniacs and the BoDeans. This year there are 21 acts — including Train, Michael Franti and Ingrid Michaelson — on three stages over two days. More than 12,000 people attended Friday and at least that many are expected again on Saturday.

The Stevenses, married last week and block party veterans, were among the first people in line to take a guided tour of the basilica before their favorite performer, Eric Hutchinson, went on stage.

A subtle invitation to church

Brian Dusek, longtime Block Party volunteer and former co-chair of the event, said most of the people who take the church tours are curious.

"Don't know if it's an effort to attract members [to the parish], but it probably happens naturally," Dusek said.

After the church tour, Tanner Stevens said he and his wife would consider joining the basilica.

In the seven years Dusek worked at the Block Party (1997 to 2004), he gave hundreds of tours to thousands of attendees. His best year was in 2004 when more than 1,000 folks walked into the basilica.

Emily Hjelm, executive director of the Basilica Landmark, said the Block Party is a subtle way to invite people to the church.

"Some people might attend the Block Party only for the music and that's all they care about," Hjelm said. "I think there is a group of people [for whom] it's more than that. It might be an invitation to get involved with the parish in a way they might not have" previously.

The church has grown from a few hundred to 6,700 households since the Block Party started 20 years ago. That's not a growth commonly seen in Catholic churches, Hjelm said. More than half of the parish members are younger than 40.

"This points to the fact that the Block Party is extending an invitation to the under-40 crowd," she said.

Friday's crowd was actually predominantly younger than 30. No matter their ages, the fans grooved to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros at the parking lot stage as he took one song request after another. On the other side of the Block Party in front of the basilica, Franti injected a sunny reggae spirit on a hot, humid night.

Controversy at first

The Basilica Block Party started off with controversy — some people questioned using beer and rock music to raise money for a historic Catholic church.

Said Hjelm: "It's really hard to understand what this event is because when people typically think of a church festival, this isn't exactly it."

But the Basilica Block Party has been so successful that other Minnesota churches have adopted similar fundraisers.

Eleven years ago, the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Rochester held its first block party.

Margaret Kelsey, parish administrator at that church, said more than $150,000 was raised during 10 events. The decision to end the block party this year came without hesitation because they met their fundraising goal, she said.

At the Basilica Block Party, more than 400,000 people have consumed 57,000 bratwursts over the years while watching more than 235 bands perform.

Longtime volunteer Dusek has a strong connection to the event. He met his wife through Basilica Block Partiers and on Friday brought his young son to help him conduct church tours.

"We never pictured in a million years, back in the '90s when we were struggling to get it off the ground, that it would turn into what it has," Dusek said.

Karen Zamora • 612-673-4647