Future of burned Melrose church unclear, parishioners fight for restoration

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The fire that ravaged St. Mary’s Church in Melrose, Minn. fourteen months ago is listed as one of the state’s notable unsolved arsons.

The more than 120-year-old parish’s fate is now a point of contention in the town of less than 4,000 people.

“It’s just a holy place,” said long-time St. Mary’s Church parishioner Marilyn Weber with tears in her eyes. “I have a hard time believing they want to destroy something like this.”

To Weber, and many like her, a ‘new’ St. Mary’s is not an option.

“It’s home -- it’s a part of our identity,” said Timothy Vogel, also a long-time parishioner and former mayor of Melrose.

“I made my first confession, communion, confirmation, son's communion, and marriage got announced here,” Mel Roehrl, a 92 year-old WWII vet, shared of his memories in the parish. “There’s too much building left to tear the church down, it’s on the historical society, it’s an icon in Melrose, [and] it’s an icon of the Catholic faith here in this city."

“They want this beautiful, glorious church restored,” Vogel said of most of St. Mary’s Church parishioners.

Earlier this month, Bishop Donald Kettler motioned instead to build a brand new church.

As of May 10, 2017, St. Mary’s Parish Council Updates include the following vague mentions of the decision:

“We appreciate that this has been very hard and some parishioners have feelings of pain and loss. Some also have feelings of hope and faith. There are certain aspects of our journey that may make it easier to understand:

   •We were committed to restore our church. This was our direction and plan.
   •Our process was accelerated by vandalism and threatening actions. This was a ‘game changer.’
   •When the Diocesan Building Commission (DBC) and Bishop evaluated our proposal they also looked at options to restore with additions and amendments.
   •The Bishop has the authority to make decisions regarding our church.”

“The shepherd is more interested in the condition of the barn than the health of the sheep,” Vogel said of the announcement.

Since the news spread across the small town, parishioners told Fox 9 St. Mary’s Church budget shortfall has widened by at least $2,000 – all in one week’s time.

“The collections in the Sunday masses are down and a lot of money has been raised for the restoration of the church and I’m interested to find out what’s going to happen with that money because that would be under false pretenses if they use that money for the new church,” Vogel continued.

Requests for the estimated $100,000 in restoration donations to be returned now pile onto the “Restore St. Mary’s Church” Facebook page. 

“They should get that money back,” Vogel said on behalf of the donors.

“If we wouldn’t have had this tragedy, we wouldn’t have had all this hullabaloo!” Roehrl said.

‘One in Faith’ is the Catholic network’s slogan, but until St. Mary’s Church is revived, a congregation divided they’ll remain.

A $7,500 reward remains on the table for whoever can lead investigators to the person behind the arson. If you have any information you can remain anonymous by calling the Minnesota Arson Hotline at 800-723-2020.

Information can also be submitted online at www.mniaai.org.

Bishop Kettler statement:

“In all of my conversations with the people of St. Mary’s, their love for their parish is evident. I respect and appreciate their commitment to the church’s long and cherished history, and I understand the pain they are going through since the fire. As a diocese, we have mourned with them and are committed to offering our support. My hope is that the people of St. Mary’s will work together to create a beautiful space to gather and worship in — one that honors its history by incorporating elements spared from the fire, but that also will serve the needs of God’s people both now and long into the future. Ultimately, we must remember every church belongs to God first. My job as shepherd of the diocese is to ensure that we are good stewards of the resources we have — financial and otherwise — and do what is best for all of God’s people.”