Juvenile charged in 2016 church arson in Melrose, Minn.

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Photo credit: Terri Ellering and Sharon Blaskowski

More than two years after an act of arson significantly damaged St. Mary's Catholic Church in Melrose, Minnesota, authorities announced they have charged a juvenile suspect. The juvenile was 13 years old at the time of the fire.

“This individual had been interviewed several times,” said Lt. Bob Dickhaus with the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office. “It was a matter of getting the right questions at the right time and obtaining the confession."

"Relief that they finally found out who has done it,” said Santina Lovelace, a parishioner. “It’s been a long road."

At 4:43 p.m. on March 11, 2016, Stearns County authorities received a 911 call reporting heavy smoke coming from the church. A second caller reported flames coming from the same area.

Several agencies responded to the blaze and had it contained by 8:30 p.m. 

Officials began investigating the blaze, which caused several millions of dollars worth of damage to the 118-year-old Romanesque Revival-style church. About a week and a half after the fire, investigators officially classified it as an arson.

The church was a fixture in the City of Melrose with its 130-foot towers. The fire significantly damaged the altar and sacristy area. The wood altar, which was made in Germany and installed prior to the churches dedication in 1899, was completed destroyed.

Police continued to investigate the fire over the next 22 months, as the grieving community made plans to rebuild. At one point, officials offered a $7,500 reward for those who had leads on the crime.

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After authorities re-interviewed suspects and re-examined potential evidence, a juvenile confessed that they intentionally set the fire at the church. The juvenile is charged with first degree arson.

Investigators say the teenager was at St. Mary's for piano lessons in the church basement, but haven’t revealed a motive for starting the blaze.

"Juvenile had some personal problems and is working through those,” said Lt. Dickhaus. “Not sure what the intent was other than to cause damage to the church, but we really don't know."

"Any unsolved crime produces a sense of unease in communities. I know the arson of the church has left an indelible mark on the entire area, Sheriff Don Gudmundson said in a statement. "In solving the case, the Stearns County Sheriff's Office was pleased to take the fine investigative work of the Melrose Police Department, the Minnesota State Fire Marshal and Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives to a successful conclusion. It is our hope that this will be a positive step in putting the community at ease along with the healing for the congregation of St. Mary's Catholic Church."

Statement from Church of St. Mary Parish Council:

"We are thankful for the persistence and commitment of all of the authorities who investigated this arson case. We hope this information can be a healing step for all of us. We are thinking and praying for the individual and family involved in this case. We pray that they can get the assistance, support and help needed in this difficult time."