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MELROSE, Minn. -- For nearly 120 years, the Church of St. Mary has played a central role in the lives of Melrose residents.

The Catholic church was revered for its historic significance and beautiful design, its twin steeples and onion-shaped domes that stretch into the sky, visible from nearby Interstate 94.

Many residents were baptized and married here, and so were their children. Some of their German-Catholic ancestors helped build it back in 1898.

As Melrose's population grew more diverse, the church has helped welcome Hispanic immigrants, offering a Spanish mass every weekend and a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

But the church has stood empty for 18 months since the interior was heavily damaged in an arson fire. The debate over whether to restore the church or build a new one has threatened to divide this close-knit community.

On March 11, 2016, an unknown arsonist started a fire in the sacristy behind the altar. Firefighters fought the blaze and kept it from consuming the brick building, but the inside was heavily damaged.

It was a terrible loss for the community, but residents were hopeful. From the outside, the brick building looks relatively unscathed. Most parishioners had no doubt it could be restored to its past glory.

The Church of St. Mary has onion-shaped domes visible from nearby Interstate 94. Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"There was no part of my brain that thought we would do anything else but rebuild this, with changes that would be needed on the inside and on the outside," said Kurt Schwieters, a local doctor who serves on the parish council.

A steering committee was formed to decide the next steps. People packed three parish meetings at the local American Legion.

"These meetings have become very controversial, because some people thought they were voting," Schwieters said. "Some people thought whatever happened at these meetings was the direction we would go."

St. Cloud Bishop Donald Kettler asked the parish council for a plan to restore St. Mary's. The council submitted one, then waited to find out whether it had been approved. Finally, during Holy Week, came news no one wanted to hear.

The diocesan building commission, which must approve any major building projects, cited numerous problems with the old church — accessibility, not meeting codes, the lack of a gathering space, even its stately columns that can block the congregation's view.

Instead, the commission recommended building a new church to meet 21st century needs.

Coming during the holiest week of the year for Christians, the news was difficult to take, Schwieters said.

"Some people feel like they're going to cry. Some people are angry," he said. "I am sure that some people felt betrayed. Some people want to feel hopeful. It's Easter. Easter is hope."

For Melrose Mayor Joe Finken, the decision has been difficult to accept. He is one of the firefighters who worked to save the church, where he's been a parishioner his whole life.

Finken remembers driving home from work the night of the fire and seeing smoke coming from one of the church's cupolas.

"Every piece of adrenalin kicked in, because one of the most important things in my life was going to go up in flames," he said.

Firefighters poured nearly a million gallons of water to save the church's roof. Against all odds, Finken said, they were able to keep it from being destroyed.

"We risked a lot," he said. "And I even said to myself now, if I would have died and they tore this church down, my life would have been in vain then. And that doesn't sit well with me."

A group of parishioners formed a nonprofit called Friends to Restore St. Mary's. They plan to file a lawsuit against the diocese and Bishop Kettler to stop the church from being demolished.

"We don't want our historic church to be destroyed," said Jesse Lovelace, one of the group's members. "I've gotten to love that church for its beauty. Its historical significance just means a whole way of life in this town to me, and that's unique. It's almost like a culture disappearing when the church goes."

For lifelong Catholics used to following the church hierarchy without question, challenging the bishop is an unusual step.

"I feel this church was built by the community, so I think the community should save the church," Santina Lovelace said. "And I don't like the bishop's attitude of well, 'Be quiet and do what you're told.'"

Bishop Kettler declined a request for an interview. In a statement, he said continues to keep the people of St. Mary's in his prayers as they work to rebuild their church.

Schwieters said many people think it's time to accept the decision and move forward to build a new church. He said a lot can be salvaged from the old building, including the stained glass windows, and used in a new church that's more functional but still respects the past.

"In the end, it's the function of what we are as Christians, as parishioners together that defines ourselves as Christians," Schwieters said. "It is what we do. It is not what we have. Form is important, but function is more important. That is what defines us."


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