‘So incredible, so very sad.’

Firefighters work together to save historic church

by CAROL MOORMAN

carol@melrosebeacon.com

 

Melrose–Three fi re departments used close to 750,000 gallons of water to try and save as much of St. Maryʼs Church in Melrose early Friday night as they could.
 
Flames were shooting out of the sacristy windows when fi re fi ghters from Melrose, Sauk Centre and Freeport arrived at 4:46 p.m.
 
The fi re was called in by Deacon Ernie Kociemba when he discovered smoke as he opened the sacristy doors to return a religious item.
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Flames were already in the sacristy, the attic and some of the church body, built in 1898, according to Melrose Fire Chief Jeremy Kraemer. Almost immediately,
smoke could be seen rising out of the roof and cupolas, as people stood by in disbelief of what was happening to “their church,” as one lady said. “Just as it does in a campfi re the smoke rises to the highest point so that is where we would expect to see it,” Kraemer said Saturday morning. He said the plan was a “balance in-between maintaining steam and moisture in the building and venting the hot gasses.” With the wind blowing to the north, fi refi ghters sprayed down the nearby Jennie-O Turkey Store structure.
 
The Melrose departmentʼs ladder truck was used to extinguish the fi re in the attic, while other fi refi ghters sprayed continuous streams of water fi rst on the west side to knock down fl ames and then on the north and south roofs.

 

“We were trying to get water into the attic space to help generate steam to keep that area confi ned,” Kraemer said. Kraemer said thanks for a “great job,” by fi refi ghters, the structure stayed standing, although there is major damage inside. “Seeing the conditions as we fi rst arrived I would have bet everything I have that the building would have come down,” he said, adding, “All of the fi refi ghters deserve a huge pat on the back for that.”

 

Firefi ghters were able to retrieve items from inside the church early on during the fi re. “We had fi refi ghters in the building most of the entir  time of the fi re,” he said.

Kraemer said the fi re damage starts at about the altar area and goes west, with water and smoke damage throughout the structure. Thankfully, no one was injured in the fi re.

 

Along with the fi re departments, Melrose police and Stearns County deputies were at the scene. Thank yous were said as Sauk Centre and Freeport fi refi ghters left the scene. Melrose fi refi ghters remained until 11:36 p.m.

 

The state fi re marshal was at the fi re scene Friday night. The Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division is working with local authorities to determine the cause of the fi re at this church placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Federal agents were contacted, which is standard procedure in fi res related to religious structures. Close to 15 investigators were on-site Monday. Just after the sun rose Saturday morning, people walked slowly around the church, some stopping to give and receive hugs, as they took in this devastating sight. A stained glass window in the churchʼmain body could be seen through the broken glass in the charred sacristy.

 

 Around noon on Saturday, Kraemer and two other Melrose fi  refi  ghters returned to the scene, entering the church. Kraemer said the middle altar and statues were gone but the side altars were still standing. Preliminary estimates indicate damage could exceed $1 million. Kraemer, a long time member of St. Maryʼ s Parish, said when calls like this come in “itʼ s just a building with a long list of tasks that need to be performed and a constant checking of progress. Even after the fi  re is

Fire continued from pg. 2________________

1879 - The parishioners of St. Boniface built a church to seat 150, across the street from the present St. Mary's church. It was a 30X90 foot wood-frame structure that cost $3,000 to build. 1882 - St. Boniface parish created a Catholic school combined with a convent. There wereapproximately 56 students in the new school. 1889 - St. Boniface built its fi rst rectory to the south of the old church. 1898 - Bishop Trobec dedicated the newly constructed St. Boniface Church. This is the present day St. Mary's building and was constructed at a cost of $50,000. It was completely paid for on the dedication day. The old church structure was converted to a school. 1905 - The new organ built by B. Schaefer Pipe Organ Factory in Wisconsin was purchased for $4,000. 1907 - A new rectory was created in the Queen Anne architectural style. Cost of the rectory was $15,000. 1910 - The St. Boniface school structure, along with the original rectory, was destroyed by fi re on Jan. 5. 1911 - A new twelve room school was built at a cost of $45,000 to accommodate 450 students from both St. Boniface and St. Patrick's parishes.

1926 - St. Boniface Parish built a social hall known as the St. Boniface Recreation Center or "Dutch Hall" and was used for dances, an auditorium and a bowling alley. Melrose High School used it for plays, graduations and basketball games. 1953 - St. Boniface built a new convent to house the Sisters who staff ed the St. Boniface School.

 1958 - The Bishop of the St. Cloud Diocese decided that St. Boniface and St. Patrick parishes would merge into a new parish named St. Mary's. Father Francis Julig became the pastor of the new St. Mary's Parish.

1964 - Construction began on a new school building for 1-6 grade students. This was completed

in 1965 and was named St. Mary's School.

 

The old St. Boniface School became the Melrose Public Elementary School. 1972 - A High Mass celebrated by Bishop George Speltz kicked off a 3-day celebration marking 100 years of the parish's existence in Melrose.

1984 - The old St. Boniface School building was razed after the public school students moved to the addition to the junior high school building. The convent east of the old school building is now called "Mary Hall" and is leased to various groups.

1993 - St. Mary's Church and rectory were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

1997-1998 - St. Mary's steeples and roof were restored.

2000 - The Church interior was painted.

2001-2006 - The stained glass windows were reconstructed and restored.

2001 - Lights were installed to illuminate the church's facade and the two steeples.

2003 - Shrine of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, installed in the Church. The statue came from Mexico and was transported to Melrose.

2003-2004 - The pipe organ was cleaned and reformatted, improving the instrument's sound and appearance. The redesign of the pipes exposed the stain glass rose window, which had been obstructed from view for the previous 32 years.

2006 - A major steeple restoration project was competed.

2011 - St. Mary's becomes part of a four-parish cluster, with the parishes in Meire Grove, Greenwald, and Spring Hill.

2016 - Fire destroys the west end of the church and severely damages the interior on March 11. Information is from the One In Faith website.

 

History continued from pg. 2_____________

Questions were asked,  like are the St. Boniface, St. Patrick and St. Mary on the high altar okay? These three statutes represent the combining of St. Boniface Church, considered the German church, and St. Patrick ʼ s Church, considered the Irish church, into the Church of St. Maryʼ s in the late 1950s, with the Blessed Virgin Mary in the middle to keep peace. The stained glass windows, including the rose window, also as old as the church, remained intact, with no idea if they sustained any damage.

 

Donated food, water and other drinks arrived, with many people stepping up to carry it from St. Maryʼ s School where a station had been set up but then changed to the parking lot as fi  refi  ghters didnʼ t want to leave the scene.

 

“We are all standing in solidarity here,” said Robert Doyle, St. Maryʼ s principal. Firefi  ghters took breaks to eat and drink; served by members of the Melrose Fire Department Auxiliary. Melrose ambulance personnel requested fi  refi  ghters have their vitals taken to ensure they were okay. Parish priest, Fr. Mitchell Bechtold, who had been in Luxemburg for a relative ʼ s wake, arrived and visited with and reassured people. Parish pastor Fr. Marv Enneking, who was in Detroit Lakes at a Castaway retreat, arrived and met with the fi  re marshal, who arrived soon after the fi  re was called in.

 

A public school staff member, also a St. Maryʼ s parishioner, was on site and offered use of their auditorium for Saturday/Sunday church services. The next day plans were put in place to hold services in St. John the Baptist Church in Meire Grove. St. Maryʼ s is included in the four-church cluster of St. Michaelʼ s Church in

 

Spring Hill, St. Andrewʼ s in Greenwld and St. Johnʼ s in Meire Grove. For some, like former Melrose fi  refi  ghter Paul Maus, the fi  re was reminiscent of the Kraft fi  re in the 1980s, “and people were standing around crying.” “Itʼ s Melrose,” said one lady explaining in two words what this church means to the community, as she watched smoke drift out of the roof with water running down the sides. Four hours after the

fi  re started the Freeport and Sauk Centre fi  refi  ghters left the scene and people started returning home. News crews from Channel 11 and Channel 5 remained, interviewing people and broadcasting live.

 

There was hope from many gathered throughout the night that the inside of the church could be rebuilt and they would once again be able to attend mass in their home church. The inside may be severely damaged, but the four steeples, that St. Maryʼ s Church is known for, remained standing for all to see for miles away, an example of the resilience of this parish and community. Dar Haider, standing next to husband Brian and daughter Amyia, talked about how a younger parishioner said earlier, “The church is gone.” Dar said,

 

“No, the church is right here,” as she placed her hand over her heart. out, to me itʼ s just bricks and building materials.” He added, “Itʼ s the people that make it a church,” he said. The biggest thing he notices with most fi  res is the huge amount of support from the community and beyond.

 

That was evident as the sun started to set Friday night and water, drinks and food started arriving, not only for the fi  refi  ghters but people gathered to watch something never in their lifetime they thought they would, many offering words and hugs of comfort. The drinks and food was

donated by businesses and individuals. “I sometimes forget as we are doing what we do and trying to keep the scene safe and put the fi  re out, that the people watching have such an emotional connection to what is going on and just how much it affects the people around it,”

he said. Tears in the eyes of many watching the St. Maryʼ s fi  re scene unfold were proof of that.

 

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