- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - For sale: A 103-year-old church on St. Paul’s most prestigious street, designed by the same architect who created the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary. Asking price is $1.69 million, reduced from $1.79 million. Great acoustics. Worship home of former governors. Stained glass, pews and organ come with the building.

Also included is a body buried underneath the altar.

St. Paul’s on the Hill, a historic Episcopal church, is looking for a new owner. The Summit Avenue church just east of Snelling Avenue was shuttered last year after a dwindling and aging congregation decided it didn’t have the numbers to keep it going as a house of worship, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1Q6Y67M ) reported.

It’s a sad end for a building where generations of St. Paul’s Episcopalians were married, buried and baptized, including some of the city’s early ruling class.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Jo Lottsfeldt, a St. Paul woman who was a member of St. Paul’s since 1949.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful building,” she said. “It’s got a lot of history, and a lot of people’s lives.”

Now, church and community members are hoping a buyer will step forward to give it a new life - if not as a church, then perhaps as a performance center, a retreat, offices or a community center.

“It’s an important piece of the fabric of the community,” said Jay Nord, the real estate agent handling the sale of the church. “It needs to be appropriately repurposed.”

Nord said a new buyer will have to find a way to reuse the Gothic Revival sanctuary in some fashion. He said it can’t be torn down, because the structure is protected from alterations to the exterior as part of both a national and a city historical preservation district.

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The church’s roots go back to St. Paul’s frontier days. Founded in 1854, the original St. Paul’s Church was built in 1857 in Lowertown on the site of CHS Field, the new Saints ballpark, according to Nord. Minnesota’s first governor, Henry Sibley, was a founding member. Prominent St. Paul businessman Amherst H. Wilder also worshipped there.

When the congregation decided to relocate to the up-and-coming “Hill” area of St. Paul, the old church was dismantled, and the limestone, tower spire, pews, altar and stained-glass windows were hauled up to Summit Avenue by ox cart.

The Episcopalians chose Emmanuel Masqueray, a French immigrant to Minnesota, as the architect for their new church.

Masqueray, the chief designer of buildings at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, also was the favorite church architect of Minnesota’s Catholic Archbishop John Ireland. He tapped Masqueray to design the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary.

The first service at the new Episcopalian church, dubbed St. Paul’s on the Hill, was held on Christmas Day 1913, according to a church history.

The church building - with a 9,000-square-foot sanctuary, a 60-foot cathedral ceiling and a large rose window - is “quietly elegant,” according to a profile of Masqueray by Alan Lathrop, a former University of Minnesota curator of manuscripts.

“I think it’s one of his finer smaller churches,” Lathrop said.

There are 33 stained-glass windows, many of which have dedications to the memories of former members like John Lafayette Merriam, one of St. Paul’s earliest settlers and the father of another church member, William Merriam, a governor of the state. The Merriam Park neighborhood is named after them.

But there was one problem with the church building.

Despite being trained at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Masqueray didn’t seem to know how to design a roof that could stand up to Minnesota winters.

“It’s typical for Masqueray churches. The roof leaks,” Lathrop said. “Masqueray never seemed to quite understand how to design a roof that drained properly.”

Nord said church records show Masqueray was paid $2,700 for his design, but agreed to refund $61 for weather stripping.

Nord said the roof has been fixed, and while the building needs some interior work, he said the exterior and mechanical systems have been well-maintained. The church doesn’t have air conditioning, but the boilers were upgraded in 1999.

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But it was still a struggle for parishioners to keep the doors open in recent decades.

“‘How do we keep the church open?’ was an underlying question for the 30 years I was there,” said former member Betty Pat Leach. “We just didn’t have the people.”

The church specialized in what Leach described as an Anglo-Catholic style of worship: a high-church, ritual- and regalia-heavy liturgy that was beautiful and traditional but didn’t put enough people in the pews.

“There were lots and lots of services attended by fewer and fewer people,” she said. “There aren’t that many people who want to worship that way.”

Lottsfeldt said attendance also was hurt by a 1988 conviction of a former priest at the church who was accused of abusing a young boy.

The church eventually lost its status as an independent parish and became a mission of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. The original congregation also shared the building for several years with a Spanish-speaking congregation, La Mision El Santo Nino Jesus. But both of those congregations finally gave up on the building last year. La Mision El Santo Nino Jesus found another location. The original congregation eventually dissolved.

“People were swimming upstream, trying to keep the place alive,” Leach said. “A lot of earnest people, but bad decisions made on a lot of fronts.”

The Episcopal Church in Minnesota will try to find a reuse or separate sale for many of the smaller items in the church like baptismal founts, vestments, crosses, chalices, candlesticks and a 400-year-old painting of St. Jerome that was thought to have been painted by Italian artist Caravaggio. Nord said the painting turns out to have been done by a student of Caravaggio, and “not a very good student.”

“Quite honestly, it’s not very good,” he said.

There’s also a small wooden altar left by George Metcalf, a former associate minister at the church. Metcalf was a chaplain in the U.S. Army, and after World War II, he used the altar for services for Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the occupation for Japan, Nord said. During World War II, Metcalf was famous for helping craft a prayer for good weather requested by Gen. George Patton during the Battle of the Bulge. When the weather cleared the next day, U.S. airplanes took to the skies to help repel the German offensive.

Larger items like a statue of St. Paul, holding a “sword of the Spirit” and one of his lengthy epistles, set in a niche in the church tower, will stay with the building and the new owner.

Also staying is John Wright, a priest and the rector of the church at the time of its construction. When Wright died in 1919, he was buried in a crypt under the sanctuary. That makes the crawl space under the altar a “historic nonoperating cemetery,” meaning the body has to stay there with the building.

Nord said ashes in a columbarium behind the altar will be relocated according to the wishes of the relatives of the deceased.

A less historic 11,000-square-foot addition of offices, classrooms, meeting rooms and a kitchen is also included in the sale. Nord estimates the sanctuary would seat about 350 people. But there are only 18 parking spaces on the property. Nord said that’s probably not enough parking to attract a large enough congregation to support the building’s reuse as a church.

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Still, one intangible asset is the church’s acoustics.

“The place is a dream,” said soprano Kim Sueoka, a member of The Rose Ensemble, which has used the sanctuary for rehearsals and performances.

“It amplifies and carries the sound so beautifully, a warm, round sound, especially for voices,” said Sueoka, who also has worked as a staff singer at the church. “All the musicians who’ve ever done something there would hope in some way it will be used as a music venue.”

Author and radio host Garrison Keillor has occasionally attended services at the church, according to former members. There has been a rumor he might buy it.

But in an email, Keillor wrote, “It’s a handsome old church and a St. Paul landmark, and I wish Macalester College would buy it. I don’t personally need any more real estate at this point.”

Tom Welna, director of Macalester College’s High Winds Fund, said the nearby college doesn’t have a particular interest in buying the property either.

Nord said the church has quietly been on the market, but a small number of parties have expressed interest.

“I’m quietly optimistic a buyer group will emerge in the next six to nine months,” he said.

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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