- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Catholic parishioners in a Minnesota town have run out of options to restore their arson-damaged church now that the state’s Supreme Court has rejected their appeal of a lower-court ruling that says the local bishop has no obligation to rehabilitate the historic building.

The 119-year-old German-style church with twin, 130-foot towers in a small central Minnesota town could be demolished as early as next year.

“It would really hurt my soul to the max,” Joe Finken, mayor of Melrose, Minnesota, told The Washington Times. “But the bishop is the man of power. There is not much I can do to talk him out of destroying that beautiful piece of history in our community.”

A teenager in March 2016 started a fire in the church required nearly 100 firefighters to extinguish. Mr. Finken, also a firefighter, helped save a historic cross and a confessional stole, as well as photographs from the basement.

An estimate to restore the damaged Church of St. Mary soared into the millions. After a parish steering committee expressed hope the church could be saved, a diocesan building commission for the St. Cloud Diocese ordered it to be demolished and replaced by a newer building.

Parishioners calling themselves the Friends to Restore St. Mary’s filed a lawsuit against the parish, the diocese and Bishop Donald Kettler, citing a state environmental law that protects historical structures.

In September, a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals declined to intervene, citing separation of church and state.

“Although the church building is owned by St. Mary’s, under canon law, the final decision to restore or build rests with the bishop,” Judge Louise Dovre Bjorkman wrote in the 18-page opinion.

This month, the Minnesota Supreme Court denied an appeal.

A spokesman for the St. Cloud Diocese did not respond to a request for comment. In September, an attorney for the diocese told the St. Cloud Times the bishop views the matter as one of religious liberty from governmental intervention.

“This means that a group of parishioners cannot challenge the decision of a Catholic bishop with respect to issues of doctrine by using a civil statue,” said Cyri Van Hecke, counsel for the parish, the diocese and Bishop Kettler.

Longtime parishioner Gerry Osendorf says he can see St. Mary’s steeples from the windows of his home. But he no longer belongs to the Melrose parish, hurt by what he describes as a “pathetic” process in trying to persuade an obstinate bishop from demolishing the church.

He wants to see the building sold to a local group to convert the building.

“The fire departments did a fantastic job of saving the church,” Mr. Osendorf said. “Virtually the only damage was smoke and water damage.”

Parishioners have been holding Mass in a gymnasium since the fire nearly three years ago. Mr. Finken said a city council meeting later this month will investigate next steps to save the church that has been a fixture for this town of more than 3,000 people for over a century.

But their hands may be tied by canon law, which cedes authority almost solely to the bishop in determining the status of a building.

“This has torn the parish apart and, worse, it’s torn the town of Melrose apart,” Mr. Osendorf said.

Bishop Kettler said last year upon completion of the arson investigation: “I and the people of our diocese have been praying for the Melrose community since the time of the fire, and we will continue to offer whatever support they need as they work to build a new church and plan for the future.”

As for the new church being built, Mr. Finken is politely Midwestern.

“I don’t appreciate the new one,” he said. “But I wish them good luck, but I know that my heart just can’t be there.”

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