- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2020

A historic Catholic church in Minnesota is set for “final demolition” next week is unable to formally say goodbye in a worship service because of the coronavirus’ social distancing restrictions.

In a bulletin message, the parish council of St. Mary’s Church of Melrose announced that the COVID-19 pandemic — with restrictions by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz banning meetings of more than 10 persons — has up-ended what was to be a “service of closure” for its beloved church building.

“The ever-changing mitigation and social distancing requirements of this pandemic have made this more difficult as we await diocesan guidance regarding such a service,” the bulletin said.

In a message to the community shared with The Washington Times, the Rev. Marv Enneking told parishioners he would post a “Liturgy in Commemoration of Our Parish’s Fire-Damaged Church” soon to the parish’s website.

“While my preference would have been to offer this prayer at a public gathering, this is not possible due to the coronavirus pandemic,” he wrote.

Demolition is anticipated to begin Monday, he wrote.

St. Mary’s Church of Melrose’s 120-year-old church, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, was the subject of a bitter court battle over its fate, after an arson damaged the roof and interior three years ago. While the church still stands, Diocese of St. Cloud Bishop Donald Kettler says the structure needs to come down because of structural and liturgical code concerns.

A group of local parishioners and community members had sought to save the church. However, an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court was in vain in December after a lower court judge ruled a group of citizens seeking to save the building could not overrule the diocese, which legally has final say over the property.

“We recognize that the loss of this beautiful, old, treasured church building is, and will continue to be, keenly felt,” wrote Judge Louise Dovre Bjorkman.

A spokesperson for the bishop declined an interview request Friday.

Mass has not been held in the diocese during the pandemic. While Mr. Walz’s stay-at-home order ends Sunday, restrictions on public gatherings, including religious assemblies, will remain in place.

A May 9 letter to pastors from Bishop Kettler signaled that regular Mass could begin only with a signature from the bishop.

“My intent with this process is not to micromanage but to ensure that all of our parishes take the necessary steps for protecting the health and safety of all,” he wrote.

In December, Melrose city officials accepted the environmental assessment worksheet, clearing the approval for the parish to demolish the twin-towered church. Construction on a new church began last year. The new structure will repurpose the stained glass windows and bells from the original church.

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