Arson confession deepens anguish over 120-year-old church in Melrose

Published 8:16 pm Thursday, June 21, 2018

MELROSE — A few hours after learning on Wednesday that a teenager had confessed to the arson fire that charred her beloved church two years ago, Carol Moorman sat in her office on Main Street and wondered why.

She had been a lifelong parishioner, from baptism on, and was known to other members of this tight-knit community of 3,600 residents as the woman who sat with her mother in one of the front pews.

“Why would a 13-year-old boy or girl do this?” Moorman asked. “Why not run and get help? Unless you’re scared.”

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The suspect, who was 13 at the time of the fire, is now charged in juvenile court in Stearns County with first-degree arson, according to Sheriff Don Gudmundson. Authorities are not identifying the youth, given his juvenile status, nor disclosing a motive.

Moorman, who as editor of the local newspaper knows many people in Melrose, said she wouldn’t be surprised if the name eventually surfaces. It’s a small town, she said.

“Even if I would find out who the person is, I don’t think I have it in my heart to be angry at that person,” she said. More than the teenager’s identity, Moorman said she wants to understand what happened. And she wants an end to the feud.

The March 2016 arson created a rift between the St. Cloud Diocese and parishioners of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in this largely German Catholic community about 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. The diocese wants to replace the church, built in 1898, with a $12 million building.

Some parishioners have sued to keep the diocese from razing the church, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. That case is pending and the building remains standing, said Erik Hansen, the plaintiffs’ attorney.

The fight has turned bitter, dividing neighbors and friends who worshiped together for years.

Hansen said the St. Cloud Diocese “has made it clear that it has no willingness to compromise. … They are still seeking to go ahead with demolition.”

A statement Wednesday from Bishop Donald Kettler expressed gratitude for law enforcement’s efforts to solve the case, but also nodded to the idea that restoration of the church is not in the cards.

“I and the people of our diocese have been praying for the Melrose community since the time of the fire,” Kettler wrote, “and we will continue to offer whatever support they need as they work to build a new church and plan for the future.”

The parishioners’ group has said restoration would cost less than half the cost of building a new church. The flames consumed the church’s wooden altar, but otherwise left standing its stout brick walls and distinctive twin steeples.

Kettler had told a parishioner earlier that he needed to replace the damaged St. Mary’s according to church rules that call for a more modern architectural style. In that conversation, Kettler said liturgical codes created by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s require a more modern layout than the churches built a century ago.

Parishioner Micki Lovelace, speaking on behalf of the Friends to Restore St. Mary’s Church, said Wednesday that 30 to 40 of her fellow worshipers continue to actively support the group’s push for restoration.

Mass has been relocated to the parish school gym. However, she said, some parishioners have turned to other churches or have stopped attending altogether.

“I don’t go,” Lovelace said. “I want my church back.”

“It’s a sad deal all the way around,” said Jeremy Kraemer, the former chief of the city’s volunteer fire department. He’s still proud of the way his crew saved the building the night of the fire, but the division within Melrose over the issue of what should become of the church only seems to grow, he said.

“The worst part is, they’re both right,” he said of the two sides in the feud.

In a statement announcing the charge Gudmundson said, “I know the arson of the church has left an indelible mark on the entire area. … It is our hope that this will be a positive step in putting the community at ease along with healing for the congregation of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.”

Earlier this year, sheriff’s investigators reviewed the case and many people were interviewed again, Gudmundson said. Two weeks ago, the teen confessed to authorities.

For Moorman, whose woodworker father helped restore the church pews and whose mother died last year without the funeral in St. Mary’s that she had wanted, the loss of her church has felt deeply personal.

“I drive past that church every day — every day — and I’m not alone,” she said. “There are many people who feel the same way.”