On the morning after St. Mary Church in Melrose suffered a devastating fire, small groups of people gathered around the building to survey the damage, take photos with their cell phones, and offer comfort to one another.
Some, like parishioner Bob Leukam, had gathered there the night before, too, when fire departments from Melrose, Sauk Centre and Freeport responded to the March 11 blaze, which started on the west side of the building where the sacristy is located.
“I never imagined in my life I’d see something like this,” said Leukam, a eucharistic minister at the church and member of the Knights of Columbus. His wife, Jan, also is a eucharistic minister and serves on the church’s liturgy and decorating committees.
“We hear about this all over the country — churches burn down, and we think, ‘Oh God, that’s terrible.’ Now we’re standing right here seeing the same thing,” he said.
But it’s been comforting to see the community come together in the midst of tragedy, Leukam said.
“People look at this [building] as the church, but in reality, we are the church,” he said. “The community will get stronger. The community will come together and make this work. It just takes time and a lot of prayer.”
Bishop Donald Kettler visited the site in the afternoon on his way to a Castaway youth retreat in Detroit Lakes. He sought to assure those he spoke with that the rest of the Diocese of St. Cloud offers its support.
“We know this is a very difficult time,” Bishop Kettler told The Visitor. “We’re all family, and we’re sharing the hurt and the loss and praying for them. We’ll stand with them through all this.”
Masses are being moved to St. John Church in Meire Grove. St. Mary’s and St. John’s are part of a cluster that includes St. Andrew in Greenwald and St. Michael in Spring Hill. Weekend Masses at St. John’s will be Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
The cluster’s pastor, Father Marvin Enneking, was at the Castaway retreat on the night of the fire. He returned to Melrose a little after 8 p.m. He met with fire inspector but the cause and full extent of the damage is still not known. As of the morning of March 12, Father Enneking still was not able to enter the church itself.
“I asked about damage, and [the fire inspector] said that with this large of a space, it’s hard to tell where the heat of the fire goes,” he said. “With all the water and smoke, it’s hard to tell what is all affected right away. But he said the main body of the church was not fire-damaged. There was smoke and water but no fire. The fire didn’t go much beyond the old, original altar.”
The altar in front of the old altar might have had some plaster fall on it, but the fire didn’t burn there, Father Enneking said the inspector told him. Two side altars are intact; they also might have suffered water and plaster damage, but no fire.
The cost of the damage isn’t known as this time, he said, nor is the cost and time it will take to repair it. According to a March 11 press release by the state Department of Public Safety sent on behalf of the Melrose fire and police departments, preliminary estimates indicate damage could exceed $1 million.
One bright spot: Because Father Enneking was working on the Castaway retreat, he had taken the church’s monstrance and the Blessed Sacrament with him to Detroit Lakes, so it was spared from the fire. “So we have something original that was not damaged by the fire in the sacristy,” he said.
Father Enneking said he is thankful no one was hurt in the blaze. He spent the morning after talking with his staff, parishioners and the insurance company.
“Last night to watch firefighters from Freeport, Sauk Centre and Melrose working together to save the church, risking their lives — these guys were incredible,” he said.
“The response from the community has been tremendous, showing how united this community is,” Father Enneking said. And the positive response from St. John’s in Meire Grove to welcome St. Mary’s parishioners for Mass is “another sign that as a cluster we are all working together,” he said.
St. Mary parish was formed in 1958 when two Melrose parishes — St. Boniface and St. Patrick — merged. The present day St. Mary Church was previously the St. Boniface Church building and dates back to 1898. St. Mary’s has about 1,100 families, including about 150-200 registered Latino families.
The strength of the community was very apparent on the night of the fire when volunteers worked together to serve food to the firefighters, said Robert Doyle, principal of St. Mary’s School in Melrose.
“We opened the school, we had all the food and the tables. That just appeared in minutes,” he said, adding that “having the Hispanics and the Anglos just standing as a group here last night was truly a good feeling. There are no [differences] when this happens. We are a community.”
Parishioner Jody Middendorf, who lives across the street from the church, said his yard was filled with people kneeling and praying the rosary as firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze.
Moving forward, Father Enneking said, “Prayers are always helpful.”
“This kind of situation is a reminder to us not to take things for granted,” he said. “The church and other places of worship are deeply ingrained into the fabric of people’s lives — people coming forward and saying I remember my first Communion there, or I remember my confirmation there.
“This kind of thing brings to the fore how important those things really are to people,” he said. “In everyday life, we don’t pay too much attention until something like this happens. It causes us to reflect again on just how important these places of worship are.”