One year later

Tempered by fire, St. Mary’s parishioners waiting, wondering
by Michael Strasburg

It was a spring Friday in Melrose on March 11, 2016, and Melrose residents could feel the excitement of summer beginning to peek around the corner. At 4:45 p.m., people were getting ready to leave work for the weekend, children were returning home from sports practice and others were getting dinner ready. Deacon Ernie Kociemba, however, was walking up the steps to St. Mary’s Catholic Church to return a religious item.
“I ran up the steps in the sanctuary and when I opened the door I was met with a wall of black smoke,” Kociemba said last March.
Kociemba got out of the church immediately and called 911.
Minutes later, Kociemba was watching flames pour out the northwest sacristy windows as Melrose, Sauk Centre and Freeport firefighters arrived on-scene and proceeded to do their best to contain the blaze. Parishioners and residents soon gathered around the fire. Some cried. Some prayed the rosary. Others simply stood in helpless silence. But all of them witnessed a structure, older than any of them – a permanent resident of Melrose in their minds – be slowly devoured by the flames.
The fire
Firefighters, led by Melrose Fire Chief Jeremy Kraemer, entered the church and were soon enveloped by a thick pool of smoke. Firefighters could not even see their hands in front of them, Kraemer said. He strategically placed teams of firefighters inside the church under the direction of former fire chief Rick Berens. Outside, Kraemer effectively controlled the flow of gases inside the church–a critical component in combatting the fire.
Firefighters battled the flames until after 8 p.m., when Freeport and Sauk Centre fire departments left the scene. Four hours after Kociemba discovered the fire, the firefighters returned home, exhausted. The same can be said about the community of Melrose, who laid their heads down on their pillows, exhausted in body and soul by the day’s events, their minds racing with uncertainty. While the fire burned out the core of the church, St. Mary’s distinct four steeples still stood. Many say the entire church remained intact that night, if only in their hearts.
The first dawn
For weeks following the fire, parishioners were directed to attend Mass at St. John the Baptist Church in Meire Grove, where they anxiously awaited updates and healing words from Fr. Marv Enneking.
Less than a week after the fire, the parish’s insurance company sent ServiceMaster Recovery Management to begin the process of cleaning out the church interior. Recovery professionals found the altar and main statues, including the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus image atop the altar, were destroyed by the fire. The two smaller side altars, however, remained intact with minor damage. The tabernacle from the main altar was also removed.
St. Mary’s century-old Christmas statues and a number of murals were destroyed. While plaster fell from the ceiling during the fire, the choir loft remained intact, despite some damage to the pipe organ. The main body of the church, including pews, Stations of the Cross and the Our Lady of Guadalupe chapel and statue were smoke-damaged but remained largely intact.
Investigators from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were called in to determine the cause of the fire. ATF agents are called to investigate whenever a religious structure is involved in an incident. The ATF would eventually determine that the cause of the fire was arson. The bureau has since posted a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the fire.
Passion, emotions run high
After the smoke cleared and parishioners came to terms with the ramifications of the fire, the parish began to look to the future. A steering committee was formed in May to gather and present information to the parish council.
The exact plan on what to do, however, soon became mired in uncertainty. Many parishioners felt a deep connection to the church as it was, and wanted to see it restored as such. Others were more skeptical of whether or not a true reconstruction was possible considering the costs, updated building codes and canon law.
Over the next six months, the steering committee would find it very difficult to reconcile these two realities as division grew within the parish. Eventually, after identifying challenges and benefits with multiple options, the Steering Committee was dissolved and handed further responsibilities to the parish council.
Unified direction
One month after the steering committee was dissolved, the parish council was relieved of the burden of deciding which route to move forward on, as Bishop Donald Kettler directed the parish council to develop a proposal for the complete restoration of the church.
On Feb. 23, the parish council and finance council met with their insurance representative. There, the council learned that the insurance representative is working with a payment of approximately $7 million of new money for the church. While the sum may vary slightly on specifics, it would stay approximately the same regardless of complete restoration, restoration with amendments or an entirely new campus.
After meeting with the insurance representative, the parish council finalized and submitted their proposal for complete restoration of St. Mary’s Church to the Diocesan Building Commission. While the parish awaits a decision from the diocese, they will gather on Saturday, March 11, for a prayer service to recognize the one-year anniversary of the fire. People will gather in front of St. Mary’s Church at 4:30 p.m. and process into the gym. There will be prayer at 4:43 p.m. — the actual time, one year ago, when the fire call was made.
While the council, parish and community eagerly await the Diocesan Building Commission’s decision on how to move forward, they are afforded the opportunity to look back at the tumultuous year and how it has affected their faith and communion.
“A terrible tragedy occurred in our church. The journey has been a difficult one and we are in the desert,” said Fr. Marv Enneking. “But God has not abandoned us. He is very much with us. We will find our way by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, who promised that He would be with His Church until the end of time. Jesus is the source of our consolation and hope. With Jesus at our side, St. Mary’s will rise again!”

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