MELROSE -- To restore or rebuild, the debate continues in Melrose as both sides of a divided congregation decide the fate of St. Mary's Church.

Over a year has passed since St. Mary's Church was set on fire. The blaze destroyed the west end of the church and much of the interior. Melrose Police Chief Craig Maus says the arson case is still ongoing. He says there has been limited new information and they are always accepting any tips from the public.

The arson isn't the only concern for churchgoers, they are also wondering what will happen to the nearly 120-year-old building.

Since the fire, St. Mary's congregation has been divided in two, those who want to see the church restored to its former state and those who would like to tear the church down and build a new St. Mary's in its place.

The Diocese of St. Cloud has decided the best course of action is to rebuild the church. Kurt Schwieters is a Parish Council Member. He says rebuilding St. Mary's was not the first option the church considered, they originally wanted to restore it. A proposal to restore St. Mary's was sent to the Diocesan Building Commission. They reviewed it for six weeks and replied with a five-page letter.

"They recommended that we would not be able to restore our church. We would not be able to use the four walls of that church as a primary worship space and the Bishop agreed with this. Not only that but in the last two paragraphs of the letter it said we not only don't approve your proposal to restore, we recommend you build a new structure."

Schwieters says after the recommendation was made to rebuild, the council met with the building commission and Bishop to see if they could come up with a different strategy to restore the church. The commission and Bishop then told the council and parishioners, restoring is not an option, the only option is to rebuild.

Some of the reasoning behind the commission and Bishop denying a restoration is the Church doesn't have enough access to get in and out, it doesn't adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines and there are no main floor bathrooms. Schweiters says with St. Mary's not meeting electrical, engineering, and other code requirements, it also doesn't meet the "Catholic Code."

"After Vatican 2, after 1965 the liturgy and the expression of the liturgy changed within Catholicism. Thus, how we worship as Catholics is given the opportunity to change."

Schwieters says this change in how Catholics worship is one of the primary reasons why the church needs to be rebuilt.

"For instance instead of it being a long hallway Basilica like room with pillars in it, it's more of a gathering around the altar. There are significant expectations as what defines what a worship space would be. In the year 2017 that is different than what the expectations were in the early 1900s."

The Parish Council is in the process of working with Liturgical Design Consultant, Ken Griesemer and HMA Architects on developing a design for a new church. Schwieters says a timeline and budget is still in the works for the project.  The plans to rebuild the historic building instead of restoring it has caused community backlash, which has made the process slow down.

A group has formed, the Friends to Restore St. Mary's, to gain more support to save the church. One of the organizers for the group and former Melrose Mayor, Timothy Vogel, says they've decided to take legal action.

"The group was formed about four months ago. We're taking donations from concerned parishioners to hire a law firm to try to get this settled in the courts, to be able to restore our church."

Friends to Restore St. Mary's has hired Burns & Hansen law firm and attorney Erik Hansen will be representing them.

Vogel says their first court date will be Friday, with a mediation date set for December 6.

The group is also hosting an open public meeting Thursday, at the Melrose American Legion at 7:00 p.m. Vogel says anyone is welcome to come.

"The meeting is for all parishioners that have questions on the process and what it is that our group is trying to do. Our attorney will be there at the meeting. Any of the parishioners that want to attend, we encourage them to attend, to get first-hand information on what exactly is going on and what to expect during these court hearings."

Rebuilding the church, in Vogel's opinion, would be destroying a sacred place.

"If the Sistine Chapel was damaged by fire would they restore it or would they tear it down and build new? Some people claim it's just a building and I don't buy that. Jesus' tomb, was that just a hole in the ground or is that a holy place?"

St. Mary's Church was built in 1898 for $50,000. It was originally the home to St. Boniface Church. In 1958, St. Boniface and St. Patrick parishes merged together to form St. Mary's.

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