The end of an East Side mainstay


St. John’s Catholic Church Parishioners attend an 8 a.m weekday mass on Wednesday, June 12. Located at 977 E. 5th St., the church has been holding daily mass since it opened in 1922. The parish will hold its last mass on Sunday, June 30. (photos by Patrick Larkin/Review)

A view of St. John’s Altar.

A rainy day mass early Wednesday morning, June 19, saw about 20 parishioners.

St. John’s church is adorned with stained glass windows, framed in Norman style arches.

With changing demographics and a restructuring of Catholic parishes, St. John's will soon see its last day of Mass

The charming old church at 977 E. Fifth St. has been around a long time.

Opened up in 1922, St. John's has since held Mass nearly every single day no matter what the weather -- rain, shine, snow or sleet. In all it's probably held over 32,000 days of Mass.

But its streak is about to end.

The last day of Mass is scheduled for Sunday, June 30. After that, the St. John's parishioners will be merged into another East Side Roman Catholic Church, St. Pascal Baylon, at Conway Street and White Bear Avenue.

St. Pascal will effectively inherit the St. John's campus, including the church, the adjoining rectory and the vacant school.

The sturdy, brick St. John's building will cease to be used regularly as a church, says the Rev. Mike Byron, the St. Pascal parish priest, although they will run occasional Masses out of the place to preserve the building's tax-exempt status. And the Rev. George Welzbacher, the St. John's pastor, predicted many of the parishioners will probably not be going to St. Pascal.

"Not an obvious marriage"

For one thing, St. Pascal is a different kind of parish - it has a modern building with a larger capacity, and the Masses are more contemporary and stylistically different from St. John's. And most of St John's parishioners don't live in the area. Instead, many have long family histories with the church from when they lived on the East Side, but have since moved out to the suburbs, Welzbacher says.

He named St. John's parishioners from a wide swath of suburbs - Oakdale, Woodbury, Vadnais Heights, Maplewood, Rosemount and Eagan - who've stayed with the church out of a preference for its style of sermon.

Greg Cosimini, the St. John's treasurer and a lifelong attendee of the church, says the merger isn't an obvious marriage.

"As mergers go this is a rather strange one," he says, explaining that the two are culturally quite different.

Anna Kolb, who's been going to St. John's for 30 years, says St. Pascal is too modern for her tastes. She says she'll probably end up at Blessed Sacrament, about three miles away on White Bear Avenue.

East Sider Mabel Beane has been going to St. John's for a long time; her husband's history with the place goes back to grade school. Beane says St. Pascal is "not as conservative as what I'd like to see."

In particular, Beane says she likes St. John's communion rail where parishioners bend down on their knees to receive communion of bread and wine, "instead of us standing in line like a grocery store."

She describes St. John's as "basically like a very close-knit family" where "everybody pulls together to get things done." She adds she's "very disappointed" the church is closing.

"It's very hard to give up what you've devoted your whole life to," she says.

Big and small

A number of parishioners estimated that St. John's average Sunday Mass attendance was at least 100 people and it regularly had more worshipers than that. So by comparison to St. Pascal's 900 to 1,000 households, it's teeny. But it was financially stable.

The St. John's treasurer, Greg Cosimini, a lifelong member of the parish, says the church was consistently been in the black and had even beefed up its contributions in recent years.

St. Pascal, on the other hand, is a little unstable financially, Byron says. He says it "has an enormous debt" dating back to the 2002 construction of its new church.

As a result, St. Pascal has had to cut staff in recent years and keep a tight watch on finances.

Byron attributes this struggle, in part, to shifting demographics on the East Side.

"The neighborhood is changing," he said. "It's substantially less Catholic than it was 20 years ago."

The word from the Archdiocese

According to Jim Accurso, spokesperson at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, "The merger is taking place to improve the overall health of (the Twin Cities archdiocese). This merger is part of the overall Strategic Plan for the archdiocese announced in 2010, which aimed at fostering a revitalized and sustainable local Church."

St. John's parishioners were informed the church would close in 2010. But they fought it.

"We put in all our official appeals," says Cosimini, "but no luck."

Cosimini went to St. John's grade school and has been attending Mass there his whole life.

"It was a big part of my life and many other people's," he said. "It's a sad occasion, and people are looking for answers."

Overall, Father Welzbacher, who just celebrated his 85th birthday, says the St. John's parish understands the rationale behind the church closing.

"I think everyone recognizes that it is a small congregation and in the manpower pinch we're kind of at the end of the line in terms of priority," he said. "We kind of the see the demographic handwriting on the wall."

An elegant building

St. John's is a big brick building that can seat around 750 people. It's has large stained glass windows, a soaring vaulted ceiling, an elaborate altar with intricate woodwork, and a gigantic pipe organ. It's adorned with many hand-carved statues and has intricately carved Stations of the Cross.

"It's a very elegant building," Welzbacher says.

Byron says the St. Pascal parish will likely sell the St. John's building off. Any money made in the sale of St. John's would go to St. Pascal's coffers.

Welzbacher thinks it might be a tough sell.

"The market for empty churches is not one of the hottest items on the real estate market," he says.

If they are able to sell it, Byron figures it will take a good chunk of time.

"I've been advised that whatever happens to the St. John's property may require at least many months to find a resolution," he said. "I'm told that there is a small market, but there is a market."

Accurso says the sale of Catholic churches is "very rare" - and he could only think of one instance of a church building sold in the Twin Cities.

When a place like St. John's is sold, "a lot of times the buildings are repurposed," he says.

In the meantime, Byron says there will be people renting out and living in the former rectory, and the church itself will be under the watch of a security service.

In regards to the phasing out of St. John's parish, Byron says he understands the sentiments of St. John's members.

"If it's your parish that's being merged and basically closed, you're going to feel like you're getting picked on," he said. "I know there's a lot of grief there."

He says St. Pascal plans to make a shrine of sorts dedicated to St. John's, which will include meaningful artifacts from the church itself. In addition to that, he says they'll be reaching out to St. John's parishioners in the form of a social event, and possibly a ritual event.

"There's a responsibility on our part to welcome the parishioners at St. John's," says Byron.

Sad to see it go

Despite coming to terms with the situation, St. John's parishioners seem above all else very sad to see their church close.

While East Sider Tom Smolik says he accepts the church's fate, he says the church should have been able to go on a while longer.

"I think that's what a lot of the parishioners feel; we could've continued without a burden to anyone. I say let it stay open until it absolutely was no longer able to keep open."

Welzbacher says that if it weren't for the merger, he would have liked to keep working at the church indefinitely.

Carol Plasch has been working as a secretary at St. John's for about a decade. She's not sure what she'll do next for employment -- she says she's past retirement age, but isn't sure if she can afford to live without a job.

But the loss of the church trumps her personal worries. "It's very sad," she says.

"Its nothing against the other church - it's just that we love this church.

"It is so very beautiful," she says.

As a last hurrah, St. John's will hold a big tent party in the parking lot on Sunday, June 30, after the final Mass.

The final Mass will be "an observance of the fact that this is the end of the story," Welzbacher says.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

The last mass

- The last mass at St. John’s is scheduled for Sunday, June 30 at 11 a.m. It will be a “solemn mass”

- The mass will feature an elaborate choir program

- After the mass there will be a big tent party in the parking lot, with food offered.

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