Teen charged with setting fire to Minnesota church

Published 8:16 am Thursday, June 21, 2018

ST. CLOUD— Authorities in central Minnesota said Wednesday that they’ve charged a teenager with setting fire to a 118-year-old Roman Catholic church in central Minnesota in 2016, racking up millions of dollars in damage and destroying a 19th-century alter that was built in Germany.

Stearns County prosecutors charged the teenager with felony first-degree arson after allegedly torching the interior of the Church of St. Mary in the city of Melrose. Further details about the case are not public because of the teenager’s age. Police said the suspect was 13-years-old at the time.

The Romanesque Revival-style church is a landmark in Melrose with its 130-foot (40-meter) tall towers that peek out over the town. Authorities said the fire badly damaged the sacristy area and destroyed the wooden altar, which was installed before the church’s dedication in 1899.

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Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson said he hopes solving the 22-month-old case will put the community at ease.

“Any unsolved crime produces a sense of unease in communities,” he said. “I know the arson of the church has left an indelible mark on the entire area.”

Parishioners have been at odds with each other and the Diocese of St. Cloud over whether they should restore the church, which has been closed since the March 2016 fire.

Supporters of fixing the church point to its historical importance. But opponents have said it would mean fixing problems around the church before the fire started, including accessibility for people with disabilities, lack of insulation and troubles integrating technology.

The Diocese of St. Cloud announced plans to build a new church last year.

A group of parishioners who started a nonprofit called Friends to Restore St. Mary’s are suing the diocese, hoping to spare their church from demolition.