At 100, Greaney church is memorial to homesteaders

St. Bridget's Catholic Church
In a July 31, 2013, photo St. Bridget's Catholic Church stands in Greaney, Minn. The church was built thanks to money donated by mining millionaire Thomas Feigh a century ago. The church has been closed for about 30 years but was holding a special Mass on Saturday, Aug. 10, to celebrate its centennial.
AP Photo/Duluth News Tribune, Andrew Krueger

By ANDREW KRUEGER, Duluth News Tribune

GREANEY, Minn. (AP) -- For a century, the steeple of St. Bridget's Catholic Church has stood sentinel over the fields in this corner of northern St. Louis County.

Although the church closed 30 years ago, the building still is lovingly tended by a small, dedicated group of former parishioners, the Duluth News Tribune reported. As the population of Greaney has dwindled, as other local landmarks have collapsed or burned or otherwise disappeared, St. Bridget's has remained as a memorial to the Slovenian immigrants who settled the community -- and to Thomas Feigh, an Irish immigrant with a remarkable life story who donated the money to build the church.

"The community was strong enough" to save the building after the church closed in 1983, said Dennis Udovich, one of the local residents who watch over the building. "There was a good group who said, 'Hey, we want to maintain it.' Roots are really deep here. Religion was really important to the early homesteaders."

As it was to Feigh, who -- though physically disabled from birth -- made a fortune during Minnesota's iron mining boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s. In his final years he started giving the money away, paying to build Catholic churches in the Northland and -- remembering his own difficult childhood -- a home for disabled children in Duluth.

Greaney residents past and present planned to worship Saturday at St. Bridget's for the first time since 2006, with a special polka Mass to honor the building's centennial, and gathering on the church steps along County Highway 75, a few feet from a cornerstone that reads:

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"This church has been erected by Thomas Feigh in memory of his loving mother Mrs. Bridget Feigh who died in Ireland in 1839 A.D."

Feigh was born in Ireland in 1826 with a clubfoot. "He was granted only a meager education and skilled medical care was denied him," read his obituary in the News Tribune in 1918.

In his long life Feigh never forgot that lack of therapy that -- had it taken place -- may have afforded him more mobility.

After losing his mother while in his early teens, Feigh left Ireland at age 16, possibly following some of his siblings across the Atlantic, according to a biographical article that ran in Ireland's Old Limerick Journal in 1993.

Among other stops, he worked as a cobbler in Chicago, his obituary recounts. In the 1850s, when copper mining started to boom in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Feigh decided to take his business north. If the story repeated in his obituary is to be believed, he found a novel way of getting there.

Dennis Udovich
Dennis Udovich, trustee of St. Bridget's Catholic Church in Greaney, Minn., talks about the interior of the church on July 31, 2013. The church is celebrating its centennial with a special polka Mass on Saturday, Aug. 10. The church closed 30 years ago, but the building still is lovingly tended by a small group of former parishioners.
AP Photo/Duluth News Tribune, Andrew Krueger

"In that day northern Michigan was not supplied with railroads, the closest point touched being Appleton (Wis.), a full 200 miles" from the U.P. mines, Feigh's obit reported. "Undaunted, he hired Lukie Welsh to carry him to the boom country. A novel saddle was constructed which Welsh wore on his shoulders and in which Feigh rode in state. The trip was necessarily made on snowshoes, and required two full weeks, Welsh receiving $10 a day pay."

Later in the 19th century, Feigh's attention moved across Lake Superior to Two Harbors, and he delved into land speculation.

Sensing an opportunity with the developing mining industry and growth in northern Minnesota, he purchased a large parcel of lakeshore property at Two Harbors in about 1880 -- and then despite many offers stubbornly refused to develop or sell the choice land, with the exception of a lot he sold to the federal government in 1890 to build the Two Harbors lighthouse that still stands. Feigh's obstinance -- perhaps waiting to gain the best possible price -- hampered the community's development, the News Tribune reported.

"Because of Mr. Feigh's refusal to either plat or sell, Two Harbors has, since its existence, been practically shut out from the lake," the paper reported in 1899. "Many covetous eyes have been cast toward the Feigh property, but to no avail."

But it was in 1899 that Feigh finally found a deal he liked, and he sold the property for a tidy profit.

He also was ahead of the curve on the Cuyuna Iron Range, buying 320 acres of land near Brainerd for $10 an acre.

"At that time there were no iron mines in the locality, and it was with difficulty that Feigh was able to induce anyone to drill the land in the hope of finding ore," Feigh's obituary reported.

But eventually drill they did -- and the land produced millions of tons of ore and a wealth of mining royalties for Feigh. Against all odds, the immigrant from Ireland was a millionaire.

By that time Feigh was an old man. He never married and never had children, though he remained close to nieces and nephews. Perhaps looking to leave a legacy in his adopted home, in 1913 Feigh -- who had been known for quiet contributions to Catholic churches and hospitals -- stepped forward with a major gift: $60,000 for the Duluth Diocese.

Half was to go toward construction of a hospital for children with physical disabilities and tuberculosis. The Thomas Feigh Hospital for Crippled Children eventually was built at what is now Eighth Avenue East and Plum Street in Duluth.

"There are many children of all nationalities and religions whose crippled condition could be cured if taken in time," Feigh told the News Tribune at the time. "My purpose in making this donation is to give these children an opportunity of securing treatment free of charge so that they may enjoy life by being relieved of deformities."

The other half was allocated for the construction, in full or in part, of three churches: St. Elizabeth's in New Duluth, St. Thomas Aquinas in International Falls and St. Bridget's in Greaney.

In the case of St. Bridget's, church tradition holds that Feigh was friends with fellow Irishman Pat Greaney, an early homesteader and namesake of the community -- so that may be why Feigh's money ended up there. Nora Greaney, Pat's sister, donated the land for the church and cemetery.

The church opened later in 1913, and from the start was a focal point of the largely Slovenian, deeply religious community. Sundays were something the farm families looked forward to all week.

"No one ran to the car (after Sunday Mass)," said Udovich, the church caretaker, who was baptized and later married at St. Bridget's. "Everyone gathered outside on the steps. Even today (at the church in Orr), the Greaney people still gather outside the church and talk."

Thomas Feigh died in Chicago in October 1918 at age 92. Three of the four buildings he donated in the Northland survive today.

St. Thomas Aquinas still stands in International Falls, an impressive edifice of blue granite still serving the parish.

The St. Elizabeth's building that Feigh donated in New Duluth was torn down in 1957 after the congregation outgrew the tiny structure. The parish is active today, but in a new church building.

The hilltop Thomas Feigh Hospital for Crippled Children had a troubled existence, with delays in opening and difficulties in operation. It did finally open for a short time, but in December 1919 the News Tribune reported that the Benedictine sisters had abandoned it because of its inaccessibility and difficulties in heating the building.

In the 1920s, the Corpus Christi Carmelite Sisters took up residence in the former hospital and opened the St. Mary Magdalen Home for delinquent girls and young, unmarried mothers and their babies. It operated until 1970, according to a history published in the Hillsider in 2005. It then was home to the Montessori School of Duluth and Lakeview Christian Academy before Summit School -- an independent preschool and the current tenant -- opened in 1994.

While the building has been remodeled and expanded over the years, the Feigh Hospital of the 1910s is clearly recognizable as the Summit School of today.

And then there's St. Bridget's in Greaney, all tidied up for this weekend's celebration. The dedicated crew of locals have donated their time to maintain the building that Thomas Feigh donated to Greaney a century ago.

"It's a small community but there's still people who have roots here, who want to preserve it," Udovich said. "People respect it, and that's the key."