Old church demolition saddens, improves Catholic community in Virginia, Minn.

Those who have the strongest emotional ties to St. John's Catholic Church were saddened to see the piece of history demolished recently in Virginia.

"I cried all day," said 94-year-old Kathleen Kishel to Mesabi Daily News. She had hoped, she said, that her funeral could one day be held in the church rooted in the early-1900s, known for its beautiful stained glass windows and designated as a historic place.

Eighty-eight-year-old Val Bazzani, who was baptized at the church, said it was "heart-wrenching" to see it go down. He had stood at the site, taking photos as heavy machinery razed the structure, baring to the outdoors the choir loft where he had sung for years.

But Bazzani's many decades on Earth have taught him that "all old things" eventually become a memory in time, he said recently, sharing recollections of the now-gone church and looking ahead to what he sees as a positive future for the building's footprint.

Jean Virant, principal of the adjacent Marquette Catholic School, also spoke emotionally recently at the school of her family's connection to St. John's, beginning with her grandparents who had worshipped at the church.

While it was difficult to see the structure torn down, Virant said, she has found "great solace" in knowing her grandparents would approve of future plans for the site.

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"My grandparents would love to know children will be playing there," including their heirs, she said.

"From death comes resurrected life," said the Rev. Father Brandon Moravitz, pastor of Holy Spirit, built in the 1970s adjacent to St. John's and now the community's remaining operating Catholic church.

Following more than four years of discussions that involved the whole parish and diocese, it was decided, said the priest, that the space could better serve the growing needs of the parish and school in other ways.

"We are landlocked here," he said. "We need more parking and a place for the kids to run and play."

During the past five years, "only two or three weddings" were held at St. John's, and not much else, Moravitz said. It was simply getting too expensive to heat and sustain the nearly century-year-old church building.

During the next 10 years, "about $1 million will be saved in heating and maintenance costs" now that the structure is no longer here, he said.

Moravitz said he was "saddened" to see the church go, but he echoed the sentiments of parishioner Alyson Bielke, who said: "The presence of Jesus is not in the building. It's in the community."

So, while Marquette's elementary school children were on Christmas break, St. John's was leveled — leading the way for the birth of the parish and school's future.

But not before all of the church's art and sacred items were reverently removed to be preserved and re-used, Moravitz said.

"Let us remember the past with gratitude, live the present with enthusiasm, and look forward to the future with confidence." The quote from the late Pope St. John Paul II is one of Moravitz's favorites.

And it is most fitting for St. John's, he said. Even more fitting because it was said by a Polish pope, and St. John's originated as a Polish-affiliation church.

"I look to the past with so much gratitude," Moravitz said, talking of the great sacrifices of the Iron Range settlers who first established the area's churches.

"Faith was so ingrained in them," Moravitz said. "It was the most important thing in their lives."

Virginia's Polish immigrants first worshipped at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, which was made up of various nationalities and was located near where Holy Spirit now stands. But in December 1904, the Polish immigrants expressed a desire to worship the manner of their forefathers and in their own language and purchased lots for the construction of a church.

The parish was incorporated in January 1905 and was blessed by the bishop on June 24, 1905, on the feast of St. John the Baptist, which became the church's original full name.

In 1924, the wood frame building was replaced with the brick structure, constructed in traditional Polish design that remained until just recently.

"People gave everything to it," Moravitz said of the church. The cornerstone was preserved during demolition, and documents, including some written in Polish, and local newspaper clippings from 1924 about the church's dedication, were inside.

"So many people had family experiences and experiences of faith" inside St. John's church, said the priest.

"I'm so grateful to those who sacrificed so much. But we need to look to the future with confidence," he said.

St. John's was not the first church to come down. Our Lady of Lourdes, located on the same block as St. John's, was demolished in the 1970s, and many of its parishioners joined Holy Spirit, which was dedicated in 1977.

Sacred Heart Church of Virginia, created by Italian immigrants on the Northside of Virginia, was another Catholic church in the community. And later, Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Mountain Iron was built.

Eventually, however, the Sacred Heart churches merged with Holy Spirit.

"At one time there were six to seven priests in Virginia, Minn.," Moravitz said. "For the first time, we only have one priest." And, because "the dynamics have changed in the last 100 years," transitions are inevitable, he said.

Holy Spirit "has grown exponentially" during the past handful of years, said the priest. "There are more weddings, more baptisms, more members, and greater enrollment at the school."

The church currently has 1,100 registered households, he said. Many young families have joined the church, which has seen an increase in converts to Catholicism. Additionally, "giving was up 12 percent in the past year."

"If you walk into a 10 a.m. Mass on a Sunday. There is a vibrancy," said the pastor. And many families "stick around" after the services to socialize.

Marquette currently has 100 kindergarten to sixth grade students, 26 pre-kindergarten students, and so many children in first grade that two sections were created. "There has been a slow, steady growth" with about 20 additional students during the past five years, said the principal.

Because of that growth in the parish and school — and to prepare for future growth — it was necessary to makes some changes in the present and to plan ahead for years to come, Moravitz said. Yet, he said, "there is a sadness in it."

But "everything is temporary," when it comes to such things as church structures, he noted. "The bedrock of faith is the people, not the buildings. The thing that lasts is the faith."

A group had been formed leading up to the demolition to try to save the church, and a petition was signed by more than 200 people.

However, Holy Spirit parishioners and those with the closest ties to St. John's were not the ones opposing its demolition, Moravitz emphasized. "The decision was the culmination of four and a half years of meetings, with the whole parish involved," as well as the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Duluth. "It was not a rash decision."

The priest said he understands the outcry from those who did not want to see the historic building razed. "It saddens me to have to do these things. But as a community we need to be strong and unified rather than divided over a building."

The stained glass in the church was professionally removed from St. John's, the bell and cornerstone were saved, and "everything sacred has been stored and preserved for future projects," which include a historic St. John's display in the Holy Spirit social hall, Moravitz said.

The back alter was given to a Catholic church in Two Harbors and the side alters went to Resurrection Catholic Church in Eveleth, he said.

"Three or four retired ladies from our parish have spent hundreds of hours restoring the beautiful Stations of the Cross from St. John's," he added. "They may be the most beautiful stations in the diocese. We are planning to incorporate those beautiful stations into Holy Spirit church this lent as a way to keep the great legacy of St. John's beauty moving forward for future generations."

"It's hard to see a piece of history go," Virant said. "But I'm so happy to know we will have a beautiful area for our children to play — a nice green area for the kids to lay and look up at the sky, to sit on the grass, to play kickball and to run around" without the threat of, quite literally, she said, running into a building.

The Marquette principal noted that the school children have only had a very small playground and a small roped-off area of the parking lot to play at recess.

The new space will offer physical education opportunities, also, and one teacher is talking about starting a school garden, she said. "It will be a safe environment for the kids. They need space to run. It prepares them for learning, so they can sit still when they need to be still."

Virant's enthusiasm for the new use of the space does not negate her regret for the end of the St. John's era.

"The parish was a very important part of my life," said Variant, who was baptized there. "I had my first communion there." And she fondly remembers the church's Polish priest, the Rev. Casimir Cieslewicz, who served at St. John's from 1923 to 1966.

Virant's grandparents, Joseph and Florence Szymanski, who were Polish immigrants, attended the church after settling in Virginia, as did their five children.

Her own four children, ages 22 to 36, and her brothers' kids, attended Marquette and grew up admiring the neighboring historic church, as well.

The principal, who previously taught art at Marquette, would take the students over to St. John's to look at the beautiful pieces inside. "I loved the artwork in that church."

One day, she said, while looking at the stained glass windows with the youngsters, Virant happened to glance over a one of the pews, and there she saw the bronze nameplate bearing her grandfather's name.

Before the church was torn down, parishioners were able to claim the pews; most made donations to take them, and Virant now has "that piece of history."

"I have very cherished, happy memories," of St. John's. But "I'm looking forward to opening the side doors, which I call 'the St. John's doors,' and saying (to the students), 'Go out and run!'"

Bazzani, longtime director of the funeral choir, was a member of the main choir when Masses were held at St. John's. It was a "homey-feeling" church, he said.

Kishel, who sings in the funeral choir, agreed. She originally attended Our Lady of Lourdes before joining St. John's. And immediately, she said, "you felt like you belonged."

The Holy Spirit parishioners said they hated to see St. John's go. "It was a tugging on the heartstrings," Bazzani said. But "you can't keep maintaining and heating a building like that," especially when it is rarely used.

"The brick was starting to come loose around the steeple," requiring costly "muriatic acid and tuck work" repairs, said Bazzani, who was assistant city engineer in Virginia in the 1960s to 1980s.

And ultimately, Bazzani said he is happy that the children now have an expanded and safe place to play.

Bielke said she "has been involved in the Virginia Catholic community for many years, but my strongest affinity is with the school."

Four generations of her family have attended Marquette Catholic School, which celebrated its centennial in 2017. Her grandmother went to the school, as did her mom, Sue Harvey, who has taught second grade at Marquette for 40 years.

"I went there and all my children have gone there." Three are now high schoolers, and Bielke currently has a kindergartner and third and sixth graders at Marquette.

"Even when I was younger, St. John's was not being used regularly," she said. "The way I look at it is the community is changing and moving forward. It's a sad thing to lose a piece of history. But it made sense because the church was really no longer being used."

The space for a playground was needed, she said, because of the growth of the school. "It's hard for people to see that, especially when they have an attachment. But it was a necessity to keep up with the growth."

Marquette students attend a Children's Mass each Wednesday at Holy Spirit, Virant said. "They are sponges. They have that desire to love the Lord."

The parish had to do was right for the kids, she said.

Moravitz said the parish will be working on more detailed plans for the footprint of St. John's, and work on the space is expected to begin when the weather warms.

"We needed to set up for the growth" of the parish and school, he said. And to confidently "set the foundation" for the future.