Was this 1914-built church destroyed because it was…… too catholic?
One of the large photographs hanging on the walls of the Northfield Historical Society is of the Scriver building itself: its north facing side, as shot by a photographer facing to the south. If you look closely, in the windows of the building are the reflections of two elegant towers –the twin bell towers of the old St. Dominic Church building that stood about a half a mile away to the northwest. These ghostly reflections in an old photograph seem to be about the only reminder we have of the beautiful red brick church, or of the gut-wrenching debate that surrounded the decision to demolish the church 25 years ago, or of the futile struggle to save the church by a group of parishioners and residents who called themselves Save St. Dominics.
I had never seen the old church, or even photographs of it, and had only heard a few vague references to the debate when I moved to Northfield in 1992. It seems the community wants to forget the events culminated in the church meeting the wrecking ball in the fall of 1985. But the arguments on both sides — as well as a riveting description of the political struggle that ensued when the city of Northfield was dragged into the contest — are well preserved in microfilm at the local library. And with the help of the Northfield Historical Society, I was able to get some photographs that perhaps explain why so many were so attached to the old church building.
[All Photos of the Old Church Courtesy of the Northfield Historical Society]
“Don’t destroy St. Dominic’s Church just to build a new, modern one! Instead let’s improve our existing church and preserve its stately beauty for future generations…………. The twin towers of St. Dominic’s have been part of this City of Northfield’s skyline for more than 70 years. A modern church could never top that.”
-letter to the Northfield News 9/21/85
“…St. Dominic’s is one to be preserved because the building reflects membership in a 2,000-year-old tradition. It has the shape of the cross and a facade which is decidedly Italian, recalling the Roman association. The church bell rings three times daily in honor of the Incarnation. The Angelus, a ringing bell in triple stroke, is observed throughout Christendom. The point is obvious without laboring examples: the red brick, Romanesque church is a symbol, one of compelling power, I would suggest, of what it means to be Roman Catholic.”
–from an opinion piece by Phil Niles, Northfield News 6/27/85
“St. Dominic’s is a sound, quality-built, well-located building. The duplication of what is there would cost far more than what is being proposed in a modern type building. If maintained, it very possibly will last longer than the new one would…… The super-thick walls are durable. The ornate brick work represents the first class workmanship of its era, reflecting the pride of the workman, the idea of the designer, the dedication of the parishioners who paid for the ornate work. The roof line and towers are visible at distant locations, their distinctive character identifying St. Dominic’s.”
–letter to the Northfield News 2/7/85
“In the interior of the church, I decided I was going to look beyond the peeling paint and crumbling plaster, for these are superficial things. Buckets of plaster and paint can take care of that. I saw arches, beautiful curving, graceful arches. I saw windows, round windows and windows with arch-like structures near the top. I visualized the windows with new wood, possibly with colored panes………Are we blinded by superficial appearance and have not seen the great treasure we have? The materials of the church, brick, oak, marble, etc., are ageless. They will endure many centuries of use. The one thing that can destroy them is the ignorance and apathy of man.”
– letter to Northfield News 1/10/85
“St. Dominic’s Church is a very visible sign of the sacrifices, labor and love of its early members (some who were ancestors of present-day members) who, I’m sure, never dreamed on the day they attended the dedication that some future generation would contemplate tearing down their beautiful structure when it is still usable.”
– letter to Northfield News 4/25/85
“Who were the craftsmen that actually connected the bricks and mortar together to bring the dream into existence? We do know that they were very talented and probably the same craftsmanship could not be found to exist today, a lost art.”
– –letter to the Northfield News 6/6/85
The parish had been discussing the possiblities of renovation for several years, when, suddenly, the parish council and parish priest Fr. Stephen O’Gara decided to demolish and rebuild. The decision was then presented to a “shocked” congregation (and community) as a done deal that would not be reversed or even discussed.
“Upon researching the parish council minutes and gathering responses, I have documented that the parish moved from an intense parish effort toward renovation from April 1982 to September 1983, to a full-scale new building direction by October 27, 1983…….
“When the decision was announced the following Sunday, I and many other active parishioners were shocked. No second architectural opinion was considered. No referendum was called for. No historical research or presentation was given.”
- letter to Northfield News 6/27/85
Among the reasons given for constructing a new church were that present seating capacity was too small, that the old church lacked amenities such as handicap access and an adequate social area, and, most importantly, that a new church was needed to satisfy the requirements of what was called the “new liturgy.” Save St. Dominics members countered that these problems could be resolved with renovation.
At least one community member noted the symbolic differences between the church to be destroyed and the new one proposed:
“According to Karl Marx, religion directs the eyes of the masses toward a heavenly afterlife and away from creating a heaven on earth. Our Catholic churches have always borne an aura of heaven, a mystique, mainly the tabernacle, the altar, statues, stations of the cross, vigil lights, a pipe organ and inspiring music – a foretaste of heaven so to speak. There is a tendency in new church buildings to remove the mystery, to make them secular.”
– letter to the Northfield News 2/21/85
“We now fear that we will be remembered as the generation who tore down a proud, beautiful, majestic landmark. Our legacy will be a mediocre structure and an enormous debt.”
– from a letter to parishioners from Save St. Dominics
The old church faced west on Linden Street, as does the new one. The old church was actually demolished to make room for the present parking lot. The new church was built on what was once a section of West First Street.
The present church/“mediocre structure”?
The debate moved to the realm of local politics when Northfield’s city council designated the church a local heritage site and revoked a demolition permit that had earlier been granted. The city, however, did not have the money to purchase the old church. Under the threat of being sued by the church’s lawyers, the city council eventually buckled and voted to allow a demolition at a raucous meeting in July, 1985. We can imagine the tension and drama as parish priest O’Gara took the stage to criticize the council for sticking its nose into a church dispute. When the lone council member to vote against granting the permit suggested more time was needed, she was met with “loud protests” and boos from some audience members, according to a Northfield News story. Not recorded in the story, but easy to imagine nonetheless, is the sinking feeling of those present who wanted to preserve as they began to realize the demolition would not be stopped and the old church’s days were numbered.
Why was the the old St. Dominic’s destroyed?
Looking back on these events through the lense of a quarter-century history, we might be able to see more clearly the true reasons a beautiful, usable church was demolished in favor of an expensive new one. We see first that these events played themselves out repeatedly at Catholic parishes throughout the country, and perhaps around the world, where other “old” churches were replaced with new ones that departed radically from the proud architectural style that had been a part of the Church’s tradition for many centuries.
Sacred Heart church (top) was one of three Faribault churches vacated in favor of the new Divine Mercy church built in 2009.
It becomes obvious that beyond the usual practical considerations of space and building wear-and-tear was an effort that author Michael S. Rose calls a “theological agenda” – an agenda to re-form the Catholic by replacing an old set of symbols with a new one. According to that agenda, then, the old churches had to go not because of what they were, but because of what they represented– which was, of course, the traditional Catholic Church. What is most difficult to understand and accept is that this agenda was carried out not by outsiders but by clergy from within the Church itself.
The main argument used in favor of replacing the old St. Dominic church was that it did not fit the needs of “the new liturgy,” and central to this new liturgy was the ideal of “active participation” of the congregation. But was the concept of active participation really a mandate of the Church, and did it really justify the drastic action of destroying old churches and building new ones?
“Many of the changes in church architecture, for instance, were said to be predicated on [Vatican II document] Sacrosanctum Concilium’s idea of promoting “active participation” in the liturgy. In fact many beautiful churches were destroyed in the name of active participation; many uninspiring and ugly edifices were erected under the same pretense. In older churches, under the pretense of fostering active participation, the altars were often moved into the midst of the people, causing the disfigurement of their former sanctuaries. In the name of active participation, statues, tabernacle, high altars with beautiful reredos structures, communion rails, baldacchinos, and aisle shrines were removed; murals and mosaics were whitewashed or covered with paneling — all because these things were said to distract people from active participation in the Mass. This line of reasoning reached the height of absurdity when, a few years later, pews were ripped out. They too, were a kind of distraction, and all that kneeling was said to be misplaced and impeded active participation — the ideal supposedly set forth by the Second Vatican Council. Active participation, however, was simply an abused concept. It was used to justify some of the radical theories that are still being promoted widely at the dawn of the twenty-first century.”
—- from Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces – and How We Can Change Them Back Again
In other words, like bell-bottom jeans and disco, the new liturgy, with its active participation, was a fad. However, with the fad now having run its course, the churches that represented the fad remain, while the traditional churches of the old style are gone forever.
I miss the old St. Dominic church, even though I never saw it. I consider it a tragedy that it was demolished and replaced by a church that, in my opinion, doesn’t do justice to the architectural standards associated with the Catholic tradition. But what makes it even more of a tragedy is that the event has been forgotten, perhaps intentionally, as if it is understood by all that a mistake was made. Some might ask, why bring it up, why dwell on something that happened so long ago. In reply I would say that though the church is gone, the issues surrounding its demise remain, and replay themselves in the present day — and not just in the Catholic church. I think we should remember what happened to the church, because by discussing it we may be able to finally agree that its destruction was a mistake, and when we have realized that, we can perhaps begin to conceive of a new church that will do justice to the old one that is gone forever.
[Postscript: I am interested in photos of the old church. Please contact me if you have some you'd like to share -- email@example.com]