Minnesota’s Most Photogenic Churches

I discovered this delightful video last fall when the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul announced a photography contest in their newspaper, The Catholic Spirit.  When the  contest was completed, one had to dig through the diocese website to find the video; and now the video has apparently been completely removed from that website, and lives on in obscurity only on YouTube. That’s sad because the magnificent architecture on display here is one of the glories of our Catholic heritage in Minnesota.

I was happy to see that several of the top-placing photos were of churches only a few miles away from us in Northfield.  The champion, St. Columbkill, is a church I’ve never seen though it is only a few miles south and east of Cannon Falls.  Likewise, 2nd place St. John the Baptist is in Vermillion only a few miles east from where I’ve worked in Farmington for 20 years– and I’ve never seen that one either.  I attended an Extraordinary Form mass at 3rd place St. Mary’s in New Trier this past Holy Week.  That striking red church actually appears in the video at least four times.

It’s sad to think about but you can’t help wondering, if Northfield’s old St. Dominic church had not been demolished in 1985, would we have made the top three as well?  The mostly German-immigrant Catholics of this rural area took great pride in their workmanship around the turn of the century when most of these churches were built.  It’s heartening that some of their works are still standing to be appreciated by us today.  The twin towers concept reminiscent of the old St. Dominic church is seen in at least two of the churches in the video: St. Nicholas in Watkins, and Assumption church in St. Paul.  It’s ironic that the latter parish has as its pastor today the same priest, Rev. Stephen O’Gara, who oversaw the demolition of St. Dominic church a quarter century ago.

Now for the video.  First of all the music. Someone picked a great rousing instrumental piece that’s perfectly fitting for the subject. Is it Vivaldi? Bach? Someone help me out. The best part is that at about 3:12 you discover that it’s a live piece — because you hear a baby start crying.  Just like in church!  The baby keeps it up until the very end.

Other notes:

:25  St. Mary’s appears for the first time

:58 The new Divine Mercy in Faribault.  The first time I saw this church I became frightened because I though space aliens had landed in a cornfield. Later, at 3:59, St. Rita’s in Cottage Grove.  Who are they trying to kid? Is this an affirmative action quota for ugly modern churches?

1:20 Hazelwood church just a few miles north of hwy. 19 along I-35.  One of several wooden churches that made the list.

2:20 St. Mary’s again.

2:49 Assumption church in St. Paul.  One of the oldest most storied parishes in the state.

3:12 baby starts crying…

3:21 St. Mary’s

I’ve watched this video dozens of times and I never get sick of it.  Now I want to plan a road trip and see some of these beauties in person.

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Traditional Latin Mass offered in Miesville, MN

Celebrant Fr. Robert Altier raises the chalice at a Tridentine Mass at St. Joseph Church, March 2011


Want to do something radical? You can do something quite radical, in the liturgical sense, by attending a Tridentine Latin Mass, now being offered Sundays at 8:00 AM at the beautiful little St. Joseph church in Miesville, MN, a mere 22 miles from downtown Northfield.

Attending a mass like this will not get you fed to the lions, as was the case when the early Christians held their masses in catacombs when their religion was illegal during the days of the Roman emperors. Nor are you at risk of being drawn and quartered, as were the Catholic stalwarts during the reign of the Tudors, when the Mass was driven underground while being replaced by the new Anglican service.

But if you have the sense that a Tridentine Mass seems to be a bit underground, it’s probably because this kind of mass was indeed for the most part “outlawed” within the Catholic Church from 1970 until 2007, and its recent partial reinstatement by Pope Benedict XVI is met mostly by silence and tacit disapproval by most of the Catholic mainstream– especially in the more “liberal” dioceses like that of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Speaking of the English Reformation, it was said that the architects of the new Protestant faith under King Henry VIII knew that if they could change the way people prayed the liturgy, they could gradually change the religion. In that sense, traditionalist Catholics have complained that the changes of the Second Vatican Council — and its resultant “new mass” promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970 — have transformed the old Catholic faith into a new religion along the same Protestant lines — a new religion with a liturgy having more in common with that of the Lutherans, Baptists and Methodists down the street than with the traditional Catholic mass that had been passed down for centuries.


St. Joseph Church, Miesville, MN


In a previous blog post, I suggested that the demolition of the old St. Dominic church in Northfield in 1985 was part of a program of modernization carried out to eliminate the symbols of the old Faith and replace them with what was in effect to represent  a new secularized, “protestantized” version of Catholicism desired by many within the Church hierarchy. Likewise, you might say the old Traditional mass was also “demolished” along with many church buildings around the globe, to be replaced by a new mass more in tune with the fad of liberalism sweeping through the Church as well as the world at large.

I’m going to cut myself off at this point, because this post is in danger of running on forever like the last one did. So I’ll conclude with some observations of what to expect should one choose to attend this event: St. Joseph’s is a beautiful old style church, with lots of iconography including a stained glass window portraying the Church’s patron saint working as a carpenter while his foster son Jesus looks on. There are wood carved confession boxes alongside the pews, and a second priest hears confessions before and even during the first part of the mass. The parishioners tend to be those especially interested in this kind of mass, and many of them drive long distances each Sunday to attend. Many, but not all, of the female parishioners wear veils. The prayers are of course in Latin, but the readings, gospel and homily are in English. Communion is distributed on the tongue by the priest while parishioners kneel at the communion rail. On the 1st and 3rd Sundays of each month an exceptionally talented all-female choir sings a cappella from the choir loft.

[Directions to St. Joseph Church in Miesville: From Northfield take Hwy. 19 to Hwy. 56, then north to Hwy. 50 (Hampton).  Take Hwy 50 east, crossing the Hwy. 52 bridge. Drive through the town of New Trier, noting the beautiful red brick church of St. Mary’s on your left. Continue east on 50 to Miesville, where the church is in the center of town.]

Want to carpool to this mass? — send me an email.

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Recalling the demolition of St. Dominic church – 1985

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.


Mediocre structure?

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 — andrewkornkven@yahoo.com]

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Sandbox post

Here is a sandbox post

“…sandbox blogs are great fun”   –Benjamin Franklin

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