North Minneapolis church, badly damaged by fire, may now have a future

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Unlock the front door at Sacred Heart of Jesus Polish National Catholic Church and inside, you’ll see devastation as far as the eye can see.

"Firefighters were here and they were doing their job," said the Rev. John Kutek, the parish’s priest. "It’s very difficult to watch your own church burning and do nothing."

The 107-year-old sanctuary is now a gutted shell after a massive fire broke out there the evening of April 19.

Church members initially hoped to save the historical building but Minneapolis city inspectors have ordered it demolished for public safety reasons.

"It’s very sad that we want to demolish [the] church," Kutek said. "A church that we loved and we are still loving. But this is the reality. We have to face it."

In the back of the church is a changing room, now blackened and charred. Kutek believes someone may have set fire to his vestments, his ceremonial robes.

"The door in the back, it looked like somebody had broken in," said Paula Quinn, the church secretary and a 10-year member of the parish. "There weren’t any electrical outlets or anything like that, and the heat of the fire indicated it was arson."

Kutek said no one was supposed to be in the church when those flames broke out. He suspects marks on one door indicate it was forced open.

"Looks like somebody was in because there were even people passing by and they saw that door was open," Kutek noted.

A Minneapolis Fire Department spokesperson says the cause of the blaze is "undetermined at this point."

What is clear, though, is the ferocity of the fire, which forced firefighters to battle it from the exterior.

Flames shot through some of the windows, the heat buckling the stained glass. Even a wooden cross, mounted on the church front, was set ablaze.

Onlookers stared in disbelief, as firefighters poured hundreds of gallons of water onto the burning building.

"It’s just heartbreaking," said longtime church member Katherine Hogan. "It’s so sad."

After the fire was out, church members were able to go in and save a number of sacred relics, moving them to an assembly hall next door.

"The fact that they did go in, at their own risk to save what we could save for future use, if and where we rebuild, it’s just a beautiful testament to their commitment to the church," Quinn said.

In recent weeks, the congregation’s biggest challenge was to raise $75,000 for demolition fees.

A recent Polish festival — attended by 1,200 people, Kutek says — raised about $50,000. Then, an anonymous donor pitched in another $50,000. Plus, miscellaneous donors added another $10,000.

The total is enough money not only for the demolition but also some seed money for the future.

"Just the outpouring of the people that came, people that have been associated with the church previously, their parents have been married here," Quinn said. "People are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the church alive and to keep the spirit."

Weddings, first communions, baptisms, funerals: All part of the circle of life in this religious community for more than a century.

For now, the assembly hall is the worship space for the 40-member congregation.

Kutek says the church is weighing its options — remodeling the assembly hall into a chapel, or perhaps rebuild a small church on the original site.

"That fire was a curse and a blessing," Kutek exclaimed. "A curse because we lost our church and blessing in that people came together, and not only parishioners but the whole community. All of Minneapolis."

"Just a confirmation of what we believe as Christians, that there is good. And good can overcome evil," Quinn added.

Kutek says he’s not sure what the future will bring. But, he says, after everything that’s happened, he has hope.

"From any things that which is in this world, God is going to bring something beautiful," Kutek said, smiling. "We will resurrect from the ashes, and we will live. We have been here for 107 years, and we will still be here. We are not giving up."