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Andrew Krueger, Published August 05 2013

Minnesota church closed for decades to celebrate centennial

GREANEY, Minn. – 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. 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 region and – remembering his own difficult childhood – a home for disabled children in Duluth.

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

“This church was erected by Thomas Feigh in memory of his loving mother Mrs. Bridget Feigh who died in Ireland in 1839 A.D.”

Thomas Feigh

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 Duluth 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.

“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 obituary 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 Minnesota mining industry, he purchased a large parcel of lakeshore property at Two Harbors in about 1880.

He never married and never had children, though he remained close to nieces and nephews.

Perhaps looking to leave a legacy, 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 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.

The church is all tidied up for this weekend’s celebration. A 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 huge.”