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John Lundy, Published September 02 2013

Duluth preservationists hope for old church's salvation

DULUTH, Minn. – A historic Duluth church building is listed on a website as “available for salvage destruction.”

St. Peter’s Church, which was closed in late 2010, is listed on the Minneapolis Craigslist, along with a photo of the building’s interior.

But the listing doesn’t mean the building’s fate is sealed, said officials of the Diocese of Duluth, which owns it.

“A variety of options are still on the table, including demolition or sale,” Kyle Eller, a spokesman for the diocese, said in an email.

Built of stone from Duluth’s hillside in 1926, the church on West Third Street in the Observation Hill neighborhood was “the last of the ethnic parishes in Duluth,” said local historian Tony Dierckins.

It served the city’s Italian community.

“The Italians and other nationalities were not welcomed into other churches,” said Robin Mainella, of Duluth, whose great-grandparents were among the first Italian immigrants in Duluth.

So, the Italian community bought a vacant church in 1905 and, when they outgrew that, began plans for a church of their own, with stonemasons from their community building the structure.

Mainella has been leading a campaign to have the building named a local heritage preservation landmark, arguing its importance to the history of Italians in Duluth.

David Woodward, chairman of the Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission, agrees.

“It’s a tragedy to lose a structure ... that is central to Duluth’s history and especially Italian-Americans’ history,” Woodward said.

Yet, the commission hasn’t nominated the building to be a heritage preservation landmark, which would prevent the diocese from having it destroyed. Woodward said the diocese has rejected three requests to meet with the commission and has threatened legal action against him and the city if there’s a move to make the building a landmark.

Eller disputed that, saying that diocesan Bishop Paul Sirba met with commission members in April 2012. Regarding legal matters, Eller said, the diocese merely presented its understanding that, under the law, only the owner of property can request heritage designation.

Woodward said he has researched the law and disagrees with the diocese. But it’s a moot point, he said, because it’s the City Council that ultimately decides on landmark status, and he’s certain the council wouldn’t do that without diocesan support.

But City Councillor Sharla Gardner, whose district includes the building, said she would attach a lot of weight to a Heritage Preservation Commission nomination.

“I don’t know that it necessarily is up to the seller,” Gardner said. “Sometimes they just want to do what is expeditious and not what would preserve the neighborhood.”

Eller said that, while the bishop has the ultimate oversight, the primary responsibility for St. Peter’s belongs to a specific parish, St. Mary Star of the Sea Church. That parish, not the diocese, placed the ad in Craigslist, he said.

The Rev. John Petrich, pastor of that parish, said the purpose of the ad was simply to try to determine a price for demolishing the building. He agreed with Eller that nothing has been decided.

But Petrich questioned the effort to preserve the building.

“It hasn’t even been around for a hundred years,” Petrich said. “It has no historical value other than some emotional value that a few people may have.”

But Woodward said the church played a significant role in Duluth’s history.

“The Italian American Club was created in the basement of that church as a way to fight off the growing Ku Klux Klan presence in the city,” Woodward said.

Klan meetings in Duluth were drawing as many as 5,000 to 6,000 people, he said.

Their campaign locally was mainly against Catholics and Eastern Europeans, and the Italian American Club led the way in fighting back.

Dierckins, an author who writes the Zenith City Online blog on local history, listed the church in May as one of the city’s five most-endangered buildings.

He would be saddened by the loss of St. Peter’s, Dierckins said, because of its connection to the city’s Italian heritage and because it exemplifies a time when every language group had its own church.