A century ago, flames destroyed St. Mary’s Church in St. Cloud

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, on Aug. 25, 1920, fire tore through the Church of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, known simply as St. Mary’s, at the intersection of Ninth Avenue and St. Germain Street in St. Cloud.

The blaze, first noticed about 4 p.m., was burning through the church’s roof on the south end of the west wall. The fire department directed six lines of water at the church, and then at the parish house and St. Mary’s School, but flames were beyond control.

Fed by variable southwest winds, fire created an opening in the structure and the church’s timber roof fell in less than 20 minutes. In one hour, only brick walls remained, although the church’s interior continued to burn.

The steeple falls during the fire at the Church of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. (Photo courtesy of the Diocese of St. Cloud Archives)

“The steeple, rising over 100 feet heavenward, fell in a pyrotechnic display at 5:15 [p.m.] after flames had for many minutes loosened pieces of the metal sheathing, which were carried considerable distances by the fluctuating wind,” reported the St. Cloud Daily Times in its Aug. 26 edition. “The steeple clock ceased operating at ten minutes to the hour.”

More than 5,000 onlookers were endangered by falling timbers and burning shingles that ignited awnings on the north side of St. Germain Street, also hurled by the winds.

According to the Aug. 26, 1920, edition of the St. Cloud Daily Journal-Press, “St. Mary’s school was in immediate danger for an hour and a half and several times flames started to leap from the shingled sides of the third floor, burning from the heat thrown across from the burning church roof.”

The school, serving 650 pupils, had been repainted for the new school year. Fire, smoke and water damage to the school was estimated at $10,000 or more.

Bishop Joseph Busch estimated the total loss on both buildings at $75,000, with only about $45,000 insurance.

The fire-damaged church. (Photo courtesy of the Diocese of St. Cloud Archives)

Though the crowd had expected to hear the crash of the tower bells, Fire Chief Moosbrurger stated that, due to the mass of burning timbers at the church entrance, it was impossible to determine whether the bells had melted or had dropped to the ground through the church floor.

Only the church’s sacred vestments and vessels from the altar were saved.

Though rumors circulated, no clear cause for the fire was identified. A fault in electric wiring near the roof may have caused it, though the Public Service Company believed that improbable. A workman responsible for the church’s heating system feared he had done something amiss. The fire chief speculated that young boys, who often trapped pigeons in the tower and were spotted leaving the church shortly before the fire was noticed, might have been smoking cigarettes.

St. Mary’s Church, dedicated Dec. 10, 1865, had been built and staffed by the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville. Though once in a neighborhood of homes, it was now surrounded by a business and commercial section of the city.

As a result of the fire, they planned a new fireproof building, similar in design to the previous church’s Roman basilica, portico entrance and adjoining campanile, to be erected at the corner of Eighth Avenue and South First Street. Rebuilding began almost at once and was expected to cost $250,000; the parish worshiped in the basement church until the upper structure was completed, in 1931.

After lightning struck Holy Angels Pro Cathedra on Sept. 16, 1933, and demolished it, Bishop Joseph Busch requested that the Church of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception be designated as St. Mary’s Cathedral. In 1937, the Benedictines ceded it to the Diocese of St. Cloud.

Author: Nikki Rajala

Nikki Rajala is a writer/copy editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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