Fire broke out in the early hours of Dec. 2 at St. Mary’s Mission Church on the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, completely destroying the 159-year-old structure and leaving behind a trail of tearful mourners.
“Red Lake people know how to mourn because they have so many deaths and tragedies here,” said Father Jerry Rogers, a priest of the Diocese of Crookston who serves St. Mary’s church and school.
“They are going to need time to grieve. For them, it’s like the death of an elder. The church was a source of wisdom for over 100 years and it was the house of wisdom in the sense that wisdom, for us as Catholics, is Jesus.”
The mission has many ties to the St. Cloud Diocese, extending at least as far back as 1888, when two Benedictine sisters from St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph helped found St. Mary’s Mission School to serve the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe people. Since then, numerous Benedictine religious have served on the reservation as well as many youth and volunteers from the diocese.
Karen Beaulieu, a lifelong member of the mission church, said shock and sadness were among her first emotions, followed by an inventory of thoughts about the irreplaceable treasures that were lost. Specifically, she recalled gifts from elders of the community (who are now deceased) and artwork created by Benedictine Brother Placid Stuckenschneider of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville. Brother Placid, who died in 2007, taught shop and catechetics at St. Mary’s Mission School from 1951-56.
Father Rogers invited the Benedictine communities to attend Mass Dec. 10 in St. Mary’s school gym.
“The building might be gone, but the hospitality and the spirituality of the Benedictines is very much alive and that’s our heritage. I wanted them to be here to remind them that there is a connection to the past, but now we look to affirm the present and move forward,” he said.
Beaulieu was moved when Benedictine Fathers Meinrad Dinndorf and Julius Beckermann, who also served at Red Lake, concelebrated Mass with Father Rogers in the gym. Benedictine Sisters Philip Zimmer, Ruth Ann Schneider, Owen Lindblad and Mary Lou Carlson also attended the Mass and a lunch that followed.
“It was so nice to have them all back home,” Beaulieu said.
Sister Philip, who has been working in the physical plant at St. Benedict’s Monastery since her retirement from teaching, taught at the mission school for 17 years.
As she traveled to Red Lake on Dec. 10, she anticipated that there would be grieving and sadness from the people who, she said, are very close to her heart.
“The church has been not only an icon for the people of St. Mary’s but for the entire reservation,” she said. “They are very resilient people. They will take it one day at a time. That’s something I learned from them — to be present in the moment. They will grieve what they have lost and yet hope rises out of the ashes.”
Sister parish relationship
Deacon Mark and Mary Beth Barder both attended Bemidji State University, where they met and got engaged. They met Father Rogers while attending the marriage course at the Newman Center there.
“Since then, it’s been a relationship that has stuck,” Deacon Barder said. “It’s been like a family relationship. We’ve known each other over 40 years. I’ve always admired him. I’ve always challenged him. He’s taken my opinion or left it. He baptized our son, he attended our 25th wedding anniversary party, he visited me in the hospital.”
So when the Barders’ parish, Christ Our Light in Princeton and Zimmerman, was working to create a social concerns committee, Deacon Barder approached Father Rogers about establishing a sister parish partnership between Christ Our Light and St. Mary’s Mission Church.
“He said it would be great, but he didn’t want it to be about money. He didn’t want it to be about a rich parish helping a poor parish. He wanted it to be all about relationship, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do ever since,” Deacon Barder said.
Each month, a bus from Christ Our Light coordinated by Stacy Manning travels to Red Lake where they celebrate Mass together and enjoy a meal and fellowship. The youth of Christ Our Light also spend time there during Holy Week and in the summers. From time to time, the parishes swap pastors for a weekend.
When the fire broke out at St. Mary’s, Deacon Barder said it was “a massive shock to everybody.”
“It’s painful and yet there’s joy in it. [Father] Jerry is all about the Eucharist. He knows the Eucharist is about building relationships with people. He also realizes you have to keep moving forward,” Deacon Barder said. “Out of the ashes they will rise. The elders don’t want to lose any of the nails that burned down. They want to make crosses out of them. Out of nothing, they will make something.”
On Dec. 1, just hours before the fire started, Father Rogers joined the Barders and about 120 guests who had gathered at an annual gala in Zimmerman to raise money for the children of Red Lake Reservation.
Kevin Ergen and Lisa Shields-Ergen, members of Christ Our Light Parish, have been hosting the gala at their home for three years. Part Native American herself, Lisa has always had a passion for abandoned and orphaned children and has worked with native populations for more than 20 years.
“We started helping mothers who were homeless. We worked on literacy, helping people find jobs and dependable transportation, and eventually we got our foster care license to be able to take in children for short periods while they got on their feet,” she said.
Lisa was introduced to Father Rogers by the Barders.
“We instantly had this great connection. It was like hours just melted away. We talked about passions we both had,” said Lisa, who owns a Montessori school.
“One of the things we both noticed was how people always want to ‘fix’ kids. We agreed that the best thing you can do is to be a role model for them. You can’t get them to change, you can only try to bring encouragement and some sort of light into their life so they can look back upon it later in life and remember what it was like to eat dinner at a table, have a decent bed to sleep in and to know what it feels like to have people care for you,” she said.
After meeting Father Rogers, Lisa wanted to do more. What she saw was a need for the children of Red Lake to have some sort of a “distraction.”
“Often the world around them is chaotic and hectic. School is a safe place for them,” she said. “We thought we could bring them something that will help them have some sort of a distraction and a reason to keep coming to school. Their hope is in going to school, learning about God, trusting in God and recognizing that, through him, everything is possible.”
The gala, which is organized by Kevin and Lisa, the Barders and Dave and Lucy Amundson, is a community-wide event that raised over $10,000 this year. The funds will be used to buy gifts and necessities through the Toys for Tots program.
“These toys bring a little hope and light into their lives,” Lisa said. “Especially now.”
Hope and generosity
In the days since the fire, Father Rogers has heard stories and memories from the people there. One that touched his heart was of a young child, who, when woken up to the news, said, “The church can’t be on fire. That’s where Jesus lives!”
“The fire has given us a marvelous opportunity to remind the children that Jesus only walks in that church when you walk in. He’s within you. The church is very much alive in Red Lake. It’s the building that is gone and we will find another space and build another building,” he said.
The mission recently approved plans for a new school, which Father Rogers said might be an opportunity to share resources.
And he shared that fire provided him with a special gift.
“The gym has been full for Mass. I told the people that if anyone wanted to give me a Christmas gift [they could] fill up my church on Christmas. So I thanked them for the early Christmas present,” he said.
He also is deeply grateful for the generosity of others. People have contributed everything from food to chairs to a Christmas crib and Christmas trees to gofundme pages to the gift of presence, including many of the kids who have been to Red Lake on mission trips.
“It’s been pretty humbling to have someone come up to me and hand me a $5 bill and say, ‘This is all I have, Father, but I want you to use it to build our church.’ Our church. The mere fact that they are saying ‘our church’ says something,” he said. “It’s just been a moment of grace. Out of the ashes is going to rise a new and better church.”
Donations to assist St. Mary’s Mission may be mailed to Box 189, Red Lake, MN 56671.