Au revoir, St. Jean Baptiste, 1996

May 16, 1996

Peter Grady with Letourneau & Sons Contractors sprays down the dust as a wrecking ball takes down the walls St. Jean Baptiste Church on West Third Street in Duluth in May 1996. (Kathy Strauss / News-Tribune)

St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church, in Duluth’s Lincoln Park / West End neighborhood, was razed in 1996. Over the previous decades, the parish had merged with several others, and now the new Holy Family Catholic Church stands on the site. Here is an article that ran a few months earlier, on March 2, 1996 — the day of the last Mass at St. Jean Baptiste:

FAITH MOVES ON

News-Tribune

The landmark St. Jean Baptiste church, once a gathering place for Duluth’s many French-speaking immigrants, will be torn down by the end of May.

Mass will be celebrated there for the last time today.

But members of Holy Family Parish, which worships in St. Jean and in the former Sts. Peter and Paul church nearby, are shedding few tears for the nearly century-old building. They’ve already made plans for a new church, which will be built in the parking lot next to St. Jean’s starting this summer.

"I grew up in that parish, but I guess my faith is bigger than a building," said Tom Privette, 60, who graduated from the former St. Jean High School in Duluth’s West End neighborhood. "We have to move ahead. Young people in the West End are going to be lucky. They’re going to have a nice place to worship. We’re doing this for them."

Parish leaders decided two years ago that they could no longer afford to heat and maintain two aging churches. In the past five years they spent more than $300,000 for upkeep alone.

Also, neither St. Jean nor Sts. Peter and Paul is accessible to handicapped worshipers. And there’s always been that nagging feeling that as long as the parish was split between two church buildings, there never would be unity.

"In order to become one community, one family, we have to have one church," Priscilla Fisher, a member at St. Jean for 25 years, said about the time the former St. Clement’s church was closed and later torn down in the West End.

Parishioners from all three churches make up Holy Family.

Most support building the new church. A vote taken during a special meeting last week indicated 88 percent of the parish’s 560 or so families were in favor of moving ahead, despite a price tag that could wind up much heftier than the $1.2 million to $1.3 million that will be spent to get the project going this summer.

A final Mass will be celebrated this morning in St. Jean Baptiste Catholic church in Duluth. The Rev. Andy Knop (left), pastoral minister Paul Daly and the Rev. Tony Wroblewski, an associate pastor, are spiritual leaders at Holy Family Parish. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

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The main church and a community hall will be built first. In the years to come, offices, classrooms and other space will be added if there’s enough money. During construction, Mass will be celebrated in Sts. Peter and Paul, or the Fifth Street church, as many parishioners now refer to it.

A silent minority of church members worries about high construction costs and the burden that could cause in the traditionally working-class West End.

"People are tied to the past. They hate to let go. But I was baptized at St. Jean’s, and I don’t feel bad that it’ll go," said Bea Walczynski, 78, whose five children attended the now-gone Sts. Peter and Paul school. "I’m looking forward to the future, but I sure hope the people in the future can pay for what we’ve started."

There’s been some concern, too, that ethnic traditions will be lost amid new construction. Just as St. Jean was built for French-speaking immigrants, St. Clement was built for German- and English-speaking settlers, and Sts. Peter and Paul for Polish.

Polish hymns are still sung in the Sts. Peter and Paul church. At Christmas, they sing carols in the native tongue. And each May, the Virgin Mary is honored through the Majowka, a traditional Polish celebration.

"Those proud traditions can live on," promised the Rev. Tony Wroblewski, associate pastor at Holy Family.

Religious symbols and artifacts from the old churches will be saved and placed inside the new church. And stained-glass windows will be built in sets of three in a modern-looking building that also will feature three peaks. All are lasting tributes to the three former parishes, Wroblewski said.

But ethnic ties — like ethnic neighborhoods and ethnic churches — are things that Duluth has been losing for decades as different communities melt into one.

"It happens all over the country," said the Rev. Richard Partika, the pastor at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Duluth’s Morgan Park neighborhood. Especially in inner-city neighborhoods, where immigrants first settled together, always building a church in their midst.

"There’s been a loss of that sense of community," Partika said. "Churches are traditionally at the hearts of communities. So it makes sense that churches are seeing the same sorts of losses."

St. Jean Baptiste stood at the corner of Third Street and 25th Avenue West. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

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Church closings seem to have become more common. Some are prompted by shrinking church attendance, others by a shortage of clergy members.

And not just in West End. In downtown, Duluth’s first cathedral, Sacred Heart, closed in the mid-1970s. In Norton Park, Holy Cross closed in the mid-1980s, about the same time that St. Anthony’s closed in the East Hillside. The list is lengthy.

At Holy Family, many parishioners feel they’re investing in their neighborhood while growing closer as a parish community.

"In order to survive and to grow we have to come together as a single family in a single worship place," said Dave Balow, who joined Holy Family six years ago after converting from the Lutheran church to Catholicism. "We’re bringing something new to the Lincoln Park District. The church will be a showpiece for the neighborhood and something we can pass on to our children and grandchildren. We’re proud of that."

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Here are some more related photos:

The cornerstone of St. Jean Baptiste, shortly before it was razed in 1996. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

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Sts. Peter and Paul Church at Fifth Street and 24th Avenue West in March 1996. It was part of Holy Family Parish until the parish’s new church was built. The building still stands, and now houses Rock Hill Community Church. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

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St. Clement Church was on the corner of 21st Avenue West and Third Street. This is an undated photo in the News Tribune archives.

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The new Holy Family Church at Third Street and 25th Avenue West, seen here shortly before opening in November 1997, houses three former parishes. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

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Share your memories of St. Jean Baptiste or any of the other churches mentioned here by posting a comment.

- Andrew Krueger

6 thoughts on “Au revoir, St. Jean Baptiste, 1996

  1. Pingback: Holy Family Catholic School burns, 1992 | News Tribune Attic

  2. it was about as beautiful a church as could be. when you walked in the main church was upstairs. the lower level was for school practices, meetings, etc. there was a table tennis and pool tables on the lower level. there also was an old slot machine on the first level. the first mass on sunday morning was totally in french. i graduated from the high school in 1954.

  3. Truly grand and inspiring architecture. Why was St. Clement’s Church razed? I recall it was one one level and had a school
    next door.

    • I believe, that is was a tragic mistake, to destroy ST CLements. It was a artectual piece of mastery. It should have been used for the 3 parrishes to have as one big CHurch. It was rich in beauty, and in a good location. I was a member of ST jEAN’S

  4. I can remember going to dances (a social gathering that has since gone by the wayside) at St James where if I remember right Tracey Lundeen’s band used to perform???!!! We’re talking the seventies (71-72)?!!!

  5. Lots of our family events took place in St Jean’s and St. Clement’s…weddings, baptisms, funerals etc.
    I loved the architecture and the grandness of the old churches. As a child, they were truly awe inspiring.
    LOL, you didn’t dare act up when you were inside. At least, I didn’t.

    I remember my great-gram always referring to St Peter and Paul’s as the Polish church. I don’t even know how old I was before I realized that wasn’t the ‘official’ name for the church

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