December 15, 1992
Flames illuminate the sky above the former Holy Family Catholic School on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 1992, as Duluth firefighters battle the blaze. The interior of the West End building was gutted by the fire. (Clara Wu / News-Tribune)
Tears shed at landmark’s ruin
By Laurie Hertzel and Susan Hogan/Albach, News-Tribune staff writers
Nearly 70 years of memories went up in smoke and flames Tuesday evening when the former Holy Family Catholic School burned.
Hundreds of West End residents stood along the sidewalks at 24th Avenue West and Fifth Street, watching as flames shot out of the roof of the burning building. Some wept.
“This is going to be a hard one for the parishioners to forget,” said Patrick Perfetti, a parish trustee. “There’s a good number of parishioners who grew up and went through kindergarten through eighth grade there.
“There were some tears shed tonight.”
Originally Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School, the three-story brick building was constructed in 1926. It became the Holy Family Catholic School in 1985 when three West End Catholic parishes merged.
This was not the first time the building burned.
“It survived a fire in the late 1940s, at which time the entire roof caved in and fell down onto the main floor,” Perfetti said. “It was repaired and rebuilt and brought back up to standards and utilized as a school.”
The school closed in the spring of 1990, but the building remained an active part of parish life.
Youth programs, religious education classes, meetings, wedding receptions and parties were held there. The building contained a gymnasium, classrooms, a library and a kitchen. Some of the upstairs rooms were used for storage of audio visual equipment and parish documents, and others were offices.
“I’m just glad nobody was in there,” said Marlene Jacobs, youth minister and religious education coordinator. “There are times where there are hundreds of kids in there.”
She was standing on the sidewalk watching with tears in her eyes as firefighters battled the blaze. Her office was on the old school’s second floor.
“Many traditions have been housed in this building for years,” said the Rev. Al Svobodny, associate pastor. “I grieve with the parishioners at the loss of great memories in their lives.”
“The biggest activity that’s going to be missed would be for all of the weddings and anniversaries and funeral luncheons that took place in that building,” Perfetti said.
“This is going to be very difficult for people.”
This weekend, Bishop Roger Schweitz is scheduled to say Masses at Holy Family to celebrate his 25th anniversary as a priest. Schweitz served as pastor of the parish before he became bishop.
“This will be very helpful, to have the bishop here,” Svobodny said, “because he will help deal with the healing process. … What was supposed to be a celebration will be a time of healing.”
The fire caused the roof to cave and the upper floors of the building to cave in, and on top of that the main floor sustained heavy water damage. The building was razed, and today a parking lot occupies the site.
The fire was ruled arson, started by someone on the balcony of the first-floor gymnasium. In the last clip saved in the News Tribune file on the fire, investigators were trying to track down some teenagers seen leaving the scene of the blaze; I have no idea if they ever were caught.
For some more history on the Holy Family Parish, including its former church buildings, go to this past News Tribune Attic post.
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