Although the campus that for 92 years housed the former St. John parish on the east side of St. Paul no longer serves the area’s Catholics, it will be a hub for neighbors to gather for worship once again.
The church is now a mosque for the Islamic community — Darul-Uloom Islamic Center, which hosted an open house June 27.
Longtime St. John parishioner Greg Cosimini attended to bid farewell to his former church and to welcome the new occupants to 977 E. Fifth St.
“Having this building empty was about the worst thing,” said Cosimini, who lives a few blocks away. “For the neighborhood, empty property is a bad thing to have. It just causes trouble, so I’m glad somebody moved in.”
Cosimini now attends St. Mary in downtown St. Paul because “in a lot of ways, it looks like a small version” of St. John.
Father Michael Byron is pastor of St. Pascal Baylon in St. Paul, the receiving parish of St. John. He said there is a great opportunity to partner with Darul-Uloom.
“A lot of Muslims live in the area, and that’s why they’re here,” Father Byron said. “The neighborhood is in great flux. There are a lot of social issues of common concern that we could seek to cooperate on.”
Feisal Elmi, a spokesman with Darul-Uloom (Arabic for “house of knowledge”), said the group plans to open a food shelf in the basement. Next door to the church, the former St. John rectory will house the community’s imam — a religious leader — and eventually new immigrants on a temporary basis. The former school, which closed in the 1970s, will be used as a charter school and community center, hosting job fairs and youth programs.
Decommissioning a church
St. John celebrated its last Mass on June 30, 2013. Since then, the altars, statues, communion rail and other sacred objects were removed and donated to parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“Father Byron did a very good job of finding homes for almost all of the sacred items here,” Cosimini said. “And so we know where most of them went. That was a real comfort for everybody.” Cosimini has chronicled the timeline of St. John’s at http://www.lostchurchesofstpaul.com.
Items that couldn’t be reused were disposed of appropriately. Before Darul-Uloom moved in, the remaining Christian images had to be covered or removed, such as the large stone cross that once sat atop St. John’s exterior peak.
According to Susan Mulheron, chancellor for canonical affairs for the archdiocese, to relegate the space for secular use, Archbishop John Nienstedt issued a written decree. There is no rite to remove the dedication that made the space sacred initially, but a formerly sacred space can never be used for purposes that are “sordid,” that is, blatantly offensive to Christian sensibilities. The possibility of sordid use is a major consideration when approval is given to sell a former church.
St. John merged with St. Pascal Baylon as part of the archdiocese’s strategic planning in 2010. Father George Welzbacher served as St. John’s pastor for seven years and retired after it closed. St. Pascal Baylon is about three miles from the former St. John parish. Father Byron said one of the reasons for the merge was the number of churches on the east side — 28 in a five-mile radius.
Money from the sale, which was finalized June 20, will go to St. Pascal Baylon, helping ease some of the parish’s debt, Father Byron said.
Father Byron and Cosimini shared the sentiment that the building will be preserved as a place for worship.
“I think like most religions, the vast majority of the people just want to live their life and worship in whatever way,” Cosimini said. “So, I think it should be a good influence on the neighborhood.”