St. Matthew parishioners recall fire that destroyed church 50 years ago

| April 26, 2018 | 0 Comments

A fire destroyed St. Matthew in St. Paul Easter Monday, April 15, 1968. Parishioners of St. Matthew, which had a new church built in 1970, will mark the 50th anniversary of the fire April 28-29 with a time of remembrance. Courtesy Catherine Lang Fee

Massive plumes of smoke. That’s what lifelong St. Matthew parishioner Karen Thompson recalls seeing, in disbelief, as the city bus she road home from work turned a corner by St. Matthew School in St. Paul. The church was on fire.

“In shock. I mean, it’s like it went so quickly,” said Thompson, 72, about seeing the fire that burned down St. Matthew Church on Easter Monday, April 15, 1968.

After arriving home, she hurried to the burning church, where a crowd of fellow parishioners looked on in sadness and disbelief.

“It was overwhelming just to see the history that is in a building go up in flames,” she said.

The St. Paul Fire Department needed to break the windows in order to put out the fire at St. Matthew. Courtesy Catherine Lang Fee

Although the fire destroyed the church, the parish survived, but the incident has become a pivotal point in its history. St. Matthew planned to observe the 50th anniversary of the fire and celebrate the parish’s perseverance April 15, but the event was rescheduled for April 28-29 due to the weekend blizzard and 15-inch snowfall.

“Think what that’s fostered for us in terms of our faith, and also the fact that we want to continue going forward,” Thompson said of the parish rebuilding after the fire.

‘Covered in smoke’

Founded as a German national parish in 1886, St. Matthew is located on St. Paul’s West Side, where the Mississippi River loops north, just south of downtown. The parish first constructed a building at the intersection of Hall Avenue and West Robie Street to hold its church, school, convent and rectory. It later built a separate school and remodeled and enlarged its church in 1908. The church’s centerpiece was a four-storied Romanesque bell tower, crowned with a cupola and cross, that rose above the front entrance.

St. Matthew held what would be its final Sunday Masses in that church Easter Sunday, April 14, 1968. The next day, alleged arson caused the fire shortly after 4 p.m. The priests serving the parish had the day off.

Like Thompson, lifelong parishioner Catherine Lang Fee, 73, was on her way home from work when she saw the fire. She retrieved her camera to get pictures.

“It [was] just covered in smoke,” Fee recalled of the church.

The first firefighters on the scene were James Fee and Jack Dalton. While they tried to hose down the fire inside the church, Dalton had a heart attack, so Fee had to attend to him before more firefighters arrived. Dalton was taken to St. Paul Ramsey Hospital and Medical Center, now Regions Hospital, and survived.

Other firefighters, some of whom were parishioners, put the fire out that evening. While the fire never made it to the bell tower, extensive fire and water damage decimated the church. Parishioners gathered as many things as they could salvage from the sacristy and took them to the school, where they strung clotheslines to hang the vestments, which weren’t damaged, but smelled bad, Fee said.

The interior of St. Matthew suffered extensive damage from the fire. Only the sanctuary lamp, tabernacle and objects in the sacristy survived. Courtesy Catherine Lang Fee

Parish life after the fire presented many difficulties and uncertainties, such as where to celebrate Mass. St. Matthew held Mass in the basement of the destroyed church, the school gym and at neighboring St. Michael’s old church on Concord Avenue, which was razed in the 1970s.

Building a new church brought challenges for St. Matthew parishioners, including tight finances. Some parishioners wanted to built a modern-style church, while others wanted a traditional church like the previous one.

“People sometimes get hung up on what a building looks like or … if you’re going to have pews or chairs, but the reality is, how do we keep our parish together?” Thompson said of the debate.

Eventually, the parish constructed a modern brick church, which was completed in 1970. The interior was sparse at first, but parishioners eventually added stained glass windows. Among the weddings held in the new church is that of Catherine Lang Fee and James Fee, who met years after the fire while working at St. Paul Ramsey Hospital, and discovered they had both been at St. Matthew the day it burned. James died in 1999.

Despite the fire, many families stayed with St. Matthew through the transition, Thompson observed. The draw of the school helped, she said, and the parish didn’t experience a large dip in membership.

“You’d have two or three generations attending that went to school there, made their sacraments, and that was important for family to keep that tradition,” Thompson said. In 2012, the school joined three other nearby parish schools to form Community of Saints Regional Catholic School.

The new church, which had chairs instead of pews, was built to serve purposes beyond Mass. The Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra has performed there over the years.

“And they’re always standing-room [only] concerts, free concerts, that they give, and they’re just wonderful,” Fee said.

Learning the cause

As parishioners rebuilt their church, the cause of the fire remained a mystery. Then, in the early 2000s, then-St. Matthew pastor Father Stephen Adrian, who led the parish from 1978 to 2012, received a surprising phone call. The man on the line claimed to have known the man responsible for the fire. The perpetrator had admitted it before dying, nearly 35 years after the incident.

St. Matthew’s old church served the parish from 1908 to 1968. Courtesy Catherine Lang Fee

“He acknowledged that the fire hurt many people, and he wanted to say that he was sorry,” Father Adrian wrote in a 2008 parish-school newsletter. “As tragic as the St. Matthew fire was, perhaps more tragic was the life of this poor adolescent — tragedy that marked his whole life.”

Thompson remembers a homily in which Father Adrian disclosed the information to the parish, while protecting the man’s anonymity. She said it was really an accident; it wasn’t like he set the fire [on purpose].”

“It sounds like, based on the story, that the fire happened and he got scared,” said Thompson, who added that Father Adrian emphasized forgiving the man, too.

Now in the pastoral care of Dominican Father Bob Kelly, the parish plans to remember the fire April 28-29 with a display of photos and memorabilia from the old church. Items included the sanctuary lamp, baptismal font, tabernacle, vestments and chalices. St. Matthew also preserved the bell from the original bell tower after the fire.

For parishioners, the new church has been a sign of the parish moving forward. Thompson noted parishioners’ social justice commitment, and their connection to ministries such as Loaves and Fishes, St. Mary’s Health Clinic for low-income patients and Casa Guadalupana for housing families in crisis.

“It’s a very caring community, and that was fostered by the fact that we’ve experienced a loss of something that was important to us, the church, but that our faith took us in the direction, along with Father Steve’s involvement, to look beyond ourselves,” Thompson said.

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