St. Michael’s legacy to endure on St. Paul’s West Side and West St. Paul

| November 18, 2016 | 0 Comments
St. Michael in St. West St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

St. Michael in West St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

St. Michael’s final Sunday Mass Nov. 27 will mark the end of an era for a parish founded 150 years ago to serve working-class Irish immigrants.

The West St. Paul parish — which was first located on St. Paul’s West Side — will suspend operations following the 10:30 a.m. Mass. Poor finances led parish and Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis leaders to make the decision in October.

St. Michael began in 1866 as a mission of the Cathedral of St. Paul, then located downtown. Bishop Thomas Grace purchased the land for St. Michael for $300 on the West Side, across the Mississippi River from downtown. The new parish addressed the needs of Catholic Irish immigrants living on the West Side who couldn’t afford the $1 toll to cross the Wabasha Street Bridge into downtown each Sunday for Mass.

“It really was kind of the first presence of the Church there,” said Father James Adams, St. Michael’s pastor since 2015.

St. Michael’s West Side church was built in 1882 after a fire destroyed the original church. It stood until the 1970s, when it was demolished to accommodate a public housing project. The church’s bell tower, however, was preserved in a small park; today it is known as the Torre de San Miguel and continues to serve as a neighborhood landmark. Courtesy St. Michael

St. Michael’s West Side church was built in 1882 after a fire destroyed the original church. It stood until the 1970s, when it was demolished to accommodate a public housing project. The church’s bell tower, however, is preserved in a small park; today it is known as the Torre de San Miguel and continues to serve as a neighborhood landmark. Courtesy St. Michael

By 1879, St. Michael had grown into its own parish and welcomed its first pastor, Father P. J. Gallagher. Father Patrick O’Neill then served from 1888 to 1944. He was followed by his nephew, Father John O’Neill, who led the parish until 1967.

The younger Father O’Neill guided St. Michael’s move from the West Side up the hill to West St. Paul in the early 1950s. Parishioners and families migrating to the adjacent, growing suburb warranted the move.

Father O’Neill purchased the land for the parish at East Annapolis Avenue and Wallner Street in West St. Paul. The parish built a school, temporary sanctuary, convent and rectory on the 8 acres of land.

“[Father John O’Neill] got a lot of things going and stirred the pot, you might say,” said Mary Ellen Gutzmann, 81, a longtime parishioner and former parish bookkeeper.

Gutzmann said Father O’Neill engaged St. Michael’s young people, helping the parish continue to thrive. Another longtime parishioner, Ellie Breister, described the parish as busy with lots of different activities before its membership decline in the past decade.

“It was wonderful,” Breister said of St. Michael’s parish life.

In its first century, St. Michael boomed with vocations with 23 priests and 35 religious sisters, according to the 1952 book, “The Catholic Church in the Diocese of
St. Paul.” Among them is Msgr. Martin Fleming, the founder of Trinity Sober Homes, who grew up attending St. Michael before his 1952 ordination. Three of his brothers also served as priests.

The parish used both its West Side and West St. Paul campuses until the 1970s, which helped neighboring parish St. Matthew. A German parish founded in 1886 on the West Side, St. Matthew’s church burned down in 1968, and it temporarily used St. Michael’s West Side campus.

St. Matthew built a new church in 1970. St. Michael then sold its West Side campus for the development of a housing project that primarily serves the neighborhood’s Latino population. The church’s impressive bell tower — now known as the Torre de San Miguel — still stands, surrounded by a small park.

Father John O’Neill, a longtime pastor of St. Michael pictured in front of the parish’s West Side church in 1966, moved the parish from St. Paul’s West Side to West St. Paul in the 1950s. Photo courtesy the Pioneer Press

Father John O’Neill, a longtime pastor of St. Michael pictured in front of the parish’s West Side church in 1966, moved the parish from
St. Paul’s West Side to West St. Paul in the 1950s. Photo courtesy the Pioneer Press

St. Michael and St. Matthew intertwined again when the archdiocese identified the two parishes for clustering in a 2010 strategic plan.

In 2012, both of their schools faced closure. They merged with another parish school, St. John Vianney in South St. Paul, to form Community of Saints Regional Catholic School. St. Michael provided the building for the new school. Our Lady of Guadalupe, another West Side parish identified for structured collaboration with St. Michael and St. Matthew, also partnered for the school.

Aside from the building, Father Adams noted that the St. Michael school’s legacy remains strong. He even meets alumni during nursing home visits.

“The huge commitment to Catholic education has been tremendous,” Father Adams said.

Perpetual adoration, which began at St. Michael in 1992, has a strong commitment as well. Gutzmann said it’s common to see three to four people in the chapel at any given time.

St. Michael’s rosary making group will also continue informally, meeting at St. Joseph in West St. Paul.

With the parish suspending operations, 230 households of parishioners will look for new parishes to join. According to sources, most will join St. Joseph or St. Matthew. Gutzmann said the parish once had 700 to 800 households.

“The huge challenge has been and was and is to make sure that people don’t forget that Jesus is alive, he’s walking with them,” Father Adams said. “And [I] wanted to make sure that they can still have a mission.”

As The Catholic Spirit previously reported, St. Michael’s corporate status will remain intact while the archdiocese determines the parish’s future.

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