Retired priest hopes to save childhood church building from demolition

| June 5, 2018 | 0 Comments

Father John Forliti stands in his yard next to the concrete cross that once rested atop the former St. Andrew Church, located across the street. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

From his dining room window, Father John Forliti a has front-row seat to the daily rhythms of the Twin Cities German Immersion School in St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood.

Two houses to the right of the playground sits his childhood home. To the left is the former church of St. Andrew, a place that was central to his formative years, and a building he is now working to save.

Father Forliti, 81, has teamed with other neighbors and preservation-minded citizens to encourage the school to find a way to continue to use the former church, rather than demolish it to make way for new construction better suited to the school’s needs.

St. Andrew was founded in 1895 and used two other church buildings before building in 1927 the brick, Byzantine-style church with a colorful tile roof that became a neighborhood hub. In 1989, St. Andrew’s school merged with nearby Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s school, and in 2011, St. Andrew parish merged with Maternity of Mary’s parish.

After the merger, the German immersion school, a public charter school, purchased the property, which includes the former church building and the campus of St. Andrew’s former grade school. TCGIS remodeled the school and church, using the latter as its “aula,” or auditorium, and gym, with a lunchroom in the basement.

The former Church of St. Andrew in St. Paul’s Como Park, now part of the Twin Cities German Immersion School. Maria Wiering/The Catholic Spirit

In March, the school’s plans to demolish the building to build more classroom space were publicized. The plan concerned some neighbors, who felt they were major stakeholders in a plan that would dramatically affect a neighborhood icon, and that they should have been consulted earlier in the process.

Those neighbors and their sympathizers attended a TCGIS school board meeting May 23, many wearing orange, the color of the signs dotting yards around the school. Organized as “Save Historic St. Andrew’s,” they shared their concerns during an open forum and asked for a different solution to the school’s space dilemma.

Among the speakers was Father Forliti, who said the building should be valued by TCGIS because it represented the contributions of immigrants to the Twin Cities and the achievement of the American dream. He said he wanted the school and community to work together, and he wished the school well.

Save Historic St. Andrew’s supporters asked the school to push the plan off until 2020 to give time for another unforeseen option to emerge, with the hope of ultimately saving the building.

Other members of the community said the school could not wait on the plan, citing anticipated enrollment growth. The school, they said, needs adequate space for special education, an auditorium with better sound quality than the old church, and a purpose-built gymnasium that could accommodate multiple classes. Some cited the expense of maintaining and repairing the old building, saying it wasn’t worth the funds.

Others asked if the school truly needed to expand its enrollment, citing extant traffic concerns and limited parking.

Some community members said they didn’t oppose the building plan, but that they wanted the school to consult more broadly with the community.

The board voted to reject Save Historic St. Andrew’s petition requesting the delay, but it also paused its own process, as facility committee chairman Nic Ludwig, who has led the plan’s formation, said he was looking into a newly presented option. Ludwig declined to comment for this story.

The news that another option is being explored heartened Teri Alberico, 58, who leads the Save Historic St. Andrew’s effort. A neighbor since 1986, Alberico never attended the church and isn’t motivated by spiritual nostalgia, but rather her conviction that the church gives the neighborhood its sense of place.

“That church is an anchor for the community,” she said. “The building is much more important to the neighborhood than it is to the school. The problem is, once that building is gone, then this neighborhood is stuck with whatever they decide to put up. … And when you take that down [the former church] and try to create a legacy — as Twin Cities German Immersion School is saying they want to create their legacy here — they don’t realize that we already have a legacy. They can be part of our legacy, but they don’t have to come in and create some different legacy for this neighborhood.”

For Father Forliti, the effort is more personal. St. Andrew was the center of his family’s spiritual and social life in the 1940s and 1950s, at a time when families were large, and there were a lot of children in the neighborhood, he recalled. The church is where he was baptized, gave his first confession and received first Communion.

As a seminarian, he worked on a summer crew to build the current school building. And, after his ordination to the priesthood in 1962, the church is where he said his Mass of Thanksgiving, consecrating wine his father had made for the occasion. Two years later to the day of that Mass, he officiated there at his father’s funeral.

Now retired from full-time ministry, Father Forliti lives in the house his parents purchased after he had left home. Like Alberico, he isn’t arguing for the former church’s preservation merely for its religious significance, but for what it represents in the community’s history.

He emphasized that he wants the community and school to collaborate, not fight over the former church’s future, but he has questions about how large the school needs to grow; how it expects to address extant traffic problems, especially with more students; and why it bought the former church in the first place if the building didn’t fit their needs.

Father Forliti said that if the building is saved, the school retains a “magnificent architectural gem” and community “icon,” and the neighbors’ goodwill, and it will gain the gratitude from preservation-minded citizens, recognition for promoting the environment through adaption and reuse, and “the positive outcomes that result from lessons learned when the past is not destroyed but honored.”

In the process, he’s reflected on the sacrifice that was required from the community to build the church. “These are common, ordinary folks, mainly immigrant,” he said of the church’s parishioners at the time it was constructed. “And it’s an incredibly beautiful building.”

Tags: , , , , ,

Category: Local News