St. John’s church finds new owner

The St. John’s Church building at 977 E. Fifth St. has been sold to a community-oriented Islamic faith group. The cross atop the building was removed as part of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ decommissioning process. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Will be an Islamic faith center

The altars are gone, and the cross has been pulled off the top of the building.

It’s official -- St. John’s Catholic Church has been decommissioned by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and sold off by St. Pascal Baylon Catholic Church, which owned the buildings.

The sale to the new owners, the Darul-Uloom Islamic Center, closed on Friday, June 20. The sale included the church building, the empty school, and the attached rectory, which was used as rental housing.

The St. Pascal Baylon parish took over care of St. John’s as part of a directive from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis -- with the merger, St. John’s was effectively closed.

The Roman Catholic church held its last Mass on Sunday, June 30, 2013 and was vacant for a year until it was purchased.

The sale will help relieve St. Pascal Baylon of its outstanding $900,000 debt to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, according to the Rev. Mike Byron, the St. Pascal Baylon priest.

Though the church, rectory and school were listed for $927,000, the Archdiocese did not reveal the amount they sold for.

But Byron explained that “the amount of our debt is not directly related to the sale price.”

Hassan Hassan, director of the Darul-Uloom Islamic Center, said the group is hoping to make the buildings a community asset.

The group was previously operating out of a rented facility in Minneapolis. There, it would hold a variety of youth engagement programming, including weekend school and homework help workshops, with the idea of giving kids and teens somewhere to go. Hassan said they plan to do the same things at the new location.

They’ll also try to open a school in the school building on the campus, he said.

Feisal Elmi, spokesperson for the group, said the East Side “has a large community of east Africans,” many of whom practice Islam.

“We’d like to provide for them a place where they can worship, but also a place they can bring their kids,” he said.

Hassan said that as far as he knows, the nearest mosque is in the Midway neighborhood, so the new building will be central to a lot of East Siders.

Though the organization is only a few years old, Elmi said the leaders of the group have been involved in the Twin Cities Islamic community for decades.

And while the facility will serve as an Islamic faith center, Elmi was keen to emphasize that the group wants the space to be open to all.

“We want to be a community asset,” he said. “Our doors are open to everybody in the community.”

Hassan said the interior will stay roughly as is for now, noting that although his organization is of a different faith, there’s not going to be a significant change in use.

Once the Muslims have transitioned into the new facility, they’re planning to host a big open house to invite the neighborhood to stop by and get to know the organization.

Only one week after purchasing the building, they already held an informal open house for all on Friday, June 27, and invited neighbors.

St. Paul City Council president Kathy Lantry, who’s a parishioner at St. Pascal Baylon, said she was hoping to make the new owners of the former St. John’s complex feel welcome, and to help neighbors get acquainted with the new Islamic center.

Decommissioning process

A few weeks ago, former St. John’s Catholic Church parishioner Greg Cosimini passed by the old vacant church, and noticed a large lift in the parking lot.

Cosimini looked over and saw that the giant cross from the top of the building had been placed in a large dumpster. Cosimini said workers had tried to save the cross, but it was broken while being removed.

While the cross may have been lost in the decommissioning, Cosimini nonetheless lauded the efforts of Byron, whom he said went out of his way to find places for most of the treasured belongings of St. John’s -- many of the parish’s sacred items were saved and distributed to other Catholic churches.

Byron said all the religious furnishings were removed from the building before the sale went through, as part of a decommissioning process that’s standard when a Roman Catholic church changes uses and is no longer meant for Catholic services. Religious items such as the pews, altars, confessionals, and parts of the stained-glass windows that depict Christian symbols were all removed in the process.

Chairs, tables and some furniture in the rectory were left for the new owners, Byron said.

Tom Smolik, an East Sider and former parishioner at St. John’s, said he was sad to hear that the building was sold and will no longer be used as a Christian church.

In particular, he said it was disappointing how the church was dismantled and stripped of its religious iconography.

Over at St. Pascal Baylon, the church dedicated a small chapel to St. John’s. The chapel holds the statue of St. John the Baptist, which used to sit in the center of St. John’s Church, as well as a photographic montage of the church. St. Pascal’s also mounted the cross that used to be over the St. John’s baptismal font.

Byron said that though St. Pascal Baylon didn’t have any specific hopes of what the new use of the building might be, the outcome “an opportunity to welcome a new faith community into the East Side.”

He said that the St. Pascal’s parish would look to ways to cooperate on “some ventures of mutual interest.”

“It’s good that it’s going to continue to be used as a sacred space,” he added.

“We’re happy with the transaction, and I hope the buyers will be happy with it, too,” Byron said.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

Rich history

St. John’s Catholic Church opened in 1922 and held Mass every single day up until Sunday, June 30, 2013.

In recent years, the church drew Roman Catholics both from the East Side and from across the Twin Cities -- places like Oakdale, Woodbury, Vadnais Heights, Maplewood, Rosemount and Eagan -- who stayed with the parish out of a preference for its traditional Mass and style of sermon.

They also came for the charming architecture -- the soaring vaulted ceiling, an elaborate altar, a giant pipe orga, and stunning stained-glass windows.

The small parish had about 100 people attending services on a typical Sunday, but the demographics were simply not there to sustain it -- the East Side has become less Catholic than it used to be. And so, the directive from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was to close the church, merging the St. John’s parish with St. Pascal Baylon on White Bear Avenue.

The merger was announced in 2010 as part of a strategic plan for the archdiocese.


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