Old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota)

The liturgical arts flourish in every part of the world.  The old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Crookston, Minnesota is no exception.  Although the stately church was abandoned in 1990 and remains in an embittered state, it is a historic icon rooted in local history and I believe it has an optimistic future -- that one day it will be restored.  As an architectural landmark, it is the crowning glory of the Catholic population of Northwestern Minnesota.     

Readers can see the video here of the current state of the cathedral.  Preserving these old buildings is an urgent issue of regional and state-wide significance.  In the words of St. Bonaventure, "the things in this perceived world signify the invisible things of God."  

In retrospect, the optics of the closing and sale of this cathedral church and its contents are execrable, but I digress.  The housing projects of the 1950s and 1960s come to mind, when settled neighborhoods were bulldozed and replaced with new municipal housing in which after a short period nobody wanted to live.  These were the result of planning that deprived the historic city centers of their roots, dignity and allure.  

The results were unintended negative social consequences which can accumulate over a far longer period than short-term benefits.  Long before the cathedral was closed and sold off, the beautiful buildings around it had been torn down, part of a national and passing fad for urban renewal in the name of all things new for the sake of newness.  

Architectural Significance and Architect

The three-steepled red pressed brick Gothic Revival former Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Crookston is an architectural icon of incomparable beauty and prominence.  It has the rare distinction of having not one or two steeples, but three in number, rooted in Aristotelian significance, in honor of the Blessed Trinity.  This brilliant design was influenced by the nearby old Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Duluth, Minnesota (built in 1894, sadly today a music center).  Rouen Cathedral was the first to employ three spires, setting a unique and historic precedent.  The same design feature can also be seen with St. Peter's Cathedral in Erie, Pennsylvania (1906).      

Duluth's Sacred Heart Cathedral, sold by the Diocese in 1985

The architect of the Cathedral was Bert D. Keck (1876-1962), who moved to Crookston in 1902 and lived and worked there during its building boom.  He designed many of the most prominent buildings in town, forever defining the local skyline.  This included his most prominent work -- the Cathedral, the most significant ecclesiastical structure in the region.  Upon completion, the total cost of construction was an estimated $60,000.  The architect was paid $1,600.  Railroad tycoon James J. Hill pledged $1,00 once the roof was completed. 

Cathedral High School, closed in 1967 and demolished in 1971

Laying of the Cornerstone 

The cornerstone of the present church, still visible and unopened today, was laid by the first Bishop of Crookston, the Most Rev. Timothy Corbett on Sunday, June 16, 1912.  From the time the Bishop was appointed by Pius X in 1910, plans were in the works for a fitting Cathedral to last the ages.  Bishop Corbett was a native of the Twin Cities who loved his flock and gave his life as a pioneer bishop to help built up the Body of Christ in the northwestern part of the state, first in Duluth and later Crookston.    

Article from the Catholic Bulletin

The present location was chosen at the corner of North Ash Street and Central Park Drive because it was considered the very heart of the city, an optimal location overlooking Central Park and the scenic Red Lake River.  In addition, it was located half way between the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroad depots.  Therefore a stately Catholic High School was also built on the site as a first priority was the education of Catholic youth.  The beautiful Carnegie Library was built across the street in 1907-'08 and is fortunately still standing today. 

Gorgeous Neo-Classical Front View of Cathedral High School

Construction of the Historic Cathedral and Its Impressive Interior 

The work on the superstructure commenced with the preparations for the laying of the cornerstone in 1911.  The contractor chosen was Edward Jackson of Bemidji.  Later that autumn the foundation walls of the imposing structure were built.  The cornerstone reads: AD 1912.  By 1913 the full Gothic edifice with its three imposing towers and asbestos roof had taken shape, forever defining the city skyline.  The seating capacity was 1,000.  

Article from the Catholic Bulletin

The Bishop solemnly blessed the new cathedral on February 2, 1913, only two years and eight months after Pius X had established the diocese.  The interior was completed two years later.  The local faithful gave their pennies and were very proud of their new cathedral that was celebrated as a triumph by all of Crookston.  Indeed, the temple informs the city.      

The old Queen Anne style episcopal residence can be seen on the left

The walls were frescoed with plaster and imagery, a soaring Gothic vault showcasing angels in the ceiling.  Sadly the original paint scheme and precious frescoes were covered over during a later renovation in the late 1950s, completed in time for the 50th anniversary of the diocese in 1960.  At that time a new reredos behind the high altar covered the central sanctuary window, disrupting the triune window scheme.  Perhaps one day when the church is restored, the original color scheme can be restored, along with the original Gothic appointments, seen below in a historic photo.  The hemispherical vault of the apse remains gold to this day.   

The ornate interior of the Crookston Cathedral bore an eloquent witness

The interior had multiple unique features.  A rare sight, it had large balconies that were fitted on both sides of the church, in the north and south transepts, a design feature copied from the old Duluth cathedral.  It served a handy purpose, allowing the choir to sing alternating antiphonal responses while also accommodating overflow of the chapel.  In the rear of the church an extra large choir gallery was built, an obvious emphasis on the importance of choirs and choral music.  

Further, large Stations of the Cross were commissioned and a brass Communion Rail was installed.  Exquisite Vermont white marble was chosen for the sanctuary steps.  Ornate ceramic floor tiling was installed for the sanctuary and vestibule with hardwood oak flooring throughout.  The floor-plan of the sanctuary was small, but still designed with provision for the carrying out of Pontifical ceremonies requiring a Bishop's throne (the two concrete steps of the platform for the cathedra can still be seen today).

Crookston Cathedral altar boys in 1956

Hundreds of memorable services were held at the cathedral over the generations.  Perhaps the most solemn was the episcopal consecration of Bishop Kenneth Povish, ordained by the Apostolic Delegate from Washington, D.C. on July 28, 1970.  This was the only bishop's ordination held in the cathedral.  By the time the next bishop came in 1976, times were a changing.  Bishop Victor Balke regrettably chose to be ordained bishop at a secular venue, a local high school gymnasium.

1970 episcopal consecration inside the old Crookston cathedral

Fortuitously, the high altar remains intact...a sign??

Construction of a New Cathedral and Closure of the Old

In the 1980s plans were begun to construct a new cathedral at a nearby location.  Needles to say, many people doubted the plan's advisability.  Groundbreaking took place in April 1989 to replace the 1,000-seat cathedral with a 1,100 capacity edifice.  In 1990 the new cathedral was completed under the direction of Msgr. Donald Krebs, who in those years was rector of the cathedral (1981-1991).  The new cathedral, built in functionalist style, was dedicated on September 21, 1990.    

In some ways this brings to mind a warning made in 1937 by the famous Catholic architect, Charles D. Maginnis, F.A.I.A. who wrote: "In the present flux of artistic philosophy, one reasonably speculates on the capacity of the Gothic spirit to resist the rising challenge of modernism.  The traditional is slowly giving ground.  While the challenge in the ecclesiastical order is obviously less provocative, it is not entirely to be ignored."  

The pews, statues, and altars were removed from the old cathedral and the Diocese transferred ownership to a local homeless shelter.  The stained glass windows in the church were initially left in place, reportedly removed at a later date by the shelter administration, sold to a new church in Florida to support the work of the nonprofit organization.  

As a side note, an important lesson can be learned from success stories of the past.  For Catholics, aesthetic value is a long-term goal, with utility a short-term goal.  The Catholic faithful should not have to search behind the appearance of a church for hidden value.  This beauty should be obvious.  The old cathedral is a marvel to behold, a jewel of Minnesota architecture.  From the supernatural perspective, it is a credible sign of faith defying the disbelief and boredom of the modern world.  This is how the Church has always proclaimed the Faith, not only with boldness, but also with unmistakable beauty.  

Given the secular nature of society today, there is hardly anything left to revolt against except the ugliness and disintegration of the modern world.  Modernist architecture is everywhere and it estranges people - especially the young, and is especially felt in rural areas where there are less monumental structures.  This is because modernist architecture frustrates the visual and cognitive capabilities of the soul.  

The former cathedral will always be remembered as being more beautiful than the new because it resonates in an objective manner a more universally recognized and other-worldly beauty, ultimately reflecting the beauty of God.  This is a starting point for many.  In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: Ex divina pulchritudine esse omnium derivatur ("The beauty of God is the cause of the being of all that is").      

Ceiling painted over in 1960 renovation that cost $110,000

The Current State and Future 

There is always hope.  And Crookston is a special place of heroic Catholic life.  The local Catholic population has proved resilient during the toughest of times in recent memory.  The region even boasts a martyr in its northern territory, a Jesuit missionary by the name of Fr. Pierre Aulneau, SJ, who was killed by the Sioux in 1736 on Lake of the Woods.  Another inspiring priest was Fr. Lawrence Lautischar, the first diocesan priest stationed in the territory, who froze to death on Red Lake in December 1858.  And not to mention Crookston's first bishop, Timothy Corbett, who wrote excellent pastoral letters that are still guiding lights today (his pastoral letter on Catholic education, promulgated in 1915 was a masterpiece and can be read in online archives of The Catholic Bulletin).

Meanwhile, the old cathedral still stands.  With little put into the preservation of the old structure, windstorms have caused severe water damage causing air and rain to leak into the building.  The flat roofs above the sacristies have been failing for years and subsequently there is a significant amount of interior and exterior damage.  The old cathedral was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.  The empty building still speaks a language of permanence, of life removed from decay and decomposition, because temple architecture is on a higher plane and it speaks to the soul. 

View of Cathedral and Cathedral High School

When Bishop Corbett took possession of the See of Crookston as its first Bishop, the property of the cathedral was a small frame church and a modest rectory on North Main Street, all valued at $4,000.  The local Catholics, many of them poor, pooled their money and first built on the site Cathedral High School (sadly later torn down in 1971) staffed by the Benedictine Sisters, at a cost of about $50,000.  Then they purchased a home for the Bishop and cathedral priests, bought and remodeled, situated between the high school and Cathedral.  By the time the cathedral was finished, the total property was estimated at $200,000 and only $30,000 was owed to the bank. While the new cathedral was going up, the Sisters of St. Joseph built a $60,000 convent and school on Houston Avenue, near the cathedral. God provides.   Hopefully Bishop Timothy Corbett, the Twin Cities native appointed by Pius X the first bishop of Crookston, where he served with distinction from 1910-1938, will intercede to restored the cathedral to its former glory.  

The interior today, awaiting restoration

Beloved cathedral, thy days are numbered: die thou must, but not today.  Plead thy long and precious service in cause most holy.  Plead the love which thousands vowed to thee, year after year beneath thy roof when they won to themselves the favors and graces of Heaven.  Plead the streaming tears that bedewed the cheeks of the throngs of penitents who confessed in thy confessionals and renewed their faith and vows at the altar, today crumbling, but still standing.  Let us remember those whose spiritual home was here.  Weddings, funerals, baptisms, First Communions.    

Why Catholics Should Build and Maintain Beautiful Old Churches

The truth is God is willing to accept a house as an offering from His people.  He does not value the size or beauty of a church except in so far as it expresses man’s homage.  This is a key point.  God is willing to dwell in a hovel if His people can afford no better lodging for Him.  He has often done so, but if His people dwell in houses of cedar, and if they are willing to build places of entertainment, sports, and pleasure for hundreds of millions of dollars, worthy temples should be erected for the greater honor and glory of God.  

Crookston Cathedral sacristy volunteers

The building which is dedicated to Divine worship should be the best and fairest that the resources of a community can build.  With Catholics it is not a question of just providing a structure where the community can meet for common prayer and thanksgiving.  If anyone wants to know why the immigrants who built this church were unsparing and why they spared no expense in their contributions for the construction and decorating of this church, they will find the secret of these extravagances in the Catholic doctrine of the Mass and the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Eucharist.  The Catholic church is the House of God and within that temple there is, indeed, a consecrated holy place and the presence of God promised.  A community grafted together in His name.  

Crookston altar boys in 1956

The presence of God lived in this place in His word and promise.  There is a tradition in Catholic lore that after Mass is celebrated in a place, angels guard that site for the remainder of earthly history.  Here in this place there was for decades a dispensation of Christ's grace through the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, and Matrimony.  In addition to all of this, here there was the presence of Christ, God and Man, really, truly, and substantially present under the sacramental species.  By the light of faith Catholics see angels ascending and descending every day to adore around the altar during Holy Mass.  

Let us pray that Mass will again be offered here in this consecrated place, ascending as in the past to proclaim in Heaven that the Lamb's sacrifice, which is a supernatural light to the world, is commemorated once again in this sanctuary, waiting for the children of man to be led to return to this hallowed ground to receive the food of immortality.  It is a small church, yes.  But now we are a smaller Church, a remnant in a sea of change and disorder.  Other cathedrals are similarly small, such as St. Patrick's in Charlotte, N.C.  Let us look to the future and sound a clarion call to restore this holy place to its rightful birthright.    

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