Three months after his historic Minneapolis church was destroyed by a massive fire, the Rev. John Kutek now faces another unforeseen challenge: his tiny religious community must quickly raise up to $75,000 to comply with the city's order to raze the church.
Minneapolis city inspectors have ordered Sacred Heart of Jesus Church to be demolished for public safety reasons by July 29. If it isn't, the church could be condemned and authorized for demolition by the city, which ultimately would bill the congregation.
But the Polish National Catholic congregation, a fixture in northeast Minneapolis for more than 100 years, doesn't have enough money to tear down its beloved spiritual home — much less rebuild or renovate a new one.
"We are a small church, about 100 members, and we can't do this by ourselves," said Kutek. "Plus with COVID and the church closed, it really hurt financially. We need help."
On Saturday, the church hopes to make a dent in its financial quandary with a fundraiser featuring the food and music of the Polish founders who built the church in 1914. Church members have ordered extra food and refreshments, and hope the community will come.
"We don't want to give up," said Kutek. "We have to be stronger than evil."
Fundraising to take down their church rather than build a new one is a sad irony for Sacred Heart of Jesus members. The fire that tore through the church on April 19 drew national headlines for the sheer magnitude of the flames.
Members initially hoped the church building could be salvaged. They're now exploring other options even as they prepare for demolition.
"First someone burns down your church, then you find out you can't rebuild it," said Kutek. "It's really painful for everyone to even think about destroying it. Your memory is there. Your history is there."
Church leaders are taking steps to make the building secure and safe from vandalism as it awaits the future. Kutek spent this week on a ladder, nailing sheets of plywood over the stained glass windows that had been lovingly donated by parish families over the years.
And the wide front doors that once welcomed hundreds of faithful each Sunday were getting a fresh coat of stain this week to cover the graffiti already painted on them.
Hoping for resolution
Minneapolis Fire Chief Bryan Tyner said the investigation into the cause of the blaze remains open. Investigators haven't been able to work inside the building because of safety concerns.
The lack of closure is one more issue the parish is grappling with.
"There's no resolution," said Kutek. "It's painful not knowing who did it and for what reason. I don't think it was an accident. Somebody did it on purpose."
Kutek said the area where the fire started didn't even have an electrical outlet, making an electrical fire unlikely.
The congregation has held mass since the fire in the church auditorium across the street, which has been converted into a worship space adorned with statues and a crucifix that survived the blaze. About two dozen people attend mass there each Sunday.
Kutek hopes that many former church members who stopped by the church after the fire, many of them in tears, will continue to support the church in the coming months.
Excitement is building for Saturday's Polish Fest, a decadeslong church tradition that has taken on new importance this year. Some members drove to Chicago to purchase authentic Polish sausage and beer, said church member Paula Quinn, and cooks have made about 2,000 Polish dumplings, called pierogi, as well as traditional cabbage rolls.
Church members are donating items for a silent auction. And the polka band is ready to roll.
Kutek said he hopes the festival will not only cover the cost of the church demolition but provide seed money for the church's future. That will supplement a GoFundMe appeal that has so far raised $26,000.
If the money can be raised, the church is considering remodeling its social hall into a chapel. Another option is to rebuild a "small, efficient" church on the site of the church coming down, Kutek said.
But for now, the focus is on razing the church. City inspectors say that if they demolish the building, the church would be assessed a special property tax for five years to pay for it.
But the church wants to take care of the demolition itself, and is seeking bids for the project.
"We know it has to come down, and we're working on it,'' said Quinn. "It just breaks our hearts."
What: Fundraiser for Sacred Heart of Jesus Polish National Church. Where: Church site, 420 22nd Av. NE., Mpls. When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat. Activities: Polka band, traditional Polish food, silent auction.