A historic church building perched on Lake Superior beachfront property is up for sale and the top bidder will win the largest developable site available in the Park Point neighborhood.
Our Lady of Mercy/St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church officials will open bids for Our Lady of Mercy church, 2002 Minnesota Ave., on Feb. 1. The small neighborhood church was closed in July 2016 and its nearly one-acre lakeside parcel was listed for sale three months ago. The asking price is $650,000.
Both church officials and real estate agents expect new owners will likely remove the church building and its rectory to redevelop the property. A schematic drawing posted on the site shows space for nine residential lots, including five adjacent to waterfront sand dunes.
The 125-capacity church building started its life around the turn of the 20th century and was located on Ninth Avenue East and First Street where it served as home to the Christian Science Church. According to the Duluth Playhouse website, its founding members purchased the building in 1914 where it hosted performances as “The Little Theater.” The building was moved down the hill and across the ice on the bay to its current location in 1922.
Rev. Anthony Wroblewski said the Our Lady of Mercy Church was never a well-built structure but active parish members were able to maintain it. As Park Point church attendance dropped over the past three decades, regular masses were reduced and the parish was later combined with St. Mary Star of the Sea in Downtown Duluth.
“It’s actually not safe to be in there anymore because the foundation is crumbling,” he said. “Now you can actually see inside where all the pews dip in one area where the floor has actually started caving in. So there’s a lot of issues.”
The church never had sewer or water service, the roof needs replacement and a basement furnace is almost inaccessible.
“When the place was full they had enough money to keep it up,” said Wroblewski. “What happens when (the parish) starts dwindling you have less money to actually keep the place up. So then you’re spending a greater portion of whatever money you have on trying to keep up a building rather than doing the ministry that really the church is about.”
Real Living Messina and Associates real estate agent Mike Messina said the church building and the rectory, built in 1952, will likely be demolished and removed from the property. “There’s not a ton of value in the buildings,” he said. “For the most part 99 percent of the value is in the property.”
Messina said the Our Lady of Mercy site is the largest parcel of land available for sale on Park Point — a partially-developed neighborhood on the seven-mile long Minnesota Point sandbar that extends into Lake Superior beyond the Aerial Lift Bridge. He said residential property is highly valued in the neighborhood.
“You drive up and down there and you’ve got million dollar homes out there,” he said. “There’s a reason they build them down there, it’s because of the lake view and you have an ocean feel out there because you’re on a beach and all you see is water. There’s not many places in Duluth where you can get that.”
Rev. John Petrich lived in the Our Lady of Mercy rectory in the 1990s and served as the parish priest from 2010 to 2014. Petrich is now the St. Louis County law enforcement chaplain.
Petrich said the rectory was located just behind sand dunes and a small grove of trees with access to the Lake Superior beach. In 2012, he narrated a video highlighting the Catholic church’s historical connections to the Park Point neighborhood.
“I would move back down there again tomorrow,” he said. “I lived out there for 14 years and I loved it.”
Dave Poulin was born on Park Point, baptized at Our Lady of Mercy, was an altar boy as a teenager and served on the parish council beginning in the 1970s. He is on the Our Lady of Mercy/St. Mary’s Star of the Sea finance committee which is charged with selling the property.
Poulin said the building, last remodeled in the 1990s, was saddled with structural issues beyond repair.
“They didn’t have $5,000 to put a foundation on the thing (in 1922) so it’s been sitting on posts ever since. In the center of the structure the floor joists are basically on top of wood blocks on top of sand … on the outside the posts are pretty rotten,” he said. “The structure served its life.”
Sunday mass attendance had dropped to around 30 people, with many Park Point residents driving to larger churches in the city.
“There just wasn’t enough parishioners to keep it alive anymore,” said Poulin. “And with a church like this, we didn’t have a church hall where you could meet or do anything. The rectory was designed to do that kind of stuff, but we really didn’t have as much to offer as many other churches would have.”
Poulin said the property sale will bring the church much needed funding.
“I’m sure we’ll get a good price for it. There just isn’t another piece of property like that on Park Point,” he said.
Money collected from the sale will be targeted for Downtown Duluth, said Wroblewski, who oversees a cluster of Duluth Catholic churches.
“Whatever proceeds from the sale of Our Lady of Mercy will go to St. Mary Star of the Sea which obviously has great needs and serves one of the poorest populations in the city,” he said. “Obviously those needs are great, so whatever proceeds go to Star of the Sea will be greatly appreciated.”
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