ST. PAUL (MINNESOTA) PIONEER-PRESS
Church begins the 'impossible'
St. Stefan's needs $750,000 to restore its crumbling building and to help
keep its Romanian heritage alive. BY LIALA HELAL
TwinCities.com-Pioneer Press Article Last Updated:08/04/2007
When Plymouth resident Monica Ericson, 45, feels empty, she ventures to
South St. Paul to a place that is "a symbol of who I am."
That is St. Stefan's Romanian Orthodox Church.
"When I go there, I feel the peace," she said. "It's the only place where I
could find this peace."
She's been doing so since 1987, the year she emigrated from Romania.
"It's very hard to describe what happens every time you go," Ericson said.
"It's like feeling the accumulation of all the prayers that have ever been
done in that church, all at once."
The church's physical structure is anything but at peace. The more than
80-year-old building that has brought Twin Cities Romanians together is falling
The concrete dome is crushing the wooden structure, causing cracks in the
walls. The old design of the church, which has no gutters, pushes storm water
to its corners, letting rain seep through the bricks and into the building,
where it settles in the basement.
Water damage, cracking and peeling walls, and a deteriorating foundation
threaten to destroy the church, taking with it the Romanian community's sense of
place, comfort and belonging.
"The building, itself, is sinking in," said Lily Manole, the church
A hefty bill stands in the way of saving the church. At least $750,000 is
needed to restore the building, a goal Manole said is "almost impossible."
She's one of the many Romanians who left their homeland years ago but strive
to keep their culture, traditions and memories alive. St. Stefan's church,
built in 1924 by the first Romanians to come to South St. Paul, is more than a
place of worship. It's where Romanian culture comes alive and where people
young and old dance together to familiar music.
"We are very attached to this old building,'' Ericson said.
In an effort to come up with the money, the church held its first fundraiser
last month, said member Raluca Octav. The church hosted the Twin Cities'
first Romanian Festival, where attendees ate Romanian food and watched cultural
performances. Octav regarded this effort as a "moral obligation" to save her
But they were able to raise just $4,000.
"It was a start," said Octav, chairwoman of the cultural committee for the
festival that attracted about 400 people.
The building is listed on the Minnesota Historical Society's registry of
historic sites as well as the National Register of Historic Places.
"We don't even know if that is a good thing, because that is what's limiting
us," Manole said. "It would be nice to go to Home Depot and buy the windows,
but we can't do that."
A preservation architect from the State Historic Preservation Office
inspected the building and told church members that $750,000 for restoration was a
Because it's an old building, many things cannot be replaced but must be
"Restoration versus repair is totally different," said church member Liviu
Oltean. For example, finding someone who can make custom windows that match
the Byzantine architecture is a challenge. If significant changes are made, the
church could lose its historic status.
"People aren't necessarily required to maintain their site's historical
character, but we encourage them to," said Dennis Gimmestad, compliance officer
for the State Historical Preservation Office. "Things can be altered, as long
as the church retains its historical integrity. If the integrity is so lost
that the building can no longer represent its history, then that would be
grounds for removal from the list."
Church leaders and members say they are adamant about following the
preservation standards to protect the building's historical significance, even if
that means more work, money and time from the small congregation of about 100
"I think it's everybody's intent to maintain the historical character of the
church. That's important for the future generation. As far as the basic
structure and design elements, I don't think we'd ever change that. I think the
historical designation is a great honor for the church," said Nick Motu, a
former church president, whose father was the church's priest for 50 years.
No major changes have been made since repairs after a fire about 60 years
ago. Years ago, the congregation was able to raise $30,000 to fix the roof
exterior. Five years ago, St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Church donated a new heating
and air conditioning system.
The most urgent work now is to stop the water from entering the building and
further damaging it. Members worry that if it's not done before winter, snow
will melt in and make matters worse.
"We've always been able to raise small amounts of money," Motu said. "The
problem now is that it's more than one thing. It seems as if everything needs
attention at the same time. It's overwhelming for a small congregation to deal
Historic religious buildings across the nation are in need of costly
"Unfortunately, it's common these days for many historic churches and
religious congregations to have several hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not
millions, in repair costs," said Tuomi Forrest, associate director of Partners
for Sacred Places, a national nonprofit organization that helps congregations
take care of historic buildings. "Most of them can't handle this."
Sacred Places steps in to help when asked, but the success of each project
varies. The nonprofit helped a Baptist church congregation in Minneapolis find
ways to raise more than $2 million to save its building.
"Very few churches can handle this type of project exclusively from their
members," Forrest said.
One of the most crucial ingredients to a successful fund-raising effort is
the commitment to work hard, he said.
St. Stefan's church community has plenty of that, despite the challenge of
"We're willing to work for it. We don't expect a guardian angel to drop a
bag of money on our doorstep," Motu said. "I think where there's a will,
there's a way. So we'll find a way."
Forrest said they'll have to be more creative. Fundraising dinners won't do
"It's not typical right now for congregations to look past their own members
for fundraising," he said. "Really serious fundraising for a capital program
is still new territory for many congregations."
Minnesota is one of 28 states that does not offer grants to active religious
properties because of separation of church and state practices.
"The government is not going to help us," Manole said.
Still, they are determined.
"It may take us years to reach this amount, but we have to do this. It's the
only thing we can pass on to our children," Ericson said. "We want to do
everything possible to keep this place alive."
Liala Helal can be reached at
Send donations to St. Stefan's Romanian Orthodox Church, P.O. Box 453, 350
5th Ave. N., South St. Paul, MN 55075-0453; call 651-451-3462; or e-mail
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