How the Interstate Highway System Changed Churches



The interior of St. Joseph’s Church in Minneapolis prior to its demolition in 1976. The parish moved to Maple Grove and was renamed St. Joseph the Worker. ARCHIDIOCESAN ARCHIVES

When John Ireland dedicated St. Joseph’s Church at North Fourth Street and Eleventh Avenue in Minneapolis on September 15, 1889, it was not yet complete, but it was already magnificent. Its white brick and sandstone structure was unlike any other building in the city, with towering towers at the two front corners of the building. Inside there were 1,200 seats.

The stained glass windows cast color on the white walls, which was particularly impressive in the early morning hours. Later, the white ceiling was painted and stenciled with brightly colored murals. In 1891, an ornate Italian marble altar was added, measuring 24 feet high and 19 feet wide.

The church was on its way to becoming a staple of the German-American immigrant community on the north side. St. Joseph acted as a central gathering space for local residents and played a vital role in the lives of local adults and children. The parish choir was known to present musicals like “HMS Pinafore” in cooperation with neighboring parishes. During the 1910s and 1920s, the St. Joseph Athletic Club basketball team had a reputation for winning, and the club hosted its own newspaper, baseball team, and football program. The club also operated a three-lane basement bowling alley which was expanded in the 1930s.

Over time, the neighborhood has changed. Following in the footsteps of its German residents, came Mexican, Italian, Puerto Rican, Hungarian and Vietnamese immigrants who made their home in the parish. Overall, the parish began to age and in 1970 St. Joseph School closed due to declining enrollment.

The construction of Interstate 94 was a pivotal event in the history of the church. The building ended up in the way of the highway and was purchased by the state highways department. Efforts to save or relocate the building had little impact because by the 1970s most parishioners who could have defended the church had moved to the suburbs. Eventually, the building was demolished in 1976.

The parish itself was moved that year to the expanding suburb of Maple Grove, where it was named St. Joseph the Worker to distinguish it from neighboring parishes. About 30 families continued as parishioners for the New Church, built with funds from the sale of the Minneapolis Church. Numerous statues, clothes and candelabras made the move to the new building, as well as the crib and the four-bell carillon. The beautiful altar in the old church has been segmented to form a high altar, chapel altar and baptismal font in the new building.

The Saint Joseph parish continued, but like its divided altar, it was not at all the same. Many parishes in the Twin Cities and across the country have also had their buildings razed or their parish quarters separated. In northern Minneapolis, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has chosen not to reopen St. Maarten due, in part, to the construction of a nearby highway. The other two parishes that served the black community, St. Leonard of Port Maurice in southern Minneapolis and St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, saw their parish communities bulldozed and fractured as a result of highways.

Across the country, this pattern repeated itself in Birmingham, Alabama, New Haven, Connecticut, Detroit and elsewhere. Even in Chicago, where highways were often intentionally rerouted to save churches, parish quarters were not preserved. In Minneapolis, St. Paul and beyond, interstate highways have become a major factor in the decline of the Catholic Parish Ward.

Luiken is a Catholic and a historian with a doctorate. from the University of Minnesota. She enjoys exploring and sharing the hidden stories that touch our daily lives. A related story on the story of St. Joseph the Worker appeared in the May 27 issue of The Catholic Spirit, as part of the ongoing coverage of the current Year of St. Joseph.

Key words: German-American Immigrant Community, Interstate Highway System, John Ireland, Minneapolis, St. Joseph Church

Category: Echoes of Catholic Minnesota, Featured


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