Stearns County in Minnesota, located around the St. Cloud area, is an unassuming, rolling-hills-and-farms landscape with occasional lakes and woods. Interstate 94 cuts right through the heart of it with St. Cloud being the economic hub of the area. Most people don’t know about its hidden gems – its churches. There are 52 Catholic churches in this county, which was heavily settled by Germans in the late 1800’s. After recently reading a book about these fascinating places of worship, HighwayHighlights took a roadtrip to explore them in person. We were blown away by what we found, and here are the Top Ten.
10. Church of the Immaculate Conception, New Munich, MN.
The Catholic Church in New Munich, MN stands on the main road through this tiny town of about 300 people. It was completed in 1911. The facade of the church features two square steeples and its elaborate doors feature metal vignettes that harken back to the churches of Germany and other parts of Europe. The interior features vaulted, pinkish colored ceilings and eloborate stained-glass windows.
9. St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN. The grandeur and expansiveness of this blocky centerpiece of St. Johns University made it a top-ten no-brainer by default. Although much more modern (built in 1961) than most other churches in the area, the St. John’s Abbey church with its concrete bell banner out front and its honeycomb of stain glass windows make for a beautiful contrast with its bold, symmetrical interior. This church is a great example of the post Vatican-II movement, which basically forbade any fun, colorful, detailed art that supposedly distracted from the true meaning of Catholic mass services. It has a Cold-War-esque feeling with its mix of Brutalist/Moderne architecture.
8. Assumption Chapel, Cold Spring, MN. Also known as the Grasshopper Chapel (more here), the Assumption Chapel was built in 1951 after the previous chapel was destroyed by a tornado. The pretty little chapel on top of a wooded bluff has an interesting history- it was built in response to a last-ditch effort of a day of prayer to end a grasshopper (locust) plague that devastated the area in the 1870s. The prayer worked, the grasshoppers died off, and this is memorialized in a stone inlay above the door.
7. Church of St. Mary Help of Christians, St. Augusta, MN. Built in the 1870s with locally-quarried granite, the Church of St. Mary, Help of Christians features Gothic-style architecture with additions to the front and side added on much later. Although somewhat unassuming from the outside, the ornate, intricate tabernacles, side altars, and confessionals show remarkable detailing of the hand-carved woodwork so carefully done.
6. Church of St. Paul, Sauk Centre, MN. One of two unique and beautiful Catholic Churches in Sauk Centre, the Church of St. Paul has a traditional Gothic-styled exterior commonly found on churches built during the late 1800s, this one being completed in 1899. But its rich, colorful altars and tabernacle set the tone of the this intimate, cozy, little church. One gazes in wonder at the detail of the spires, arches, and figures of the altarpiece.
5. Church of St. John the Baptist, Meire Grove, MN. Just a few miles south of the Interstate is Meire Grove, another dot-on-the-map town with a curious church. This one seems to have a more Spanish-influenced feel to it, although its architecture is said to be Baroque in style. Built in the 1920’s, the interior features an apse of gold-painted bricks with a large depiction of Christ as well as his apostles. The nave of the church features bricked arched columns and an open, airy, feel. It’s beautiful.
4. Church of the Seven Dolors, Albany, MN. Another impressive church on the list, the Church of the Seven Dolors in Albany also features the eloborate woodworkings of the altar and tabernacles that set these churches apart from your run-of-the-mill modern churches so common today. Much like the churches in St. Augusta and Sauk Centre, the arched ceilings and stained glass windows take a backseat to the opulent design of the sanctuary, a visually stunning work of art. It was officially dedicated in 1900.
3. Church of St. Mary, Melrose, MN. The Catholic church in Melrose is classically beautiful on the outside, with its pair of twin steeples and red brick design with Romanesque features. Construction on it was completed in 1899. A sign near the door tells that it was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1993, for good reason. But the inside of the church is even more beautiful, with blue-painted ceilings and its ethereal sanctuary dome, designed like stars in the sky. The altar was built in Germany and shipped over, and detailed stained glass windows line the sides.
2. Church of Our Lady of the Angels, Sauk Centre, MN. The sanctuary dome of this church is one of the more unique and amazing displays of any church in Stearns County, possibly even in Minnesota. The church itself is somewhat basic, the outside design is classic Romanesque with a newer entryway addition off the front, and the nave of the church is open and somewhat plain. But the painted apse featuring Mary as an angel ascending from the clouds accompanied by cherubs is visually arresting, created by a local artist in 2004 who based it off of a work done by an Italian painter. After the original church burned to the ground on Christmas Eve 1924, this current building was completed a year later.
1. Church of the Sacred Heart, Freeport, MN. Easily the most impressive out of any of the churches we visited, the Church of the Sacred Heart in Freeport, built in 1925 after the previous one burned down, was also the most deceptive. The church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has a seemingly-ordinary façade that downplays the interior’s detailed beauty. Inside the church, the blue ceilings, complex stained-glass windows, gold-trimmed arches and stunning display of decadence is nothing short of a masterpiece. There is not an inch left untouched. The altar and tabernacle are elaborate and even the Stations of the Cross, a Catholic church staple, are all handcarved and painted and maybe 12-ft tall each. Whether you practice religion or not, this house of worship is a true hidden gem, one of Minnesota’s best-kept secrets just out of view in a sleepy little interstate town.
Honorable Mentions: St. Stephen, MN Catholic Church; Sacred Heart Chapel (College of St. Benedict); Church of the Immaculate Conception, St. Anna; Stella Maris Chapel (St. Johns University).