Two years after arson that destroyed historic Melrose church, police have a suspect

The fire caused millions of dollars worth of damage.
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It's been more than two years since fire devastated St. Mary's Catholic Church in Melrose, Minnesota, and police finally have a suspect.

The blaze on March 11, 2016 destroyed the historic, then 118-year-old Romanesque Revival-style church, causing several million dollars of damage.

The church, with its distinctive 130-foot towers, suffered catastrophic damage on its interior, including flooding in its basement. 

Among the items destroyed in the fire was its wooden altar, which was made in Germany and installed prior to the church's dedication in 1899.

A week-and-a-half after the blaze, Melrose police and Stearns County investigators determined it had been started deliberately, and on Wednesday announced they think they've found the person who did it.

A teenager who was 13 at the time of the fire told deputies that he was the one who set the blaze.

Melrose police had no joy in the first 22 months of their probe, but in January asked for help from Stearns County Sheriff's Office to re-investigate its files and provide additional support.

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This led to the re-interviewing of several witnesses and re-examination of the evidence, which eventually led them to the boy, who confessed to the fire under questioning.

He has been charged with 1st degree arson, though his name hasn't been released as he's being prosecuted in Juvenile Court.

The church hasn't reopened since the fire, with the Star Tribune reporting the St. Cloud Diocese plans to replace it with a $12 million new church on land nearby.

This has been met with opposition from the mostly German Catholic community in Melrose, however, who have started a group called Friends to Restore St. Mary’s Church to try and bring the original building back to life.

After the boy was arrested, Stearns County Sheriff Don Gudmundson said: "Any unsolved crime produces a sense of unease in communities. I know the arson of the church has left an indelible mark on the entire area."

"It is our hope that this will be a positive step in putting the community at ease along with healing for the congregation of St. Mary’s Catholic Church," he added.

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