The bells of St. Mary’s were ringing in Minneapolis on Oct. 14. They were pealing loud and clear to celebrate the huge grant just won by the Basilica of St. Mary.

The victory proved that when Catholics work together, they can accomplish great things.

In this case, it was for the Church and the church. The basilica, which is the co-cathedral church of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese, came in first place in the Partners in Preservation contest, gaining the top award of $109,800 to restore its narthex and sacristy.

How did the Catholic teamwork come about?

The Partners in Preservation program picks an area of the country to run this contest to give preservation grants. The contest is sponsored yearly by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express. Winners are picked by popular vote. The first-place winner receives the entire amount it requests for its project, up to a maximum of $125,000.
The contestants were narrowed to 25 historic sites in the seven-county Twin Cities area. Three days after the contest was launched on Sept. 20, the archdiocesan newspaper The Catholic Spirit encouraged its readers to go to the Partners in Preservation Facebook page, find the basilica in the list, and cast their vote — and then vote daily — all part of the official rules.

When the last day of voting rolled around on Oct. 12, the Basilica of St. Mary had picked up 19% of the votes to capture the top spot.

“That encouragement went a long way,” Emily Carlson Hjelm told me. “We knew if we had the Catholic audience in the Twin Cities behind us, it would help getting the Catholic vote.”

Hjelm is the executive director of The Basilica Landmark, a nonprofit organization that promotes knowledge of and raises funds for the basilica and its campus.

She was enthused by how people got excited to do something in this way for the church. “This was another example of that,” she said. “We have a thriving and youthful volunteer population, and it was exciting to see that type of group come together once again.”

It was especially fitting that St. Mary’s got such good Catholic cooperation to win this grant.  Historically, it’s America’s first basilica, being named with the honor in 1926 by Pope Pius XI.

The construction began in 1907, and the first Mass was celebrated on May 31, 1914, then the Queenship of Mary. It was dedicated to the Mother of Jesus on Aug. 15, 1915, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. From stained-glass windows to stone and plaster carvings, there are many references to Mary throughout the church.

The basilica has even been recognized as one of the finest examples of Beaux Arts architecture in the country and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This grant money will be put to good use: Water damage from water leaks since the beginning of the church’s existence have left plaster crumbling, while years of candles burning have left a “cloud” over the interior. Besides repairs, limestone walls and paintings will be cleaned.

As Hjelm said, “We knew if we if we could get this funding we could make the space as beautiful as when it was originally built.”

The goal is to start restoration immediately after Christmas; the grant requires all the work to be completed by July 2012.

“We’re thrilled that people took action and voted for the basilica,” Hjelm said, “and we hope they will continue to take care of our basilica landmark with their volunteer time, financial gifts and prayers into the future.”

Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.