Feel-good story of a church restoration ends with bad feelings

It was such a sweet story when KARE 11’s Boyd Huppert, who has a habit of finding them, told the tale of Greg Thomas, who restored a declining church in Montgomery, Minn. He was fighting cancer and, the story goes, he wanted to fix up St. John’s church when he stopped to pray.

The viral story that followed suggested fixing up the closed church helped cure his disease.

“This is my way of saying thank you,” Thomas told KARE 11 in 2012.

His cancer subsequently returned and he decided to forego treatment. But he still had an idea of preaching in the church — he was studying to be a pastor — before his time is up.

But after Thomas installed electric service and a fireplace in the church, the owner — Holy Redeemer Catholic Church — told him to stop all work on it, Huppert reports.

“If we completely fix this up, then we’re going to end up having to insure it,” church trustee Greg Mach said. The church could be a “showpiece”, but shouldn’t be open to the public.

“It was a thing that brought the community together. Everyone enjoyed it. It was glory to God, which was my main focus, and now it just sits there,” says Thomas.

Thomas felt further disrespected when Holy Redeemer informed him it planned to change the locks on the church, allowing him access for prayer, only with a church escort.

“It is the property of Most Holy Redeemer parish and he’s a not parishioner,” said Mach, “so he has to contact someone from the parish or the cemetery board for access.”

Thomas, who spent years restoring the church, bristles at the suggestion. “I’m not Catholic, I don’t know if that makes a difference to me. To me, we’re all God’s children.”

As Thomas worked on the church, people around the area got the spirit too, the Star Tribune said in a profile last year.

The roof was a mess, and after Thomas contacted Springer Construction Services of Prior Lake for a bid, he wound up with free roof tiles from Kansas supplier DaVinci Roofscapes and at-cost labor from Springer.

Dutch Boy paint representatives came to the rescue last year, when the newly painted white church began peeling because of moisture problems. Its volunteers scraped off Thomas’ two-year paint job and are returning this summer to repaint.

As Thomas’ story spread, neighbors stopped by and offered support. Nearby farmers helped erect a huge donated cross in the churchyard. The American Legion of Montgomery hosted a fundraiser. Frandsen Bank & Trust in Montgomery became the depository for donations to the new St. John’s Chapel Fund.

Thomas, meanwhile, grew stronger. Last year, the feeding tube was removed from his stomach, allowing him to eat solid food for the first time in four years. He acknowledges he’s received very good medical care, but he’s not convinced that’s the only thing driving his health.

“I don’t believe my healing came from being in a hospital,” he said. “There are too many things that have happened in my life.”