When I was a kid, every once in a while on a Sunday morning my Mom would take my sisters and me downtown (Minneapolis) to mass at “The French Church” — she never called it by its name, Our Lady of Lourdes. She usually chose a rainy, dreary day. I remember her saying that those were the kind of days she liked to go there, because they reminded her of her years as a kid when she lived on nearby Nicollet Island.
Our Lady of Lourdes Church, the first section of which was constructed by the first Universalist Society between 1854 and 1857, is the oldest church in Minneapolis. The French-Canadian Catholic community in Minneapolis bought the church building in 1877 and added on to the original stucture. My Mom called it “The French Church” because they still had French-language masses when she was young. Even though she didn’t speak French, her last name was Rondeau, and word has it that her mother was fluent in both French and Ojibwe when she was a young girl in northern Minnesota.
My parents were married in this church and I was baptized there. Some of my very earliest memories are of this church and the surrounding neighborhood. In those days, it was kind of a run-down part of town.
Nearby Chute Square park features the Ard Godfrey House (1848), the oldest frame house still standing in Minneapolis. It was moved (many years ago) a few blocks to its present location and is operated as a musem now. In my childhood days, the park was a hangout for homeless people and alcoholics such as my grandfather, who lived about a block away. Even though he was not homeless, he was definitely a drunk, and I think he hung out there quite a bit.
Originally, this area was part of the town of St. Anthony, across the river from the upstart community of Minneapolis. Some of the oldest buildings in Minneapolis such as these and the St. Anthony Main area, became part of Minneapolis when “Old St. Anthony” was annexed by the faster-growing city across the Mississippi in 1872. According to the plaque in front, the church is very near the spot where Father Louis Hennepin, an early French missionary, first saw and named the falls for St. Anthony in 1680.
The area has changed a lot since my early memories in the ’50s and ’60s. The buildings on 3 of the 4 sides of the church are all relatively new. Townhouses now stand where the big Coca Cola bottling plant was. Across the street from the Godfrey house is a shiny new blue-tinted condo building with an upscale grocery story at street level. Urban professionals have replaced the raggedy old men of my youth in Chute Square Park. But Nye’s Polonaise Room, an iconic neighborhood antique gem, (and oddly named best bar in the U.S. by Esquire magazine last year) still stands on the next corner to the west.
I doubt my Grandpa would feel very comfortable there these days. While it’s safer and cleaner now, these blocks are also more sterile and less interesting — except for the few old buildings that go all the way back to the very beginnings of the city of Minneapolis, and are also ground zero for my own memories.
I didn’t have a lot of time when I stopped there on a whim yesterday afternoon, so I just put a couple of quarters in the meter and walked around for 30 minutes and snapped a few photos. Next time I go, it’s going to be on a rainy Sunday morning. I’ll spend more time walking around, remembering . . .
and maybe I’ll even go to mass for old time’s sake.