SAWYER — As the deacon of Saints Mary and Joseph Catholic Church, Bryan Bassa’s duties include teaching religion and assisting at Mass.
And now tour guide.
“I got a call yesterday,” Bassa, 71, said last Tuesday as he stood outside the newly restored Old Log Church, built in 1884 as a mission church to the Fond du Lac Reservation. “I’ve got 50 people coming from St. Paul on a tour bus on September 12th. … I couldn’t believe — 50 people.”
Fifty people on a tour bus, making their way off Interstate 35 on state Highway 210 to the Sawyer Store and then a mile north on Mission Road, is a big thing. But a much bigger event is coming up earlier, on Sunday (Sept. 8), when morning Mass will take place in the Old Log Church for the first time in 55 years.
Bassa estimates the old church, which was one of the few buildings to survive the 1918 Cloquet fire, can hold 140 people. From what he has heard so far, he’s guessing about 300 people will show up for the rededication Mass. But that’s OK. A large screen will be set up in the larger brick church that replaced the Old Log Church so that those unable to fit in the smaller building will be able to observe the Mass from the larger structure.
The brick church probably was built in the first place because the parish had outgrown the Old Log Church, Bassa said. The former wasn’t completed until 1967, so for three years Mass was celebrated in the new church’s finished basement.
Meanwhile, the Old Log Church gradually fell into disrepair. The Rev. Jude Koll, who came to the parish from St. John’s Abbey and served from 1952-70, had wanted to restore the old church as a museum, Bassa said.
“But over time — you know, people didn’t have a lot of money here,” he said. “They just didn’t have the money. It was a small parish, 100 families, just like we have today.”
It stood that way when Bassa, a retired history teacher, was ordained as the parish’s deacon in November 2010. A family gave him a card with a picture of the old church, and the dream of restoring it to use was born.
The dream started to become reality when a small committee was formed, and work on the project began in 2016. It was funded by a grant of more than $128,000, another grant of $20,000, a gift of $50,000 left by a priest and between $80,000 and $90,000 donated by families in the parish, Bassa said.
Much of the work was done by volunteers, with a big assist two years ago from the Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps, which employs Americorps volunteers for restoration projects across Minnesota.
When the News Tribune last visited that October, the youthful Americorps workers and their mentors were perched on ladders as they worked on replacing the cedar shake roof. Inside, boards were laid across the original section of the church.
A contractor completed the roof that year, and 2018 was focused mostly on interior work, Bassa said. The project was completed in late July or early August of this year. Finishing touches include a partial-asphalt drive around the building and newly planted grass.
The hardwood floor holds pews that look like they could be a hundred years old but in fact were made by a family in the restoration committee. The altar, built in the 1890s, is the oldest wooden altar in the Diocese of Duluth. (The church itself is the second-oldest in the diocese after a church in Grand Portage.) It’s half of the original altar. The top part is in the brick church, featuring a statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American woman canonized by the Catholic Church. Her reported healing acts include curing Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut — for whom Duluth is named — of rheumatism.
A staircase in the back leads to a small balcony, from which the 10-voice choir will sing during the Sept. 8 Mass.
Of course, most services and activities will continue to take place in the 1967 church. But Bassa anticipates some classes could take place in the Old Log Church, at least in the more clement months, along with some funerals, baptisms, weddings and other special events.
He has taken several small groups through the building already, Bassa said. He was still marveling, last week, over the thought of 50 people wanting to include the Old Log Church in their visit.
But he’s OK with that.
“I really find that I love giving tours,” Bassa said. “I love history.”
If you go
What: The blessing of the Old Log Church by Bishop Paul Sirba
When: 10:30 a.m. Sunday (Sept. 8)
Where: 1225 Mission Road, Sawyer
Details: Guests will include the Rev. Henry Sands, executive director of the Black and Indian Mission Office in Washington, D.C. A time capsule from the 1967 church will be opened. Lunch will be catered by B&B Market.