John Robertson, victor of St. Cornelia’s Episcopal Church and Bishop Whipple Mission got a call the morning of Sept. 5.

“It was a shock to get that call,” said Robertson.

The caller informed Robertson that a portion of the wall on the back side of the church had collapsed.

While things looked okay from the street, one look around the back of the historic building revealed the situation – some of the Morton granite stone wall had fallen away and a pile of rubble was found next to the rest of the church building.

According to Robertson, a structural assessment of the historic church had been conducted about five years, ago, and the congregation was told that the church was settling. 

“The engineer’s report said that the long sides of the church were settling into the ground,” said Robertson, adding that, along with the heavy rains of the summer, likely contributed to the collapse.

Robertson said he had been by the building Tuesday night and again early Wednesday morning and had not noticed anything out of the ordinary. So, somewhere between that early morning stop and the 11 a.m. call he received the stone fell away from the rest of the building.

St. Cornelia’s Church has been part of the Mdewakanton community for generations. The church itself was started in 1860 by Bishop Henry Whipple, who was the first Episcopal missionary to Minnesota. The Dakota leaders, including Wabasha and Good Thunder, requested the church be built.

According to Robertson, the church building was started on land at the agency, but when the U.S.-Dakota Conflict occurred that all stopped. It was two decades later when Dakota who had been in exile returned to their homeland that a new church was erected.

The same cornerstone and some of the Morton granite used in the original church was transported from the agency site to the place where the church building sits today.

That church was consecrated in 1891 and has stood there for more than 125 years.

St. Cornelia’s church, which was named after Bishop Whipple’s wife, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

The collapse of the outer stone wall revealed the brick interior wall, which Robertson said was constructed using the material from the brickyard in Morton just down the hill. He added they also think they have also found the place where the work of crafting the stone pieces was done behind the church, as remnants of the Morton granite are piled up in that area.

“We found some blocks and chips of the rock where we think the work took place,” said Robertson.

Robertson said he had made contact with the bishop of the Episcopal church who was informed of the situation, adding their insurance company was also contacted. A structural interventionist was expected to visit the site to determine next steps for the church.

Robertson said he knew of a similar incident that took place at a church in Sauk Rapids, adding that congregation was able to repair and replace the stone walls on the church.

Due to the fact that the church is listed on the national register means the repair work needs to maintain the historicity of the building. That means using the same Morton granite in that work.

Robertson said he is hopeful that the building can be fixed.

Until then Robertson said services will likely be held in a community hall that is located near the church.