MONTGOMERY, Minn. – A cancer patient who restored a crumbling country church says he no longer feels welcome.
Greg Thomas was forced to cancel an annual Christmas open house that drew more than 500 people to the church last year. He’s no longer allowed to enter the church he restored without an escort.
“It’s a bitter pill,” says the Army veteran. “It’s really truly sad.”
Last summer, Thomas was summoned to Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, the owner of the little church and surrounding cemetery, and told to suspend all activities there. Holy Redeemer trustee Gene Mach was among those who addressed Thomas.
“To me, it came down to a lot of miscommunication,” Mach now says.
Mach says Most Holy Redeemer is grateful for Thomas’ restoration but objected to the gas fireplace Thomas installed and the electrical service he ran to the church – both funded with donations Thomas had collected.
Mach says the church grew increasingly uncomfortable with the improvements Thomas was adding to the church Holy Redeemer owns.
“If we completely fix this up, then we're going to end up having to insure it,” Mach says. "If someone were to get hurt of injured then it falls back onto us."
The church’s lack of restrooms and handicap-access was another issue, according to Mach. So too the lack of parking in the cemetery surrounding the church, say Mach.
Mach says Most Holy Redeemer concluded the church should serve as “showpiece” on the landscape, without access to the public.
“It had to be basically stopped,” says Mach.
Thomas felt just as strongly the historic church should be open for people to worship and enjoy – inside and out.
“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 Most Holy Redeemer informed him it planned to change the locks on the church, allowing him access for prayer only with an escort.
“It is the property of Most Holy Redeemer parish and he’s a not parishioner,” says 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.”
Thomas offered to buy the church, but Most Holy Redeemer declined to discuss the sale of a building in the middle of a cemetery. "It is sacred ground and there are people buried there and it’s not really an event center," said Mach.
Thomas began restoring the church eight years ago, after his diagnosis with stage 4 head and neck cancer.
Thomas received donations from across the country after a KARE 11 story about Thomas went viral online. He estimates more than $70,000 has been poured into the church, in addition to his volunteer hours.
After initially beating cancer, Thomas learned last year the disease has returned. With no good treatment options, Thomas says he's leaving his future in God's hands.
Thomas recently published a book about his ordeal and has begun public speaking. He’s also midway through his study to become a minister.
Thomas says he believes God still has plans for the little church. "That the Lord’s blessing remains upon that church, that's my prayer," he says.