To the casual observer, the row of compact, well-kept houses on Alabama Avenue in St. Louis Park is nothing remarkable. Fronted by modest lawns and big trees, backing a Catholic church, and occupied by middle-class families and retirees, the homes are, to all appearances, the model of first-ring suburban comfort and normalcy.
To Father Thomas Dufner, however, these residences are something else. They are an obstacle—perhaps even a test from God—standing between the priest and his dream.
Thanks to Father Dufner's silver tongue and his back-to-scripture approach, his parish—Holy Family Church borders the backyards of the seven houses on the block—has mushroomed in the dozen years he has been at the church. And he wants to expand its footprint.
After using what neighbors have alternately called "deceitful," "immoral," and "shameful" tactics to get control of the second of seven houses on the block earlier this summer—the church quietly bought the first house in December 2005—many longtime residents are wondering how far Dufner will go to get the rest of them.
"Thomas Dufner completely lacks empathy for the neighborhood," says Carol Waugh, who lives across the street from one of the now-vacant houses owned by the church. "This man has an obsession."
When Dufner took over at Holy Family in 1995, the silver-haired, doctrinaire priest inherited a dwindling, aging flock, most of which came from no more than a few blocks away. "It was very much a neighborhood church," recalls one former parishioner who attended Holy Family for more than 40 years.
The school building across the street from the church, once the local center of Catholic education, had spent more than a decade mothballed or rented to another nonreligious academy.
Dufner wasted little time establishing a new regime. Whereas his predecessor was relatively progressive—he didn't dwell on the sin of homosexuality, for instance—Dufner went after hot-button issues, preaching a hard line on everything from abortion to masturbation to commingling with Protestants.
Jinniece Jacobson, a plainspoken, brown-haired mother of five, was a decades-long parishioner at Holy Family when the new priest arrived. But his uncompromising views soon wore on her.
There was his insistence that parents not attend their children's weddings if they married non-Catholics, as well as his admonition that divorce is a one-way ticket to eternal damnation.
On a Mother's Day shortly after Dufner's arrival, Jacobson celebrated the holiday by asking her husband to take their three youngest children off her hands for the morning. He took them to the elegant, stained-glass-adorned church for Sunday mass.
Sitting in the pews, Mark Jacobson listened to Dufner expound on the wondrous bond between mother and child. By contrast, Dufner warned, fathers should not be in the business of mothering their children.
Proud and protective of his close relationship with his kids, Mark Jacobson didn't take the sermon well. Neither did Jinniece, when her husband relayed it to her. The final straw came soon thereafter.
Standing at his pulpit one day at mass, the robed priest reminded his flock about the proper place for women. As he matter-of-factly explained, women belong at home. By following that simple rule, he said, they would keep their husbands from fornicating.
After that sermon, Jacobson made up her mind. "It was like, 'Okay, I can't relate to this,'" she recalls thinking.
They joined a church in Edina. And they weren't alone. Another 10 families they were friends with also left the church, Jacobson says.
But if some members were leaving, they were more than replaced by the new parishioners. Dufner's stern, unwavering sermons drew capacity Sunday crowds, with the faithful flocking from every place from Eden Prairie to Anoka, and even Farmington, more than 30 miles away.
By and large, the new arrivals were young, growing families. A few years after his appointment, Dufner realized a major goal: He reopened Holy Family Academy. The school, nicknamed the Crusaders, teaches kindergarteners through eighth-graders.
But all the growth created a need for space. In December 2005, shortly after the small, one-story beige house next door to the Jacobsons went on the market, Dufner swooped in to buy it.
"It was kind of weird," says Jinniece Jacobson. "Why would the church want a house?"
The reason soon became clear. As the new year dawned, Dufner announced that the church and the school were overflowing, and that he hoped to buy the remaining six houses on the block to expand. He didn't have any specific plans for what he sought to build, he said, but wanted to get the land and take it from there.
Jacobson didn't begrudge the priest wanting her house. But with three kids still in school, retirement a distant thought, and her elderly in-laws living two doors down, she told the pastor she wasn't interested in selling any time soon. He persisted.
Soon, word of Dufner's expansionist vision spread through the close-knit neighborhood. In May, after fielding calls from worried neighbors, City Council member Susan Sanger helped organize a community meeting. More than 100 neighbors packed the council's chambers. They took turns venting their frustration at Father Dufner over his repeated efforts to buy the houses—some called it harassment—and his unwillingness to spell out what he hoped to do with the land.
Dufner held his ground. His church and school were "bursting at the seams," the white-collared priest told the crowd. The school needed a new gym and classrooms, and the church needed more office, meeting, and gathering space.
In a step toward conciliation, Dufner agreed to form a committee of neighbors and church officials to help figure out a good expansion plan. The first meeting was scheduled for June. Dufner postponed it until August, then canceled it. The committee has yet to meet, and Dufner has yet to go public with any type of plan. Meanwhile, he has continued to move forward in acquiring the land.
Last spring, Erin Hynes put her corner house on the market. A home-and-garden writer, Hynes had spent years turning her yard into a hot spot for a variety of obscure grass species, sedges, and a hearty rose garden. She flatly turned down an offer of $319,000 from the church. Active in the neighborhood association and the longtime block captain, she was unwilling to contribute to what she saw as the destruction of the community.
Two months later, another offer came in. Joseph Oden, a recently retired Pioneer Press photographer living in St. Paul, was willing to pay her $300,000 cash. Hynes checked his name against the Holy Family parish roster; he wasn't on it.
Satisfied that he wasn't a straw man, she went through with the sale.
At mass a few weeks later, Dufner had some good news for his parishioners: A "benefactor" had bought the house and was willing to sell it to the church. (Oden declined to comment. Dufner, reached at his office, denied that the church owns the house, and declined any further comment.)
Hynes was in her new home in Chicago when she found out the church had gotten hold of her house. "It was as if I had given my baby up for adoption and found out it had been murdered by its new parents," she says. "I was sick."
Her old neighbors shared her view, sending a flurry of letters to various higher-ups at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Reverend Kevin McDonough, vicar general of the archdiocese, did not respond to phone calls requesting an interview. But he did answer letters from neighbors with a uniform reply.
"I do not share your outrage," he wrote to Holy Family's neighbors, adding that Jewish and black families have used similar straw-man methods to buy houses in the Twin Cities. "The tactic in and of itself is not immoral."
As graphic designers, the Jacobsons had little trouble making a laminated, five-foot-long sign in bright green script. They hung it from their garage, directly across from the church office, and even put a spotlight on it, to make it visible after dark.
"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house," it read.
At a morning homily a few days later, Father Dufner expressed his sadness over the sign. To covet, he told his flock, means to hate. And the church had no hatred for the people whose houses he desired.
Late last month, Dufner sent a letter to the five remaining families on the block. It offered to buy their houses at $60,000 above their appraised values, or trade their homes for nearby ones owned by the church.
No one took the church up on its offer.
Janine Cotton, a 47-year-old nurse who lives on the block with her husband and 10-year-old son, says that even so, the empty houses have changed the character of the neighborhood.
"It is infuriating," she says. "To have it done by a church magnifies it."