St. Peter’s Catholic Church

St. Peters Catholic Church, year and photographer unknown. [Image: Zenith City Press]

818 West Third Street | Architect: Peter Summers | Built: 1926 | Extant

Biagio and Angelina Somma, Duluth’s first Italian immigrants, arrived in 1880. Other Northern Italians followed, but relatively few compared to the thousands of Southern Italians who began arriving in the 1890s. Most settled in the Glenn beneath Point of Rock, among the French Catholics of St. Jean Baptiste. By 1900 they wanted a church of their own—one with a priest who spoke both the
Italian they knew and the English they were learning. So when the French moved out of their wooden church in 1905, Italians lead by Mike LaPlanta and Peter and Carlo Mainella purchased the old building. With the help of Bishop James McGolrick, they organized a congregation and named it St. Peter’s, appropriate for a community built on solid rock. The surrounding area became know as Little Italy.

As parishioners waited for the arrival of Father John Zarilli—hand selected by McGilrock—other priests filled in. The first was Father A. Hartman, a French priest who spoke fluent Italian and lead the new parish’s first service. Zarilli arrived in 1907. In 1912, McGolrick appointed him dean of all the Italians in the diocese.

The 1885 church stood until 1926, when the congregation literally built a new church atop Point of Rocks. Several of St. Peter’s parishioners were highly skilled stone masons from northern Italy. They constructed much of the brick and stone work that still graces Duluth, including Old Central High School, St. Scholastica’s Tower Hall, Enger Tower, the bridges of Seven Bridges Road, and countless foundations and retaining walls. These artisans volunteered to build the church out of multicolored native stone harvested near Twin Ponds. Designed by parishioner Peter Summers, son of Biagio and Angelina Somma, the simple yet elegant two-and-a-hal-story Gothic Revival church features lancet windows and a recessed front entry of cut stone, tower buttresses, and two square corner towers free of steeples. Its cross-gabled roof is covered in red tile. The bell from the 1885 church was placed in one of the towers.

Zarilli left St. Peter’s in 1920 to establish other churches, returning in 1939 and serving until his retirement in 1965, three months before his death. Meanwhile, as with other ethnic parishes, attendance declined as each passing generation became more integrated and moved further from the neighborhood. The diocese closed St. Peter’s in 2010, its congregation absorbed by St. Mary Star of the Sea.

The diocese prepared to demolish the church and sell the prime real estate beneath it, removing all its relics and stained-glass windows. Preservationists successfully delayed its destruction until artist Jeffrey T. Larson purchased the building in 2015. While the original windows are gone, the building continues to serve Duluth as the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art.