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Northfield junior guard Luke Labenski drives toward the basket against Rochester Century during a boys basketball game in January of 2020. In terms of percentage of overall growth, the cities of Rochester and Northfield have increased in size the most of all the nine communities in the Big Nine Conference since 1950. (Michael Hughes/Northfield News)

Local priest reassigned to new parish after 12 years at Sacred Heart

When one door closes, another opens, and for Fr. John Sauer of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Owatonna, there's a bittersweet truth to the timeworn sentiment. After 12 years – or two full terms – of serving as the parish’s priest, Sauer delivered his final Mass in Owatonna Sunday before beginning his new assignment in Rochester.

“There is excitement in what the new is going to look like and how that will be,” Sauer said. “But of course it’s hard to be leaving behind a place I’ve really come to love and appreciate.”

Sauer first came to the Owatonna church in May 2008 from a parish in Winona. At the time, Sauer said he was happy to move closer to his aging parents in St. Cloud so that he could take advantage of seeing them more frequently before they died. Sauer said he had also been adamant about wanting to move to a community where there was another priest in town as well as having the opportunity to be part of a parish that had a school.

Owatonna gave him all that and more.

In addition to serving Sacred Heart and the accompanying St. Mary’s School, Sauer also served as the priest of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Litomysl until spring 2019, when the church was aligned with a cluster with Blooming Prairie and Hayfield. The church also had an accompanying school – St. Isidore – until May 2015.

“There’s a difference in the smaller communities that are very rural — the people really know each other and it’s a little bit easier to get to know everybody in the parish,” Sauer said of his time at Litomysl. “The folks really love their parish and take great care of it — it’s was very self-directed.”

Sauer said he cherished his time at Litomysl, proving to be one of the more unique experiences during his priesthood and highly different from his time in Owatonna.

“There is a lot to be proud of,” Sauer said of his time at Sacred Heart. “Absolutely, our renovation is among the top highlights.”

It had been roughly half a century since the sanctuary at Sacred Heart had been renovated, and on Friday the project was officially declared complete. Sauer said that he wanted to take cues from the past without replicating it, adding that he is especially proud of the Litany of the Sacred Heart painted across the top of the sanctuary walls in both English in Spanish — better representing the entire congregation. In May, the church was awarded the Steele County Historical Society 2020 Preservation Award for adhering to the 1922 building’s Romanesque style.

Sauer said that other highlights of his time in Owatonna include the completion of the new office building, celebrating the parish’s 150th anniversary, and the “annual highlights’ he was able to share with his congregation.

“Internally you develop these relationships and get to be involved in people’s lives through baptisms, first communions, confirmations and marriages,” Sauer said. “I laugh with the school kids because I’m at the point now where I’ve baptized the majority of all St. Mary’s students. Being a part of those stages in their journeys – it’s just really a wonderful thing.”

Sauer’s new assignment places him as the pastor of Pax Christi Parish in Rochester — the largest parish in the diocese — and St. Peter and St. Paul’s parish in Mazeppa. Though there is no school on site at Pax Christi, the church is heavily involved in the Catholic school community in Rochester. Sauer said he looks forward to the different level of involvement with the schools his new assignment will give him. He also said that the parish has a strong youth ministry program and activity center, which he looks forward to being part of.

“It will be a new challenge for me, but I am excited about going,” Sauer said. “There is marvelous staff there, and the parish is a welcoming and devoted to the church and their faith.”

Fr. Swami Pothireddy will step into Sauer’s role in Owatonna, coming from the cluster surrounding Sacred Heart in Adams, Minn. Sauer, who worked briefly with Pothireddy when he first came to the United States from India, said he is both confident and excited for the Sacred Heart congregants to have Pothireddy as their new priest.

“They will welcome him and appreciate him,” Sauer said. “He has a lot of energy and skills, he loves school and does great work with them. I really trust that he will do very well here — I am not worried at all.”

As Sauer finishes his final days in Owatonna, he said that the community as a whole is something that he will miss the most.

“I’ve really come to appreciate Owatonna both as a faith community and as a civic community,” Sauer said. “I feel like I’ve made a home here and that will remain a part of me — I am actually thinking I might retire here when I get to that age.”

The past few months have proven difficult for the priest, specifically as he realized he would have having to say goodbye to his congregation while still navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s really difficult to not be together in the ways we have in the past,” Sauer said. “It feels there are some kind of unresolved farewells because of the restrictions and care we’re taking to keep people safe.”

Despite being unable to have their “normal” Mass Sunday, Sauer welcomed those in his congregation who felt safe to worship with him for an outdoor Mass and finished the service with an “obligatory selfie” before saying his final goodbye.

“Thank you for the prayers, the support, and the encouragement over the years,” Sauer said. “This is a wonderful community and I hope you all continue to grow in faith and as a civic community and just continue to be the welcoming place that I experienced.”

Chamber hopes to boost local eateries with 'Minne-roadtrip' checks

With local bars and restaurants struggling to recover from losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, area Chambers of Commerce & Tourism are partnering with their neighbors to try and help.

In an attempt to build off its successful “Chamber Checks” program, the Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna area chambers of commerce & tourism have introduced gift checks that can be used in all three cities.

Faribault Chamber President Nort Johnson said that the idea for the program came out of conversations with Harry Brown’s Family Automotive General Manager Mike Brown, who approached the chamber in hopes of doing something to boost the local restaurant and bar industry which took a significant hit following mandated closures due to the pandemic.

“Many local bars and restaurants are hurting,” he said. “We hope to do what we can to kickstart their businesses.”

With no fees for the buyer or restaurant owner, the gift cards make for a fun, easy and flexible gift. Brown said that for people uncomfortable dining in, takeout and delivery options can provide a safe way to get local eats while supporting local businesses.

Buying local can have a surprisingly large ripple effect. Dollars spent at locally owned small businesses tend to be “recycled” within the local economy several times, as business owners and employees tend to live in the area and shop locally themselves.

Johnson said that the Chamber is receiving orders for the checks on a daily basis. Eventually, the three chambers plan to expand the program to retail businesses, but for now the Minne-Roadtrip checks are only be redeemable at participating bars and restaurants.

“We’re very happy to be able to provide this boost for our hospitality industry,” Johnson said. “We know times are tough and we know that (Minne-roadtrip checks) will inspire local spending.”

The initial response from local businesses was strong. Richie Eye Clinic and local insurance agent Bart Jackson have made significant purchases, and Harry Brown’s is pledging to match other gift card purchases with up to $20,000 in purchases for its own staff and customers.

The new program builds off the “Minne-roadtrip” partnership that launched in 2016 as a joint effort to promote tourism in the three cities. It’s designed to shift the perception for travelers throughout the region that a fun Minnesota vacation means going “up north.”

On its website is information about a variety of local shopping, events, dining and other amenities sure to suit the desires of nearly any traveler. Earlier this year, it was awarded a Destination Marketing Award by Explore Minnesota Tourism for its innovative approach. With its own website and social media pages, the Minne-roadtrip campaign encourages travelers to leave behind the “hustle and bustle” of the big city and instead visit the region’s historic attractions and family-owned small businesses.

While large companies have suffered a major economic blow from COVID and accompanying lockdowns, locally owned small businesses have undoubtedly been hit hardest. Even with state-imposed restrictions beginning to relax, the road to recovery will be long and rocky.

Still, Karen Pehrson, who serves as Director of Tourism & Conventions for the Owatonna Chamber, expressed surprising optimism. Pehrson said that as families begin to think about traveling again, they might be more comfortable with a weekend jaunt to southern Minnesota than a big trip.

The region’s hospitality and tourism industry is large and growing in importance. Bringing in $16 billion in revenue and employing 273,000 full or part time workers as of 2018, it’s one of the state’s largest industries.

Economic projections for the industry are now dire. A May survey from Hospitality Minnesota showed that more than 50% of Minnesota hospitality businesses expected to close permanently if business conditions didn’t improve in the next two months.

According to Explore Minnesota, Cabela’s in Owatonna is the top tourist attraction in southern Minnesota, a sizable region which includes some 36 counties. Meanwhile, Rice County is among the region’s top performers in gross income and employment. As of 2018, the industry employed more than 2,300 people in Rice County and brought in just under $148 million in revenue. Steele County’s tourism industry is smaller, but still brought in $74 million in revenue and employed 1,500 workers.

Hy-Vee has recall its 12 oz. bagged Garden Salad over contamination concerns. (Photo courtesy of Hy-Vee)

Trial set for Blooming Prairie man charged with Las Vegas murder

The trail of a Blooming Prairie charged with the Feb. 28 shooting death of another man in North Las Vegas has been set for May 17, 2021.

Mark Allen Doocy, 61, who has been in a Clark County, Nevada jail on $1 million bail since March 19, is accused of shooting Dennis Hopkins, 40, at the Love’s Travel Stop.

Witnesses, who include Hopkins’ wife, Ashley, told police that Hopkins was parked at the travel stop helping his Ashley Hopkins jump start her car when Doocy pulled up along side Dennis Hopkins’ vehicle. Doocy reportedly exited his vehicle and the two men got into what police described as a “verbal altercation.” At some point, Doocy reportedly said he was going back to his vehicle to retrieve a firearm.

After Doocy got the gun, he reportedly chased Dennis Hopkins around to the passenger side of Hopkins’ vehicle, at which point Hopkins got into his vehicle, according to a North Las Vegas police report. Doocy then reportedly began shooting into the vehicle through the windshield, striking Dennis Hopkins in the right side of the chest. Hopkins managed to get out of the vehicle through the driver’s side door and began to run as Doocy continued to shoot at him, the report continues. At that point, Dennis Hopkins collapsed in the desert.

Doocy reportedly got back in his vehicle, drove first to the area where Hopkins lay in the desert, then fled the scene.

Doocy was discovered by Rice County deputies March 4 at the Flying J Travel Stop on Hwy. 19/I-35 west of Northfield in a vehicle matching the description of the one witnesses say he was driving the day Hopkins was killed.

Authorities spent hours trying to coax Doocy from the vehicle, but received no response. Members of the area’s tactical team used a chemical aerosol and other non-lethal tactics, but Doocy continued to be non-compliant. After four and a half hours, officers entered the SUV and extracted Doocy. He was arrested and hospitalized for treatment.

He was later taken to the Rice County Jail and extradited to Nevada.