7 Feb 2024 | LVCC News

Lake Vermilion Cultural (and Community) Center

LVCC News | 0 comments

TOWER — Mary Smilanich Batinich is a mover and shaker. There’s plenty of proof. And the 87-year-old powerhouse admits it herself.

87-year-old powerhouse sparks a cultural celebration


Mary’s latest project is transforming a treasured church building into Tower’s Lake Vermilion Cultural (and Community) Center. Thanks to Mary and her friends, family and community, the project is near completion.

When Mary, a Minnesota Episcopal Church trustee, learned that St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Tower was closing, she went to work. Her first goal was to save the historic church. Her second goal was to give it a purpose.

What was so special about this church building? According to Mary, the church, built in the summer of 1889, had vaulted ceilings that were reminiscent of the bow of a ship. “All indications lead to the probability that 19th century architect, Cass Gilbert, who also designed several Episcopal churches in northern Minnesota, designed it,” Mary said. “Gilbert is also well-known for designing the Minnesota State Capitol, the United States Supreme Court building and numerous other notable structures.”

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, the oldest building in Tower, has been moved to 705 Main St. and is now being transformed into the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center. Fundraising and renovations continue at the LVCC with a grand opening planned for the summer of 2025. Photos by Jill Pepelnjak.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, the oldest building in Tower, has been moved to 705 Main St. and is now being transformed into the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center. Fundraising and renovations continue at the LVCC with a grand opening planned for the summer of 2025. Photos by Jill Pepelnjak.

In 2014, Mary and a group of local people purchased the church for $1 from the Episcopal Diocese in Minnesota. Together, they had formed a 501(c) (3) nonprofit corporation named The Lake Vermilion Cultural Center (LVCC). Its mission statement is “The Lake Vermilion Cultural Center is dedicated to community enrichment through education and the arts by offering quality programming and providing opportunities to showcase the rich cultural heritage of the area.”

“Our nonprofit corporation made plans to convert the building into a cultural center,” Mary said. “Once finished, the center will be a celebration of the ethnicity within the area. And it will be so much more … we will also celebrate the arts, music and theater.”

Goals completed: Save the church and transform it into a cultural and community center—The Lake Vermilion Cultural Center.

Through a grant from IRRR, a separate carriage house was built on grounds in the same style as LVCC, providing much-needed storage space.

Through a grant from IRRR, a separate carriage house was built on grounds in the same style as LVCC, providing much-needed storage space.

Once they had a solid purpose for the church building, Mary and her friends didn’t let any dust settle under its structure. Fundraising for the move and renovation began in full force.

On November 1, 2015, they moved the “grand old lady” to its present location of 705 Main St. in Tower. (View the videotape of the move on www.vermilionculturalcenter.org.)

Moving the building and placing it on a new foundation (three lots) allowed the building to have a kitchen, lobby, bathrooms and meeting spaces that it never had before.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised and spent on the moving and renovation of this treasured building,” Mary explained. Hundreds of people, including her late husband Alex, have contributed thousands of hours yearly to make possible the LVCC. Mary recently married Michael Skorich, who also helps with fundraising for the cultural center.

According to Mary, great care has been taken to preserve the original facade of the building and feature the 17 beautiful leaded glass windows in the building.

This intricate piece of rosemaling, a decorative art form of rural Norway, was donated to the LVCC by Teresa Ann.

This intricate piece of rosemaling, a decorative art form of rural Norway, was donated to the LVCC by Teresa Ann.

“The fading, peeling siding of St. Mary’s Mary Batinich sits in St. Mary’s Hall, the auditorium section of Lake Vermilion Cultural Center (LVCC) in Tower, during a recent interview. has now been restored,” Mary said. “The valuable leaded stained-glass windows have also been restored. They are stunning,” Mary added. And the fundraising and renovation continue.

How does the LVCC raise funds? “In any way possible,” Mary said. “We receive donations from individuals, groups and businesses. A IRRR grant allowed us to add a separate carriage house on the grounds for some much-needed storage. We have our annual fundraising event called Midsummer, which celebrates the rich ethnic mixture of the immigrants who call this part of Minnesota their home.

“We also hold small fundraisers, such as boat rides, barbecues and concerts. We are presently seeking state grant monies to help with the renovation.”

Janny King Munzberg of Aldinga Beach, Australia, donated this beautiful quilt she made to the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center as a fundraiser. Raised in Grand Rapids, Janny comes back to Minnesota every summer to see friends and family.

Janny King Munzberg of Aldinga Beach, Australia, donated this beautiful quilt she made to the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center as a fundraiser. Raised in Grand Rapids, Janny comes back to Minnesota every summer to see friends and family.

Each year, the LVCC’s efforts have raised more money and have generated both excitement and buy-in from the community.

Today, the LVCC still needs to complete the building project with several additions. “It still needs air conditioning/heating, the walls wired, toilets, and an elevator,” Mary said. “And we need to bring everything up to code.”

When finished, the building will provide Tower, Lake Vermilion and this northern Iron Range area with an impressive center that will include an auditorium (St. Mary’s Hall), art gallery, reading room, and a place for weddings, reunions, dinners, dances and other events.

“The downstairs is huge,” Mary said. “It has a small kitchen, toilets, and a dressing room for theater, weddings and concerts. Upstairs, there is a reading room and library.”

According to its website, the grounds of the LVCC will feature serene gardens and memorial benches for visitors to enjoy. All of the windows and many of the rooms and benches are designated in honor or in memory of loved ones. A few major spaces of the compound are still available for naming rights as part of their ongoing fundraising efforts. In addition, there are benches that can be underwritten in honor or memory of a loved one and will be located around the grounds of the LVCC.

Featured above is one of the beautiful 17 stained glass windows found in the historic building.

Featured above is one of the beautiful 17 stained glass windows found in the historic building.

Mary’s motto is “With patience, the mulberry leaf becomes a silken gown.” Her silken gown will be the completion of LVCC. And, when Mary talks about this soon-to-be-completed project, you can see the excitement in her eyes. They hope to complete in 2024 with its grand opening tentatively set for the summer of 2025.

Funds are still needed to complete the renovation. For more information or if you would like to donate, visit the LVCC website at www.vermilionculturalcenter.orgor mail a check made payable to the LVCC to Lake Vermilion Cultural Center, P.O. Box 659, Tower, MN 55790.

Jill Pepelnjak lives in Virginia.

Meet LVCC’s board of directors

Lake Vermilion Cultural Center is a nonprofit corporation registered in the State of Minnesota. Its board of directors includes:

• Elaine McGillivray, chair
• Mary Smilanich Batinich, president
• Sandy Wallin, vice chair
• Shelby Vaske, secretary
• Ryan Bajan, treasurer
• Don Erickson, member at large
• Janice Kimes, member at large
• Joe Wurhl, member at large
• Maddy Zupancich, board member

Donate to the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center

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