A U of M alumna turns an abandoned church in her hometown into a place for culture, community, and creativity.
Melissa Wray is waiting for a call from the IRS. For months now, she’s been waiting to get an official letter from the agency giving the arts organization she founded last spring in tiny Caledonia, Minnesota, population 2,868, nonprofit status. She has a board, a mission, a building, and a plan. But no official notice from the IRS. Every day, she checks the mail.
Today’s call—fingers crossed—will validate everything that Wray (B.A. ’11, M.P.S. ’18) has been working on for nearly two years. In 2018, she began shuttling back and forth between Minneapolis, where she had lived for a dozen years, and Caledonia, the seat of Houston County in the state’s southeast corner. She spent her trips to Caledonia meeting with bankers, filling out paperwork, and attending city council meetings in order to purchase an old Presbyterian church vacated in the 1970s. In the spring of 2019, with a grant from the local economic development authority and a private loan, she closed on the purchase of the 1,800-square-foot building and its parsonage.
After the purchase, she swept out the cobwebs, polished the stained-glass windows, hired a contractor to redo the floors, threw some quilts on the wooden pews, transformed the altar into a stage, hung up some decorative flags, and announced an open house for Mainspring, a creative community space for performances, events, and classes. “I thought we’d have about 20 people,” Wray says of her opening event. More than 100 came through the doors.
Wray grew up on a sheep farm just outside Caledonia. Her father was a large animal veterinarian. Her mother kept the books for his business and taught school. “It was a beautiful place to grow up, but it sometimes felt isolated,” Wray says. “I was always that kid that wanted to go to town because there’s nothing happening in the country.”
After high school, Wray left home to attend the U of M Twin Cities. She immersed herself in her studies, earning a B.A. in English and a master of professional studies in Arts and Cultural Leadership. She reveled in the delights, distractions, and conversations that urban life afforded her. She landed a job as the marketing coordinator at Northrop Auditorium and moved into a house in south Minneapolis.
But the 2016 presidential election made Wray acutely aware of her small-town heritage. “Rural-urban conversations were suddenly at the forefront of our national dialogue,” she says. “As someone who lived in both those [worlds], I felt the discussion lacked the nuance that I personally had felt from inhabiting both of those spaces and loving both those spaces.”
Storytelling was in Wray’s blood: Her mother was a collector of family lore and Wray herself had served as editor of The Ivory Tower, a literary arts magazine at the University. She also launched a podcast, “MinnePod,” interviewing rural citizens across Minnesota—organic farmers, school-board members, community organizers. But the more she talked with rural Minnesotans, the more she realized she wanted to be one again. Could she move back to her hometown and still enjoy the vibrant, culturally rich, arts-infused life she loved? Yes, she decided. But she’d have to cultivate some of it herself.
Mainspring, which officially opened in November, will offer classes in art, music, writing, and more. It will feature local talent—and Wray says she’s amazed by the array of creative folks that have contacted her as word of the venue has spread. The nonprofit, she hopes, will also boost economic development, with concert and class attendees patronizing local businesses (including a café owned by Wray’s sister) during their visits to town. “How do we get people to stay and linger?” Wray says.
Financially, keeping Mainspring afloat will be a challenge, and Wray, who already works three jobs, knows she’ll have to apply for grants and keep budgets trim to sustain her dream. But she’s encouraged by the number of friends and strangers alike who have lauded her efforts.
“There’s a narrative out there about how younger generations leave small towns,” she says. “People wonder: What will happen to our town? What can we do to get people to stay? There’s a small-town pride that comes out when one of your own comes back.”
When Wray finally talks to the agent at the IRS, there’s good news. Nonprofit status was approved weeks ago; the letter just got lost in the mail. The agent seems as surprised and as happy as Wray herself.
Joel Hoekstra is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.