Local artist Maureen O'Brien's home destroyed by fire while she battles in hospital

Friends and family members are rallying to support local artist Maureen O’Brien after a June 1 chimney fire destroyed her 103-year-old home a mile south of Solway. She has been battling life-threatening medical ailments since March, and is unaware of the fire.

Local artist Maureen O'Brien is hospitalized in Minneapolis and unaware that her rural Solway home was destroyed by fire on June 1. (Pioneer file photo)

Maureen O’Brien is known to many in the Bemidji area as a talented and generous artist. The 78-year-old rural Solway woman has been fighting for her life for nearly three months after suffering from COVID-19, pneumonia and a perforated bowel. She’s in intensive care at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

Now, friends and family are rallying to help O’Brien after a June 1 chimney fire destroyed her 103-year-old home a mile south of Solway. Two of her three cats perished in the fire, but her art studio, barn, garage and greenhouse were spared.

“Maureen is a very special person and this is just not fair,” said longtime friend Pam Hudson of Bemidji. “She loved that house. That was her home.”

Over the weekend, Hudson set up a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $150,000 to support O’Brien and her family in the aftermath of the fire. As of Monday morning, around $14,000 had been donated and by Tuesday afternoon that number was up to $17,000.

“I had been thinking about doing this as the illness drew out,” she said, “but then when the house burned down I knew that something needed to be done. She’s a wonderful person and just such a giving, loving person. We need to help her.”


Meanwhile, Maureen is unaware of the fire and loss of pets.

“She’s still extremely weak,” said daughter Pam Mertz, the eldest of Maureen’s five children. “We have to wait and see when she’s a little more lucid and responsive, and able to take this kind of shock. She’s really been fighting so hard just to live. We don’t want to add that to her brain, to her experience, to her whole being, until we feel like she’s strong enough to be able to process the tremendous grief and the shock. She’s had an uphill battle.”

The battle began on March 18 when Maureen was taken to Sanford Bemidji Medical Center with COVID-19 and pneumonia, according to the GoFundMe site. She was in the ICU for about a month and then transferred to Neilson Place for continued recovery. She developed a perforated bowel and in early May underwent three emergency surgeries at the Bemidji Medical Center to repair it.

On May 15, the family had Maureen life-flighted to the University of Minnesota Medical Center, where she was intubated and began to fight a series of infections and other complications. She underwent two additional corrective surgeries there to repair her bowel.

In a phone interview with the Pioneer on Sunday, Mertz said her mother is making slow progress but cannot move her arms and legs.

“The prognosis is hopeful,” Mertz said. “Hopeful is the word we’re all using. We don’t know to what degree she will be able to restore her baseline from before she went into the hospital. She can just move her head, and she’s wiggling her toes and fingers. They’re planning to move her to a long-term care facility to get the rehabilitation she needs, but that’s still weeks if not months away.”

Only one person has been allowed to be with her mother, and Mertz has been that one. As of Monday, a second person will be allowed in the room.

“I’m excited that others will get to see her,” Mertz said. “I’ve gotten used to seeing her every day and measuring how well she’s doing and seeing the improvements, even though it’s teeny tiny steps.”


Back home near Solway, Maureen’s daughter Katie Leopard and neighbors have been tending to the menagerie of bunnies, chickens, ducks, goats and horses on the farm. The structure that was destroyed has a unique history. The living room and one of the bedrooms originally served as the Solway train depot, built 103 years ago. At some point it was hauled to the property and attached to the existing house, Mertz said.

O’Brien has lived in the home since 1977. Besides working alone in her Evergreen Farm Studio, O’Brien teaches children in several different settings.

“They are two separate joys," Maureen told a Pioneer reporter in 2015. "I love this (in the studio), it gets quiet and at times lonely but when I’m really into a painting, the time just flies by. And to work with people painting is special, especially to see a child just blossom when they’re painting.”

When Bemidji's Central Elementary School closed for good last week, O'Brien's work with students there was remembered as she helped the children create multiple murals at the school throughout the school's history.

“Everyone is just devastated that this sweet-spirited woman who has given so much to the community is going through this trial,” Mertz said. “You can’t make this up or predict this. It’s just so unbelievable to have on top of her health struggles.”

Anyone wishing to support O’Brien and her family can do so online at by searching “Rally Around Maureen O'Brien.”

Dennis Doeden, former publisher of the Bemidji Pioneer, is a feature reporter. He is a graduate of Metropolitan State University with a degree in Communications Management.
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