STURGEON BAY — The three huge bells, hanging high overhead, have long been silent. A smaller bell on display in the church yard no longer rings. But hymns still ring out enthusiastically on Sundays, and, for 150 years, the voices, prayers and lives of the people of St. Joseph Church have stayed strong.
It was in 1865 that the parish began, later building the first Catholic church in the Sturgeon Bay area. The parish has been throwing itself a birthday party all through the summer, but festivities will culminate with a special Mass at 4:30 on Sept. 5, with Bishop David Ricken, and a dinner at the Sturgeon Bay Yacht Club.
The current church building, with the twin steeples that can be seen for miles when approaching Sturgeon Bay, is actually the third building on the site that was purchased for $66. The first building, a 35-by-45-foot frame structure, was replaced in 1889 with a red brick single-steepled church that already had to be enlarged in 1900. Despite that addition, work on the current church was begun in 1909.
This third church was built around the second one, which was razed at the same time, allowing them to utilize construction materials to hold down costs. However, to those who like to poke around, there’s still some of that red brick building left.
Parishioner Monica Hilbert, who was exploring the church and taking photos for note cards that would be sold to raise funds for a new nativity set, found her way up into the bell tower and discovered portions of the old brick facade. It was, she said, like reaching back and putting a hand on the past.
Also in that south steeple are the three bells purchased in 1903. The largest, named “St. Joseph,” weighs 1,589 pounds. The middle bell, “Star of the Sea,” weighs 840 pounds and “Guardian Angel” is a mere 510 pounds.
“I remember the big boys jumping off the bell tower steps to grab the rope and start the big bell ringing,” said Bill Graf, lifelong member and historian of the parish. Graf is one of the lucky ones who had that bell-ringing chore for a time.
Eventually, a mechanical hammer was added so the bells didn’t have to swing to chime. Later it was discovered that the structure of the steeple was being undermined by the vibrations of the bells, so they now rest silent, high above the heads of Mass goers, and recorded bell sounds now call the faithful to worship.
In 1910, the current building was dedicated, but it was remodeled and redecorated over the years, accessibility features and air-conditioning were installed, church windows cleaned, repaired and encapsulated and the sound system upgraded.
A school was built in 1888, a two-story, four-room brick building christened Holy Guardian Angels. The Racine Dominican Sisters came to teach the 111 students enrolled that first year. A new school eventually replaced that one. The building is now the faith formation center. St. Joseph and Corpus Christi in Sturgeon Bay and Ss. Peter and Paul in Institute combined their separate schools into St. John Bosco School in 2007, located on the Corpus Christi property. St. Joseph and other area parishes share staff for things like youth ministry, religious education and adult faith formation.
Until the first full-time resident pastor, Fr. Ferdinand Stern, arrived in 1867, the parish was tended by priests from Kewaunee, Ahnapee and Rosiere. Pastors came and went over the years until the arrival of Fr. Bob Stegmann, the 19th and current pastor.
Msgr. Alphonse Broens, a German priest who served 1887 to 1895, left behind a steamer trunk that sits in the room being organized into an official history room. Graf remembers Fr. Anthony Koeferl, 1932-1964, who tabulated the collection after the Masses but let the altar servers count the pennies.
Fr. Stegmann, who has been pastor for two years — as well as serving as pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul — summed up the personality of the parish: “I would say friendly, active, interested in the local church as well as the church on the diocesan level, with a good spirit of cooperation. All I have to do is express a need for something, and someone steps forward. I don’t have to delegate. The parishioners just take up a project and make it work.”
While this 150th anniversary gives parishioners a chance to look back over the years, history has always been valued and artifacts cherished. The current church’s stained glass windows are from the first brick church, the covered bell in the front yard came from the first school, and the very first bell, from the little frame church, was given to Corpus Christi across the bay when that parish was begun in the early 1900s.
Outside, a stone grotto with a glass door surrounds a large crucifix, built in the 1940s as a reflection point in memory of those who served in World War II. Inside, a history room contains a glass case with a chalice, altar linens and other artifacts, as well as a 100-year-old quilt, raffled as a fundraiser and adorned with the names of the women who paid one dollar each for the privilege. The quilt hung in the home of the three Boyd sisters (Ann, Barbara and Catherine), who won that raffle. When the last sister died, the quilt was donated back to the church.
With all that history to think about, Pam Marsh, chairman of the anniversary committee, said the parish decided to “rewind the clock a bit” when scheduling sesquicentennial celebrations this year. They started last January with an old-fashioned card party, and later held a Sunday afternoon tea that included a hat contest.
In July, they resurrected the parish picnic, which included a show of old-fashioned cars, and a display of antique kitchen and farming tools.
When the celebrations are over, St. Joseph’s 650 families will continue to do what the mission statement they drafted in 2011, said when the late Franciscan Fr. Robert Konkol was pastor. It reads: “Love as he loved, live as he lived, serve as he served.”