Peshtigo parish to celebrate 150 years

History of St. Mary Parish includes Great Peshtigo Fire

PESHTIGO — St. Mary Parish will celebrate its 150th anniversary on Sunday, Oct. 25. The parish has seen a rich history, which includes a great fire and what many call a miracle.
Parishioners will gather for Mass at 10 a.m. with Bishop David Ricken and concelebrants Fr. Jack Harper, a son of the parish, and Fr. Robert Karuhn, the priest celebrant for St. Mary and its linked parish SS. Joseph and Edward, Walsh.

To mark the special day, a combined choir from the youth and adult choirs will sing. Parishioners from both of the linked parishes are welcome and invited to the dinner after Mass in the school gym.

Sr. Helen Plum, pictured at right, and other members of St. Mary Parish in Peshtigo, will celebrate the parish’s 150th anniversary Oct. 25. Bishop David Ricken will be on hand to officiate at the anniversary Mass. (Manu Junemann | For The Compass)

A slide show featuring pictures from the past will be shown during the celebration.
St. Mary Parish was established in 1865 with the arrival of Fr. Anthony Mazeaud, pastor. He was followed in 1868 by Fr. Peter Pernin. The parishioners built a church that was nearly completed in the fall of 1871 when the Great Peshtigo Fire swept through the area, destroying the entire town and most of the surrounding areas. It coincided with the better known Chicago Fire the same night.

Fr. Pernin had a premonition about the fire and took precautions by digging a trench in his backyard and burying church valuables. Then he put the  tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament in a cart and headed for the stream. There, he pushed panicked residents in the water, threw the tabernacle in and jumped in himself. He left the water five hours later and tried to comfort those around him, before being taken to Marinette to have his burns treated. In what many see as nothing short of a miracle, the tabernacle was found safe two days later, floating on a log. Today that tabernacle can be seen in the church during the winter months or at the Peshtigo Fire Museum during the summer season.

“We have the miracle tabernacle in a place of honor,” said pastoral leader Sr. Helen Plum, a School Sister of Notre Dame. “We see it as a sign of God’s protection and love for the people of St. Mary’s.”

Fr. Pernin left St. Mary Parish in 1876. While in Peshtigo, he also served the spiritual needs of residents in Baileys Harbor and Jacksonport across the bay. There were five pastors from 1876 until 1883 when Fr. Anton Bernard Rinkus came. He built the first school — the first of three schools to serve the parish. Sisters from the Racine Dominicans taught the eight grades until the school closed during the Great Depression in 1930.

Fire again struck on the Feast of St. Joseph in 1927. The rebuilt church from Fr. Pernin’s era was completely destroyed. Arrangements were made to conduct services at the unoccupied Congregational Church. This building was later purchased and moved to the site of the previous church. This church later became the Peshtigo Fire Museum.

The Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross, Bay Settlement, staffed the school until 1971 when they were replaced by lay teachers. In 2004, the school became part of St. Thomas Aquinas Academy.

St. Mary Parish linked with Ss. Joseph and Edward Parish in 2001. Sr. Helen came to assist Fr. Jim Massert and then took over as pastoral leader in 2005.

To finance the 150th celebration, the parish held several events, including two parish picnics the past two years and a spaghetti dinner. The parish also had a special float in the historical days parade on Sept. 22, Sr. Helen said.

In addition, the parish administration assistant put together short summaries of the parish history to run in the weekly Sunday bulletins this past year. Each featured an aspect from history or notes about pastors who have served the parish. The section was called “Tales from Our Past” and ended with an update of the past 10 years, during which they were led by a pastoral leader and linked with a neighboring parish.

The Peshtigo Times also is preparing a booklet with pictures and history to be distributed to parishioners in honor of the 150th anniversary, Sr. Helen said.