ELAND — There were tears of sadness and joy around the Norrbom family table, as family members reflected on the impending closure of St. William Church in Eland, located five miles north of Wittenberg in Shawano County.
The mission church, founded in 1911 by Eland settlers, will hold its final Mass on Sunday, Jan. 8, 10:30 a.m.
Fr. Charles Hoffmann, who has celebrated the once or twice-annual Masses at St. William for the past several years, will join Fr. Dan Felton, vicar general of the Green Bay Diocese, as celebrants.
“It’s very emotional, even walking into the church now. I’ve been crying all morning,” said Dr. Corrie Norrbom, who was joined by her parents, David and Kay Norrbom, her sister, Carrie Zoromski, and niece, Tillie Zoromski, on a recent December morning to discuss the church.
The Norrboms are just a few members of an extended family who have been involved with St. William Parish since its founding over a century ago.
“This is a community of people who would come together to celebrate with joy,” said Tillie. “When I was younger, I always imagined I would have my wedding there.”
Fr. Hoffmann said the Eland community has an emotional attachment to the church.
“When you walk in, it is a warm, caring and cheerful place,” he said. “People are glad to be there.”
St. William was conceived on “a blustery, bitter-cold Sunday afternoon in January 1911,” according to a history written by charter member Werner Wolfinger, Kay Norrbom’s father.
According to the history, about 15 parishioners from Eland were returning from Mass in Norrie, a day-long affair that always included two sermons, one in Polish and the other in either English or German. Packed into a big bobsled, covered with straw and horse blankets, a conversation commenced about starting a church of their own.
Bishop Paul Rhode approved the idea and soon services for what was then known as All Saints Church began in a vacant section of Kutchen’s Drug Store. Msgr. Conrad Saile of St. John Parish in Antigo blessed the church.
Charter members included the Wolfingers, Taggarts, Schwalbachs, Schreibers and Meverdens.
The storefront had its shortcomings. Mass was regularly interrupted by the noise from locomotives traveling on nearby railroad tracks. Parishioners raised funds and, in 1912, broke ground on the present church on land donated by Michael Houlihan. It was named St. William Church in honor of an anonymous donor who gifted the parish $500.
Msgr. Saile was again on hand for the blessing in early 1913. A side altar donated by St. John Parish of Antigo became the centerpiece of the sanctuary. Fr. Joseph Van Bogard of Tigerton served as first pastor from 1913 to 1917.
The church’s peaceful and uneventful history was rocked on April 9, 1948, when someone exploded a stick of dynamite under the sacristy floor, damaging the structure as well as statues, furniture and the altar.
Clean-up was quick and services were not interrupted.
“The reason for, and the person or persons who did the dynamiting, are still a mystery and will very likely will always be,” Wolfinger wrote in the church history.
What explosives couldn’t stop, the march of time and changing demographics did.
Always a mission church, first to St. Anthony of Tigerton and later St. Philomena in Birnamwood, the future of St. William Church was continually cloudy. The first efforts to close it came in the 1960s, while it was assigned as a mission of Holy Family in Wittenberg. Those attempts were rebuffed and the congregation continued to hold regular services under Fr. Claude Zabinski.
“He always said, while he was living, he would be saying Mass here,” Kay Norrbom said. “We knew that after his death, it would be ending.”
After his death in July 1999, weekly services were gradually discontinued and replaced with twice-yearly Masses, generally taking place on Christmas and Easter, with Franciscan Fr. Everard Scesney as celebrant.
“Those once or twice a year gatherings were like a family reunion,” Corrie Norrbom said. “It was so nice to see everybody. The church was just like home.”
Carrie Zoromski said that after Mass, visiting would continue long afterwards outside the building. “That’s what made it special. Everyone cared about each other.”
The Norrboms continued to maintain the building, making sure the furnace was fired up for the Masses, the yard mowed and the parking lot plowed.
“We’ve been paying the light and fuel bill for the past 25 years,” Kay Norrbom said.
“We have been so involved in the history of it, we just thought we would keep it going,” said David Norrbom. “Everybody just did what they needed to do.”
By October 2016, with major maintenance looming, the diocese, in consultation with Holy Family-St. William Parish in Wittenberg, made the decision to close the church. Eventually the structure will be razed.
The news came as a shock, but not a surprise.
“Even if the building is closing, we will have it in our hearts,” Corrie Norrbom said. “These things will be passed on.”
Carrie Zoromski has traveled the world since her youth at St. William three decades ago.
“No matter when or where I’ve gone to Mass in the world, my heart and mind always goes back to St. William’s,” she said. “I picture my family in the church and I think of it with such love in my heart. … This is the community that helped me form my faith.”