Brussels parish to celebrate 100 years

By | July 22, 2009

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Capuchin Fr. Pius Cotter, pastor of St. Francis and St. Mary Parish, will join Bishop David Ricken for the centennial Mass Aug. 2. (Rick Evans | For The Compass)

Those words still ring true today as the gothic style church featuring brick walls, stained glass windows, a rock faced stone foundation and a 120-foot high steeple marks 100 years. A centennial Mass with Bishop David Ricken will be celebrated at 10 a.m. on Aug. 2 at St. Francis Xavier. A catered meal for parishioners and invited guests follows the liturgy.

While the church is 100 years old, the parish has a 132-year history. Fr. Edward Francis Daems, a Crosier priest from Belgium, is credited as the parish founder. In 1877, Alexis Franc donated three acres of land for the first church, a wooden structure that was torn down in 1908. Norbertine Fr. Jerome Gloudemans led the design and construction of the current church. His brother, Gerard Gloudemans of Green Bay served as the architect.

“The new church was built by the hands of the people,” said Capuchin Fr. Pius Cotter, pastor of the Brussels parish now known as St. Francis and St. Mary. “Not only was it built in 1909, but it was totally paid for. The new church cost $20,000 to build and was paid for by the first Mass in November (1909).”

The parish was first served by the Crosier Fathers. The Norbertines began ministry in Brussels in 1893. The parish was served by diocesan priests prior to Fr. Cotter’s arrival in 1994. Norbertine Abbot Bernard Pennings blessed the cornerstone of the church on June 27, 1909. Bishop Joseph Fox dedicated the new worship space on Nov. 23 of the same year. A service, which included a papal blessing from Pope Benedict XVI and a rededication of the church, was held last month on the anniversary of the cornerstone blessing.

“I asked the people to picture themselves gathering around the cornerstone 100 years ago,” said Fr. Cotter. “I wanted them to reflect on all the blessings our parish has received and to thank God for what has happened here. I also asked them to take a look 100 years into the future and to think about how people will remember what they gave to the parish.”

Other centennial celebrations included a cemetery walk in remembrance of parish members who have died, a float in the Belgian Days parade in Brussels and the release of a new parish directory, parish cookbook and greeting cards featuring highlights of the church’s architecture.

Several updates have been made to the church over the years. In 1920, the year the parish was incorporated in the Diocese of Green Bay, the rectory was built.

In 1936, Fr. Gloudemans led the construction of the grotto in the cemetery next to the church. Parishioners were asked to bring in the most beautiful stones they could find to help create the grotto, which was built in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Recent updates include remodeling the entrance in 2005, installing air conditioning a year later and refurbishing the pews and kneelers in 2007-2008.

The centennial celebration provided an opportunity to chronicle the history of the building and the parish. Fr. Cotter, with the assistance of volunteers, did extensive research used to create a booklet outlining not only the past, but a look at the parish today. Parish members were invited to contribute artifacts. Among the donations was a prayer book from 1819 that belonged to Alexis Franc.

Fr. Cotter, an Appleton native, never expected to be at the parish for the centennial.

“I thought I would be here one year,” he said. “It has served me well. The people are close-knit and they would do anything for me.”

Fifteen years ago, Fr. Cotter was hesitant when asked to serve in Brussels.

“I was in the Tigerton area when Fr. John Van Deuren, who was with the personnel board, asked me to come here,” he said. “I told him I can’t go overseas. I didn’t know that there was a Brussels in Wisconsin.”

A year before Fr. Cotter’s appointment, St. Francis Xavier and Our Lady of Snows, Namur, merged as one parish named St. Francis and St. Mary. St. Francis Xavier Church was designated as the parish worship site.

Fr. Cotter was quickly introduced to the strong ethnic heritage of the community when he was asked if he could hear confessions in Belgian.

Today, the parish serves people of all ages and backgrounds. Masses are full in the summer months as parish members are joined by vacationers.

“It’s a blessing to have the visitors from Illinois and Minnesota,” said Fr. Cotter. “We have a lot of kids at our Masses. Some of the Illinois people who come up for the summer are just amazed at the number of children.”

“We are quite proud of what we have here as a parish,” said Sue Johnson, pastoral minister. “We are very family oriented and very welcoming. Outsiders comment that they love coming here.”

Johnson, who was baptized at St. Francis Xavier Church, returned to the area and the parish in 1974 with her husband, Milt. She directed the parish catechetical program before becoming pastoral minister in 2007. She describes the faith community as her home and a place of comfort, especially following Milt’s death in 1996.

“The Lord called me back home,” she said. “I have a strong spiritual connection to this place. The people are my family.”

Johnson points to the grief support group, Christian Women, and funeral committee as examples of outreach ministries at the parish.

Parish members respond to both physical and spiritual needs.

“What we need we ask for from the people,” she said. “We’re here and we are very much alive as a community.”

She hopes the centennial restores memories of the past.

“We have an opportunity to stop, to take a very prayerful moment in time and reflect on what others have done for us,” said Johnson. “We wouldn’t have this parish. We wouldn’t be here without them.”

“There are so many wonderful people that have come before us,” said Fr. Cotter. “We need to go on in that very same vein and reflect Christ in others.”

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