Algoma parish celebrates 150 years

By | September 15, 2010

The Mass attracted young and old parishioners, including two members who were present for the parish’s 75th anniversary.


Bishop Robert Banks greets parishioners following Mass Sept. 12 at St. Mary Church in Algoma, in observance of the parish’s 150th anniversary. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

During his homily, Bishop Banks noted that the parish had much for which to be thankful: faithful pastors (two of whom served a total of 72 years), devoted sisters who started the parish school, and a church in which to worship.

The parish also boasts numerous sons and daughters who went on to serve the church as sisters and priests, said Bishop Banks. One parish son even joined the episcopal ranks — Bishop Emeritus Mark Schmitt of Marquette, Mich.

Even with these treasures, added the bishop, “that isn’t the parish. The parish, of course is the people.”

He said it was the people “who have done so much more than simply put up the buildings and supported the priests and sisters who came here.”

“The history of the parish is really the history of the people, beginning with those Bohemian settlers who came to Ahnapee (the town’s original name, which was changed to Algoma in 1899) 150 years ago with practically nothing here,” said Bishop Banks. “And now we have a parish that’s full of people. So it’s the people that we celebrate. … The people who come to the church; who send their children to the school; who in their own lives live the life of the Lord.”

Although the parish was established in 1860, the first church was not built until 1863. One of the parish’s original members, Mathias Simon, donated land for the church. In 1869, Green Bay Bishop Joseph Melcher appointed Fr. Ferdinand Stern as first pastor of St. Mary Parish.

The parish quickly outgrew its church and, in 1872, a new one was built. The old church was turned into a Catholic school in 1876. By the time the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity were asked to take charge of the school in 1884, a new, two-story brick school was already built.

Due to costly repairs needed on the church, a new one was built and dedicated by Bishop Joseph J. Fox on Dec. 20, 1906, for the cost of $24,938. This church, with its steeple serving as a landmark in the city on Lake Michigan, still stands today. The priest who oversaw construction of the new St. Mary Church, Fr. William Kraemer, holds the record for years served as pastor — 48. His successor, Fr. Francis Heimann, spent 34 years leading the parish.


Bishop Robert Banks and Fr. William Swichtenberg, pastor of St. Mary Parish, raise the eucharistic gifts during the Liturgy of the Eucharist Sept. 12. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“For half of the life of the parish’s history, you had two wonderful holy pastors who did so much working side by side with the people of God to build up the kingdom here in Algoma,” said Fr. Swichtenberg.

Other highlights in the parish’s history:

• The first native son ordained to the priesthood was Fr. William Grossel, ordained May 20, 1926. Others included Fr. Walter Brey, 1937; Fr. Mark Schmitt (ordained a bishop on May 1, 1970), 1948; Fr. John Brey, 1950; and Fr. Frank Melchoir, 1951. Eight parish daughters entered religious life.

•The first assistant pastor was assigned to St. Mary Parish in 1935. Between 1935 and 1960, 12 assistant pastors were assigned to the parish.

•A new entrance to the church, which enclosed the front steps and original entrance, was completed in 1950.

•A new school was built and dedicated on Sept. 7, 1952.

•A grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes was erected on the lawn between the school and the church in 1959.

“What we are really celebrating,” Bishop Banks told the congregation, “is that name that was talked about in the Gospel. … That man they were talking about in the Gospel has been here in Algoma for 150 years.”

Jesus has made his presence in Algoma through the sacrament of baptism, continued Bishop Banks, through the lives of priests, sisters and parents who have helped young people grow closer to God. “The Lord Jesus, the man who welcomed sinners and eats with them, is here in our midst and has been here for 150 years. What a blessing. What a wonderful grace that we celebrate.”

In closing remarks, Fr. Swichtenberg told parishioners that their ancestors were “holy men and women. They sacrificed so much building schools and the rectory, a convent and three different churches — and we continue that great tradition” by making new sacrifices.

“I feel priviledged to be a part of this faith community,” added Fr. Swichtenberg. “You are wonderful people living faith and living love.”

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