St. John the Baptist Parish concludes 125th anniversary with Aug. 17 Mass

By Jean Peerenboom | For The Compass | August 14, 2013

Bishop Ricken joins Menasha parish for anniversary celebration

MENASHA — The 125th anniversary celebration at St. John the Baptist Parish, 516 De Pere St., is as much a celebration of the present and future as it is of the past.

Fr. Paul Paider, pastor of St. John Parish in Menasha, and Becky Castonia, a member of the parish’s 125th anniversary committee, stand outside the Menasha church. Bishop David Ricken will celebrate the anniversary Mass Aug. 17 at 4 p.m. (Dick Meyer | For the Compass)
Fr. Paul Paider, pastor of St. John Parish in Menasha, and Becky Castonia, a member of the parish’s 125th anniversary committee, stand outside the Menasha church. Bishop David Ricken will celebrate the anniversary Mass Aug. 17 at 4 p.m. (Dick Meyer | For the Compass)

The year-long festivity ends with Bishop David Ricken celebrating the 4 p.m. Mass on Aug. 17. He will join parishioners for a dinner and dance at Germania Hall in Menasha after Mass. Tickets are $25 for adults and $7.50 for children.

The dinner will feature a slide show of pictures that have been dug out of files and piles in church storage areas or donated by longtime parishioners. Becky Castonia, a member of of the 125th anniversary committee, is compiling scrapbooks to record the history of this Polish community that was founded on Feb. 25, 1888, when 75 families of Polish descent split with the German community at St. Mary’s. (St. Patrick’s was the Irish parish.)

The first church and school were built on De Pere Street at a cost of $5,000. By the end of May, 1888, the framework was up and masons were ready to begin bricklaying, according to historical records. In July of that year, Fr. John Monczynski was assigned to the parish.

Construction of the church was completed in August and marked by a gala celebration. The church bell was consecrated and rang for the first time on Dec. 29, 1888.

The Sisters of St. Joseph, a Polish order of sisters from Stevens Point, came to teach at the school and some segments of the lessons were taught in Polish.

The first church and school served the parish for 11 years. In 1899, a new brick church of Gothic design was constructed and still stands today. At the time of its construction, it was described as “one of the handsomest churches in the state, of richly decorated interior, the color scheme being the work of artists.” Cost of the church was $16,000.

The two predominant spires from the original construction, which received at least four significant lightning strikes that damaged the roof, were later removed due to disrepair and replaced with fiberglass domes. Later updates included enclosing the original exterior entrance to allow for an inside vestibule or gathering area.

In 1930, the interior of the church was renovated and several statues added.

The original school was located in the 1888 church building. The final class of 34 students graduated in 1933. The last event held in the building was a card party on Sept. 19, 1933. After that, the building was dismantled.

On Sept. 23, 1933, the contract for the new St. John’s School was awarded to some of Milwaukee’s contractors at a quoted price of $65,682.50. On July 3, 1934, the auditorium was used for the first time for a picnic and dance, and on Sept. 2, 1934, the new school was dedicated with more than 1,000 in attendance. It had eight classrooms, a library, a kitchen and a social room. The class of 1935 was the first class to graduate from the new building.

Due to declining enrollment and financial woes, the school closed in June 2002 after 114 years. The building later reopened and continues to house the Catholic Faith Formation Center for the linked parishes of St. John and St. Mary.

In 1908, the parish purchased land to build a convent. In recent years, the convent was converted to a “Keenagers” assisted living facility for a short time. Eventually, the building fell into disrepair and was razed in 2011. The contents of the cornerstone (old coins, news clippings and letters) will be put on display.

On May 10, 1936, a Guardian Angel statue was dedicated in the front of the school. The statue was moved in 1958 to make room for more classrooms. When the convent building was razed, the statue was restored and moved to its present home in St. John’s Cemetery.

The parish has weathered ups and downs during its 125 years, but today there seems to be renewed vitality among parishioners as they mark their anniversary, according to Jennifer Lee and Castonia. The slogan for the celebration is “Preserving our past, forging our future.”

Events have included a Polish Mass last October that was celebrated by a visiting priest from Poland. There was an alumni lunch prepared by the “lunch lady” from the school, Carol Patoka. She passed away right before the February event so her family stepped in to complete the meal, serve the lunch and remember the “lunch lady” who had served generations of St. John students.

The parish is completing an updated pictorial directory of members, and history and pictures are being compiled in scrapbooks that will be displayed at the Aug. 17 celebration.

Castonia, a fourth generation St. John parishioner, has been interviewing older parishioners to gather their stories and help identify the pictures she has discovered in old storage boxes. This included the oldest parish member, Leone Zielinski, who is 100 years old, and her siblings.

Lee added, “This has been a struggling parish for some years. We are linked with St. Mary’s and we had to change our Mass schedule. That caused quite an uproar, but it’s the first time I saw a passion about our church. Church is more than a building. That sparked us to tell our story as ‘family.’”

“We want to get people invested in church again,” Castonia said.

Related Posts

Scroll to Top