St. Willebrord Parish celebrates 150th anniversary

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | February 20, 2014

Founders Mass set for Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. with Bishop David Ricken

GREEN BAY — “Celebrating Open Doors, Open Heart” is the theme for St. Willebrord Parish’s sesquicentennial celebration this year. It’s also the theme for the parish’s life — and has been for years.

St. Willebrord Parish anniversary logo
St. Willebrord Parish anniversary logo

A little old woman was recently walking across the parish parking lot. So bent over that her face was hidden by the scarf and hooded jacket she wore against the January wind, she clutched a yellow plastic shopping bag. She was carrying home some food they had given her. “She’s a regular here,” someone from the parish said.

However, she gives as well as she receives. Last fall, the parish began selling anniversary logo shirts. The same woman waited in line to pay $20.

“I was going to give change and she said, ‘No, I want to donate it,’” said Judy Maricque, one of the anniversary co-chairs. “You know, she can’t afford it.”

“They say she lives close to here,” explained Cruz Delia Marquez, fellow co-chair. “To her, this is her house, I think.”


The old woman could be a symbol for this Green Bay parish. It has used the theme — “Open Doors, Open Hearts” since its last anniversary year, 25 years ago.

Norbertine Fr. Andy Cribben has been pastor since 2011. He said the 25-year-old theme “really expresses what we wanted to be, but what (also) was already true. The parish has always tried to be a welcoming place for anybody: From the homeless who want to come here for a sandwich and a cup of coffee, or if they want to go in the church and stay warm, to the people who are staying downtown for a Packer game and looking for an early Mass to go to before the game, to anybody who is staying in the hotels downtown and looking for a Mass. We’re glad to serve those folks.”

On Feb. 21, at 6 p.m., Bishop David Ricken will join the parish to celebrate a Founders’ Mass. After Mass, there will be birthday cake and refreshments. Birthday cake will be featured at each of the eight regular weekend Masses on Feb. 22 and 23 as well.

An exterior view of St. Willebrord Church in Green Bay. The parish had Dutch and Flemish roots dating back to the 1860s. In recent years the downtown parish has opened its doors to new Hispanic immigrants. Today the parish has 1,368 parish families, and many more people who come from miles around. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
An exterior view of St. Willebrord Church in Green Bay. The parish had Dutch and Flemish roots dating back to the 1860s. In recent years the downtown parish has opened its doors to new Hispanic immigrants. Today the parish has 1,368 parish families, and many more people who come from miles around. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Twenty-five years ago, St. Willebrord’s chose the “Open Door, Open Hearts” theme to also emphasize the fact of its downtown location and the many hours a day that the church is open to anyone who wants to visit. The church opens at 6:30 a.m. and some nights is still open at 8 p.m. There is at least one Mass every day — including Saturday mornings — as well as daily confession. Five hundred children attend sacramental formation classes (in English and Spanish) and, as Cruz said, “There’s always something going on here.”

Hispanic community welcomed

The biggest venture in the parish’s history was perhaps the transition, in the early 1990s, that welcomed the local Hispanic community into the parish. The parish had Dutch and Flemish roots, dating to 47 founding families in 1864. However, as with many downtown parishes, it had an aging population by the early1990s. It was then that Norbertine Fr. Harvey Toonen, who was ministering to the Hispanic population, approached St. Willebrord’s pastor, Norbertine Fr. Ken De Groot, asking for a place to hold Spanish Masses.

The parish did more than that. They moved to incorporate the Hispanic population into the parish family.

“That shook the parish a bit and there was some sorting out,” Fr. Cribben said. “Some went to other parishes and (other) new people came because they wanted to be part of a parish that’s part of a broad community and looks like what the world is today. It’s flourished.”

One of those who came was Cruz Delia Marquez.

“They invited us to come here,” she said. “My ex-husband was a person who played music. He played anything, any instrument. I came in and gave Communion, anything I could.”

That included bringing Spanish music to the Mass celebration.”

“In America, we didn’t have books for music. So I made my own,” Cruz said. “I got my music from Mexico and I’d write it on a piece of paper and make copies and make my own books.”

“No one here would tell you it’s been easy,” Fr. Cribben said, “to incorporate a community of different cultures and languages and countries of origin than the founders and the primary community that was here, but it’s the worthy work of building a community.”

Prayer and song

To recognize 150 years of history was a challenge Fr. Cribben wanted to tackle when he wrote the 150th anniversary prayer, which speaks of “tulips in Holland” and “rich diversity.”

“It’s recognition and a thanksgiving,” he said, “for where we’ve come from, a rejoicing in where we are and a hope with a desire to make something positive and loving and expressive of the Gospel in the future. … I was trying to say something about everybody’s perspective about who their ancestors were and to also help them to think that, ‘My ancestors aren’t just from my family but also my ancestors in faith who helped to build this parish.’”

There is also an anniversary song, written by Toni Rozek and translated in Spanish by Oliverio Torres , both members of the parish. Anniversary banners that will adorn Adams Street, which the church faces.  on which the church sits. Larry Heyrman has formed a veterans’ group — with members from beyond the parish — who will represent St. Willebrord’s at public events all year, including Memorial Day. The parish will take part in the city’s Memorial Day parade and already has won an award for its entry in the Green Bay Holiday Parade last November.

Many events are planned for the year, including a June picnic — Willy Jam; a “Walk to the Abbey” to celebrated the Norbertines, who have served the parish since 1932 (Fr. Cribben’s predecessor, Fr. Ken De Groot served the parish from 1980 to 2011); street dancing in the tradition of Echternach, Luxemburg, during the week of Pentecost; pilgrimages to Holy Hill and the Guadalupe Shrine in La Crosse; a concert; a talk on the church’s stained glass windows; an appreciation dinner for anyone who wants to come in May. That’s just the beginning and more will be planned.

Not a one-year celebration

“So this is not just a one-year celebration and we’re done, but I really want to see us project this into the future.” Fr. Cribben.

The emphasis is on welcoming everyone.

Judy and her late husband, Bill, felt that welcome when they came to the parish about 25 years ago as they were planning to get married.

“I’m a convert. I’m from Bonduel,” Judy said. “… We lived in Green Bay, so we started going to all the different churches. And when we came here, that first Sunday, I can remember like it was yesterday…. When we went home I said, ‘This is where I want to go. The atmosphere was so welcoming and so warm …. . (Today) this is my family.”

Fr. Cribben knows that many people, beyond Green Bay, feel the same about “St. Willy’s.”

“It’s a parish in which we are the beneficiaries of the support of many, many people way beyond our parish,” he said. “I’m not sure, financially, how we would make it if we didn’t have the support of such a broad population in the church and the diocese. …. The desire to see a parish continue and grow and respond to needs is very, very broad and well beyond our parishioners.”

Today the parish has 1,368 parish families, and many more people who come from miles around. Judy knows of one farmer from her hometown of Bonduel who travels to St. Willy’s for the weekend Masses because that fits his milking schedule. He’s also joined the parish veterans’ group.

“If you could emphasize what I want to say (for this anniversary),” Fr. Cribben noted, “it’s not only my gratitude to the ancestors and parishoners, but my gratitude to the many people who support this parish in every way, from their prayers to their presence to their monetary donations. We are truly grateful to them.”

(For upcoming events throughout the year, visit the parish’s website at


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