NEWTON — The parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Community waited 14 years to get their own church. On May 2, that long wait ended.
St. Thomas the Apostle, which formed in 2000 with the merger of four area parishes in rural Manitowoc County, saw parishioners enthusiastically flock to the new church for a dedication ceremony that night led by Bishop David Ricken and several other concelebrants, among them Fr. Tom Long, the priest celebrant, and Fr. David Beaudry, the parish’s founding pastor.
Dozens of additional chairs had to be positioned at the back of the church (which seats 450 in a semi-circle arrangement) to accommodate the strong turnout.
“It’s a dream come true for all of us, because we’ve waited so long for this,” said Sandie Fitzgerald, the parish’s liturgy coordinator. “The emotions for everybody at the dedication that night were pretty high. It’s still hard to believe that after all these years we finally have our own church building. I just have to pinch myself every time I go in the church now.”
The former parishes of St. Isidore (Osman), St. Joseph (Alverno), St. Casimir (Northeim) and St. Wendel (Cleveland) merged in July 2000. For years, most Masses were held in a gathering space at St. Thomas the Apostle; for a couple of years early on, Masses were held in Manitowoc at Silver Lake College’s chapel.
After years of praying and fundraising, groundbreaking for the $2.5 million church took place July 31, 2013. A little more than nine months later, that plot of land next to the existing building gave birth to a beautiful church for the parish’s 630 units.
“So many people worked so hard on this, and lo and behold it has come to pass,” said Manitowoc’s Sandra Stevens, the parish’s director of liturgical music. “I think the new church re-energizes people spiritually and in a community sense, too. It still feels a little unreal to have our church now, it’s just so beautiful.”
Artifacts from all four previous parishes were incorporated into the church, which was built by Hamann Construction of Manitowoc.
Sr. Marlita Henseler, parish director, noted that statues of Mary and Joseph as well as the cross on top of the church came from St. Wendel, some of the vessels came from St. Casimir, the baptistery came from St. Joseph, and the stained glass windows and tabernacle came from St. Isidore.
“It was nice to be able to bring something from the other four churches into this space,” said Fitzgerald, who was part of the Arts and Furnishings Committee.
Other subtle, yet symbolically significant, elements inside the new church are the four stone pillars, which represent the four previous parishes serving as the foundation for the current parish.
“There are a lot of wonderful things about our new church, and those four pillars are one of the most important things,” said Sr. Marlita. “They’re very significant for all the people who were part of those parishes. There’s a lot of history with the parishes that merged, and this helps keep that history going.”
The new church building features large windows that usher in plenty of light. The furnishings that are illuminated by that light aren’t overly ornate, and that’s just how the parishioners like it.
“Everyone loves the simplicity,” Sr. Marlita said. “It’s simple but elegant. Everybody just looks around and goes ‘Wow.’ It impresses them.”
Fitzgerald agreed, saying, “I have not heard one bad comment about our new church. The simplicity of it, but it’s still beautiful. That’s what I keep hearing from people.”
Adding to that elegant simplicity are furnishings handcrafted by Roger Mayer, chairman of the Building Committee, who lives directly across the street from the new church.
Using Wisconsin cherry wood, Mayer volunteered about 500 hours of his time to handcraft the altar, cross, ambo, gift table, tabernacle shelf, candlestick holders and dedication crosses. He also refinished a salvaged chair that will serve as the presider’s chair.
“Everything looks like I envisioned it would when I was making it,” said Mayer, formerly a member of St. Isidore. “It’s nice looking, but very simple. The furniture fits with the style of the church. … It was an honor to be able to help out with things.”
Added Stevens: “All of Roger’s woodwork is so amazing. It adds so much to the church.”
The cross created by Mayer hangs above the altar. Attached to it is a crucifix corpus designed by Gianfranco Tassara of Inspired Artisans of Milwaukee. Inspired Artisans also refurbished the statues of Mary and Joseph as well as the stations of the cross.
One back corner of the church features a prayer room in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe for the parish’s Hispanic community, which represents about 20 percent of the total units. That space also will be utilized as an adoration chapel. Another back corner of the church has a reconciliation room, as well as a light and sound room.
The church isn’t entirely finished yet, but it should be by early June, Sr. Marlita said. There’s some exterior work remaining, and some of the stained glass windows — which came from Europe in the 1920s — need to be positioned. And the parish also would like to purchase a statue of St. Thomas to display in the church sometime in the future.
But the vast majority of the church is up and running. It has already hosted several Masses, first Communions and baptisms. And at least one wedding is already planned there this summer.
Masses are held at 8 and 10 a.m. on Sundays; 8 a.m. on Thursdays; 8 a.m. on the first Friday of each month; 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays; and 1 p.m. on Sundays (Spanish language).
Stevens, a former Protestant who became Catholic when she joined St. Thomas in 2006, said, “To see the four country parishes joining into one organism that’s alive and functioning well, it’s amazing. Everything about the church and the people here is just wonderful.”
Fitzgerald echoed similar sentiments.
“The people at St. Thomas are so giving, not just with their money, but with their time and their talents,” she said. “You know, churches aren’t built like this every day, especially country churches. We’re a small community out here. It’s not like we have a lot of big donors. But we have a great community of people out here, and that’s why we finally have our new church.”
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