Northwoods church a testament to Bohemian, German settlers

By Lisa Haefs | For The Compass | July 3, 2014

St. Wenceslaus Church described as masterpiece of stained glass, statuary and shrines

NEVA — St. Wenceslaus Church isn’t listed in any tour book of northwoods’ attractions.

It should be.

St. Wenceslaus Church in Neva features symbolic architecture and design. It took 14 years, from the time of groundbreaking to the time of dedication, for the church to be completed. “The whole church reminds us of God’s sacraments and his love for us,” says Fr. David Schmidt, pastor. (Lisa Haefs | For The Compass)
St. Wenceslaus Church in Neva features symbolic architecture and design. It took 14 years, from the time of groundbreaking to the time of dedication, for the church to be completed. “The whole church reminds us of God’s sacraments and his love for us,” says Fr. David Schmidt, pastor. (Lisa Haefs | For The Compass)

The church is a masterpiece of stained glass, statuary and shrines, with nearly every brick and archway symbolically telling the story of Christianity, from the Ten Commandments through the Stations of the Cross and the seven sacraments.

“The whole church reminds us of God’s sacraments and his love for us,” said Fr. David Schmidt, pastor. “It’s been an honor to work with the people in such a warm and welcoming community.”

Bohemian, German roots

That the Langlade County church was even built is a testament to the tenacity of the Bohemian and German families who settled the area just north of Antigo in the late 1800s.

Those pioneers constructed their first house of worship in the fall of 1897, a simple, traditional structure, and named it in honor of a Bohemian prince and martyr dating to the first millennium. Mass was celebrated by Fr. Casimir Bianiarz, a Polish-speaking priest, followed by Fr. Francis Kolar, a Bohemian, in 1900. A series of pastors and administrators, who served both St. Wencel’s and St. Mary’s in Antigo, followed.

The congregation might have remained a satellite of Antigo, served by a traditional chapel, if it wasn’t for the Bohemian-born Fr. Henry B. Hubert, who arrived in September 1935.

“Fr. Hubert was really ahead of his time,” Fr. Omer Kelley, who succeeded Fr. Hubert as pastor in 1977, said. “He was beloved by the people. He had more holiness in his little finger than I have in my entire body.”

War postponed church’s construction

Under Fr. Hubert’s leadership, ground was broken for the current St. Wencel’s in 1939 on land donated by Frank and Mary Mattek. But far from Neva, the world exploded in war and it took 11 years of fund-raising before the physical cornerstone could be laid on June 28, 1950. Three years of construction followed.

The results, under the guidance of Fr. Hubert, were amazing.

“It’s a very intriguing building,” Fr. Jeremiah Worman, a previous pastor of St. Wenceslaus, said in a story for the Antigo Daily Journal in 2006. “Fr. Hubert was very liturgical-minded and he created a very beautiful church.”

The differences are evident even from the outside, where the octagonal-shaped church rises from perfectly manicured grounds that include the Fatima shrine, constructed in 1959 in honor of World War II veterans and dedicated to the memory of Eugene Joseph Shimon, a seaman first class in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

Seating capacity is 300

Inside, the eyes are drawn immediately to the altar, a central focal point with encircling pews that, according to a series of historical pamphlets on the church, emphasize that lives must be centered in Christ. With a seating capacity of 300, no one is ever more than 40 feet from the altar.

Priests have often commented on that intimacy.

“The people are very close to the priest and the priest to the people,” Fr. Schmidt said.

“It’s unique,” Fr. Kelley said. “Fr. Hubert wanted the people close.”

“It’s different in that you are right there with the people,” Fr. Worman said. “I really enjoy all the attention you do get, because you are right with them.”

The altar is made of red stone, to signify Christ’s sacrifice, with the letters AMDG — “Ad Majorem Dei Gloria”— Latin for “All for the greater honor and glory of God.”

Stained glass skylight

A stained glass skylight, symbolizing the Ten Commandments, is pictured above the altar and sanctuary of St. Wenceslaus Church. (Lisa Haefs | For The Compass)
A stained glass skylight, symbolizing the Ten Commandments, is pictured above the altar and sanctuary of St. Wenceslaus Church. (Lisa Haefs | For The Compass)

Once the eyes take in the altar, they are drawn upward to the stained glass skylight, symbolizing the Ten Commandments, that rises high over the altar and sanctuary. The canopy is divided into 10 sections, split again by black T-irons into five smaller sections for a total of 50. That illustrates the 50 days after the resurrection before the Holy Spirit was sent upon the apostles.

The windows around the sanctuary are ablaze with stained glass, each with a different meaning. Included are symbols of baptism and burial, the sacraments, the four evangelists, the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, God and sainthood.

There are also windows devoted to St. Wenceslaus, the church namesake; St. Isidore, the patron saint of the farmers who settled the region; St. Thérèse of Lisieux, known as the Little Flower; and Pope St. Pius X, sometimes called “the Pope of the Eucharist.” The windows can only be seen from the interior. They are encased in heavy glass block as a protection from the elements, outside.

The seven aisles of the round church were no accident of geometry either. The number is to remind churchgoers of the seven sacraments. Three of the walkways are colored in red, representing the once-in-a-lifetime benefits of baptism, confirmation and holy orders. The others, in white, remind parishioners of first Communion, penance, anointing of the sick and marriage.

Cemetery across the street

Just across the way from the church is the parish cemetery, which includes the Resurrection and Good Shepherd Shrine, constructed in 1964, the Stations of the Cross, and the Crucifixion Victory Group, hand-carved of native white pine in 1944.

Fr. Hubert continued to serve the congregation until 1977 and died five years later. He was laid to rest in St. Wenceslaus Cemetery, amid the shrines and trees he so artfully planted.

Fr. Schmidt stressed that while the structure is filled with symbolism, it is the people who  constructed the building and who nurture it today who make the church such a warm and  welcoming place.

“The community is the source of the strength,” he said. “It makes the church alive.”

St. Wenceslaus Church, administered by Fr. Schmidt and Fr. Alvan Amadi, parochial vicar, welcomes worshippers for 9 a.m. Sunday Mass and on Tuesdays, when Mass is celebrated at 8 a.m.

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