PICKEREL — St. Mary Catholic Church, built through the labor of pioneer settlers and financially nourished by hundreds of chicken dinners and picnics, will celebrate its centennial on Sunday, Sept. 21.
Bishop David L. Ricken will celebrate the 10:30 a.m. Mass, with concelebrants Fr. David Zimmerman and Fr. Len Evers. The parish choir has chosen songs that may have been sung at the congregation’s dedication 100 years ago. Dinner will follow in the church hall.
“This is a great celebration of the faith community that has lasted this long,” Fr. Zimmerman, the current pastor, said. “It’s really due to the dedication of the parishioners, who are always looking to the future and planning for the future.
“We have challenges,” Fr. Zimmerman said. “But the people are certainly willing to look ahead and face those responsibilities.”
Parishioners say they are proud of their parish’s longevity and have been sharing its success. The congregation placed signs announcing the anniversary early this year, and entered a float in the Pickerel St. Patrick’s Day parade in March. They also held a series of special events, including a May crowning, polka Mass, parish picnic and a celebration of the living rosary.
Holy cards and medals of the Blessed Mother, along with handmade rosaries, have been presented to the congregation. Each Mass has opened with a special centennial prayer to Mary, reading in part: “We humbly kneel before you in thanksgiving for your presence and protection these past 100 years.”
“Our year has been dedicated to St. Mary,” Nancy Killoren, a member of the planning committee, said. “Our goal has been to keep reminding us of our history and service to the Lord.”
The seeds that spawned St. Mary were planted by Mr. and Mrs. John Monette, who hosted Masses in their pioneer homestead and organized a woman’s club in 1910 to raise money for a small church.
At the time, Catholics in the area were being served by Fr. Conrad Saile, who made the six-hour trip from Antigo on an occasional basis for Mass, funerals, weddings and baptisms at the Monette home, joined by a few Catholic neighbors.
“Fr. Saile felt it was too great a hardship for the family to come to Antigo,” according to a letter to Fr. Lee Kahrs, written by Loretta Monette Ludwig in 1974. “We were a large family and made the trip in a wagon or sleigh with working horses, taking about six hours one way. In winter, mother would warm bricks in the cook stove to line the sleigh bed, cover them with straw and blankets, and get us up about 11 o’clock at night to be dressed and tucked in the sleigh bed. We would arrive in Antigo in time for the first Mass, then breakfast downtown and the long trek home again.”
One time, Ludwig recalled, Fr. Saile came for Mass and was snowed in for three days.
“He seemed to enjoy being with us and helped us pop corn or make ‘pull’ candy and, of course, embraced the opportunity to give us instruction,” Ludwig wrote.
The need was there, but money and labor were in short supply.
The woman’s club, made up of women of all denominations, went to work, hosting card parties, making articles for bazaars and holding festival dinners and raffles, while the men created a building committee which included Alonzo Bunten, John Aird and John Monette.
The first church, 24 feet by 36 feet, was built on a hill in Pearson on land donated by Oliver Shadick. It cost $800 and was constructed with the help of all those who lived in the area, including many non-Catholic Christians. Final cost was $898.72.
The Catholics repaid the kindness a few years later, helping the Lutherans construct their own church in nearby Lily.
The church was heated by wood donated by parishioners, with the Monettes often bringing kindling to start the Sunday morning fires in a big box heater. The building was never locked, with the door held closed by a medium-sized stone which was later placed in front of a grotto built in the yard of the Monette home.
Ben Clark, the oldest active parishioner, recalled the church and the need to stoke that stove, a duty that fell to early-arriving worshippers. He also remembered parishioners regularly coming to Mass by horse-drawn sleigh.
“Now they come by snowmobile,” he said.
The congregation weathered the Great Depression through a series of picnics and chicken dinners and by the end of World War II was outgrowing its small home as more and more people discovered the Pickerel lakes region.
The current church was constructed of lannon stone in 1951 at a new, centrally-located site on Highway 55 in the village of Pickerel, on an acre of land donated by Bill Viles.
Green Bay Bishop Stanislaus V. Bona dedicated the facility on June 2, 1952, an event reported in the Antigo Daily Journal.
“The entrance of the church is decorated in brown, matching the woodwork of the new pews and beams extending from the floor to the top of the ceiling,” the newspaper reported. “Thirty members of the Catholic clergy from the area took part in the ceremony and procession and the Priest’s Choir from the Green Bay Cathedral sang the Mass. The first pastor of the parish, Msgr. Conrad Saile, was an honored guest.”
The church, and a subsequent purchase of 10 adjoining acres, was financed through a new round of festivals and chicken dinners.
“One year, about 1951, we had a severe electric and wind storm about 10:30 a.m. just before serving,” Hilda Hartel wrote in a 1979 church history. “All the help held on to tent poles and we all just prayed. Finally, by noon it cleared and by 2 o’clock we served a big crowd. We cleared over $1,000, which was very good in that day. God sure was with us.”
The cemetery was added in 1959 and an expansive hall built in 1976.
Today, St. Mary, with 120 parishioners, offers an array of service opportunities for members — including the pastoral council, altar society and men’s club — and reaches out into the community through regular collections of funds and items for area food pantries, the homeless, military personnel and homebound.
St. Mary Parish remains the heart of the Pearson-Pickerel community.
“Think about what all the people went through to get a church,” Virg Kruzitski, liturgy consultant, said. “We can’t let that die.”