ALLOUEZ — The icicles hanging in the trees might add a faint glimmer that looks like hope to a burned-out scene in Neopit.
In the early morning hours of Friday, Feb. 20, fire broke out in the rectory/food pantry at St. Anthony Parish, reducing the structure to rubble by dawn.
“No, no one was hurt,” said Norbertine Fr. David McElroy, pastor. “Thanks be to God.”
The priest, who resides at St. Michael Parish in Keshena, was not on the grounds when the fire broke out just after midnight. He said the rectory stood exactly 54 feet from the church, which was not damaged. The nearby Menominee Tribal School — once the parish’s school building — was not in session Friday.
A watchman at the tribe’s lumber mill across the river spotted the fire and alerted the fire department.
The rectory housed the parish’s food pantry and Fr. McElroy said that it was “full of commodities.” He said there were a lot of canned goods and meat in freezer. “Diapers were a big loss,” he added. “And we had a lot of clothes — good, decent clothes — that people had donated recently.”
Fr. McElroy said the parish is moving the pantry to the nearby community center.
“We’re trying to get the pantry open as quickly as possible,” he told The Compass on Feb. 23, “because it would be wrong not to, with it as cold as it is.”
The priest said the cause of the fire is not yet determined, but the rectory, built in the 1950s, had been heated by a wood stove, which was being used a lot during the current cold weather.
Also lost were cherished mementoes of Fr. Dave Kiefer, who had served at the parish for more than 20 years. He died in May of 2011. Sitting amidst the rectory rubble was his half-burned recliner.
St. Anthony is the home parish for the Menominee nation. Fr. McElroy noted that, while there are only about 200 families in residence, “literally, we have the whole tribe. People will come back from Milwaukee, Chicago, wherever they have moved, to visit, to be buried at St. Anthony. They are lifetime members of the parish.”
St. Anthony was founded in 1909, just one year after the village, and overlooks the Wolf River. The parish was first staffed by Franciscan Fathers serving in Keshena and was a mission parish until 1931. The Franciscans stayed until 1975, when diocesan priests took over its care. The Bay Settlement Franciscan Sisters staffed the parish school from 1913 to 1936, when the Manitowoc Franciscan Sisters replaced them.
The first church — built mostly by labor donated by parish members — was dedicated on Nov. 21, 1909. Some of the funds ($1,000) were donated by Pope Pius X. The present church was built in 1959, also with much donated labor.
“There’s a great community spirit here,” Fr. Kiefer told The Compass at the parish’s centennial in 2009. “(P)eople coming together to get things done and willing to add what they can to any project.”
Fr. McElroy said much the same thing about getting the food pantry going again, saying they were already gathering coat racks and shelving.
About the old rectory and the rubble that’s left, he said, “It looks so sad.”
Donations of money can be sent to the parish at W6700 Church St., Neopit, WI, 54150. Fr. McElroy said that he would also appreciate any food donations from people living nearby.
Many parishes across the diocese know St. Anthony Parish. The parish has traditionally been the poorest in the Green Bay Diocese because Menominee County has high unemployment and poverty rates. Many parishes have adopted the Neopit parish and regularly send food, money and clothing. Fr. McElroy hopes they will be able to help out now.
“Once the insurance funds kick in,” he said, “we won’t need to use parish funds.”