MENASHA — It was 150 years ago when 34 German-speaking immigrant families in Menasha decided to break away from St. Charles Congregation (now St. Patrick Church) and start a parish of their own.
Thus, St. Mary Catholic Church was born. The parish community will mark that anniversary with a 4 p.m. Mass celebrated by Bishop David Ricken, a dinner and entertainment on Sept. 9.
The parish has been celebrating this milestone anniversary for several months with other events, including a German luncheon in mid-June, said Steve Siegel, parish business manager and member. The menu included German chocolate cake, German potato salad, brats and beer. “We invited all our parishioners to come and get ready for our anniversary,” he said.
In August, the parish hosted church tours that offered displays and discussions of the parish’s history and explanations of the organ, Stations of the Cross, stained glass windows, relics, chapel and church bells. Participants received pamphlets on the history to take home and were invited to a social in the school cafeteria as a way to visit with other parishioners and history buffs.
For the Sept. 9 event, the parish extended invitations to priests, sisters and school principals who have served the parish and school. All parishioners, past and present, were invited. At the end of Mass, parishioners will be invited to be part of a group photo to commemorate the 150 years of worship.
Each dinner guest will receive small gifts to remember the occasion, said Jean Sell, parish bookkeeper and a parish member for nearly 40 years. She also helped with the anniversary planning. Dinner guests will also view a slideshow presentation on the history and a performance by the parish choir.
“There is a lot of energy behind this project,” Siegel said. “There were a lot of people involved in the planning of the events. It was a neat thing to see.”
Today the parish has a diverse membership of 803 families. There is an elementary school that is part of the St. Mary Catholic School System, and the Mount Tabor Spirituality Center is at home in the former convent.
But in 1867, diversity was not on the minds of the families who approached Bishop John M. Henni of Milwaukee (the Green Bay Diocese would not be formed until a year later), seeking to organize their own parish.
The bishop gave permission, and the small group bought a church building with the adjoining property from the Congregational Church of Menasha. In the spring of 1867, Bishop Henni blessed the church and dedicated it to the Blessed Mother. Fr. F. Uhlemeyer was the first resident pastor.
He built the first Catholic school in the diocese in 1868 and invited the Franciscan sisters to staff it. In March 1875, Fr. J. Jaster asked the School Sisters of Notre Dame to take over the school.
Fire destroyed the church on Ash Wednesday, 1883. This was a great financial blow to the parish, but the pastor, Fr. Andrew Seubert, was not discouraged.
Within three days, he had $14,000 pledged for a new church and in November, Green Bay Bishop Francis Xavier Krautbauer dedicated the new church. The building, which is the present St. Mary Church, was designed by Architect Druiding of Chicago and is an example of German Gothic architecture. In time, a large sacristy was added. In 1893, a school with 18 classrooms and a large hall was built.
By 1948, more improvements were made to the property, and land for a cemetery was purchased. More changes came after Vatican II in the 1960s and 1970s, including a new altar so the priest could face the parishioners, a clock tower, bells, stained glass windows and an outside ramp for wheelchairs. In 1995, a parking lot was added, and three years later a link from the church to the school was added with a new activity center, kitchen, cafeteria and restrooms.
During renovations, it was learned that the former sacristy was intended to be a small chapel for private prayer and weekday celebrations of the Eucharist. In 1975, it was restored to its first intent and dedicated to School Sister of Notre Dame Marietta Pecht, who taught first grade for 33 years at St. Mary School, served as parish sacristan for 30 years and celebrated her golden jubilee there. A plaque honoring her more than 50 years of service to the parish and school was placed in the chapel.
In 1971, the Blessed Sacrament Fathers had assumed the administration of the parish. They were there until 2003, when the parish was linked with the other two Menasha parishes, St. John the Baptist and St. Patrick.
Today, St. Mary and St. John parishes remain linked with Fr. Paul J. Paider as pastor, and a parish that began as a dream of poor immigrant settlers continues to make dreams come true for Menasha Catholics.