Late priest’s secret revealed, thanks to Goodwill donation

Fr. Tremblay, who served in Door County, was Purple Heart recipient

BAILEYS HARBOR — When Fr. Eugene Tremblay left Baileys Harbor in 1987, he took a secret with him.

The popular priest, who had also served the churches in Sister Bay and Jacksonport, is remembered as serving his parishioners with gentle joy and a happy smile. He sometimes talked about his time spent as an Air Force chaplain, both active and reserve duty, from 1943 until he retired in 1967.

But what he never told anyone was that he had earned a Purple Heart during World War II. That bit of information may never have come to light if someone hadn’t thrown out his memorabilia.

Fr. Eugene Tremblay, who served as pastor of parishes in northern Door County, is pictured in 2005 with Helen Dunderdale-Hall, left, who was “adopted” by his family, and his sisters, Sr. Eugenia and Sr. Celestine. Dunderdale-Hall was Fr. Tremblay’s longtime housekeeper and caregiver. (Photo courtesty of Helen Dunderdale-Hall)

Fr. Tremblay, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who once staffed northern Door County parishes, was headquartered out of Baileys Harbor from 1969 to 1987. When he left there, he went to Belleville, Ill., to the Oblate of Mary Immaculate Shrine until 1992, then assisted at St. Mary’s Home in Manitowoc. In 2005, at the age of 92, Fr. Tremblay finally retired. He died in Manitowoc in 2011 at age 97.

Last year, Appleton Goodwill employee Lataya Williams discovered a discarded three-ring binder that once belonged to Fr. Temblay. It had been placed in a bin for recycle or resale, but no one knows where it came from.

The binder contained faded grade-school report cards, letters recognizing his work with the church, and old military papers of “Lt. Col. Eugene Tremblay,” including documentation about his Purple Heart. Thinking it too valuable to throw away, Williams brought the binder to her supervisor, also a veteran, who gave it to Dennis Zemialkowski, the Goodwill NCW leader of logistics, and an Air Force veteran.

Thanks to him, the binder is now in the possession of the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, which has plans for a future display.

So who exactly was Fr. Tremblay? His obituary says he had three brothers — one of them also an Oblate priest — and three sisters, two of whom were members of the Servants of Mary religious order. From the time Fr. Tremblay was 11, the family lived in Ladysmith, home of the Servite motherhouse.

He served first in the Army Air Corp and then the Air Force, and after retiring he went back with the Oblate Mission Band in St. Paul, Minn., assisting at various parishes with Masses, retreats, 40-hour devotions and other duties. In 1969, he accepted an assignment as pastor at St. Mary of the Lake in Baileys Harbor and St. Michael’s Mission, Jacksonport.

Though it has been 30 years since Fr. Tremblay served in northern Door County, he is remembered fondly.

“He was very personable,” said Kriss Schorer. “He cared about people and was a very positive and happy person. He was great with kids, too, and kept them entertained with card tricks.”

Schorer said she and her husband kept a boat in Charlevoix, Mich., and often sailed across Lake Michigan to Baileys Harbor. When his religious sisters came to visit, they and Fr. Tremblay would be standing on the dock, waiting for the Schorers to arrive. Then they’d all go for a sail, with the Tremblays below deck, playing cards.

“He always blessed the fleet each year,” Schorer said, referring to the boats in the Baileys Harbor marina. “When I learned about his earning the Purple Heart, I wasn’t a bit surprised. He was that kind of man,” she said.

Lorie Orthober, secretary for Stella Maris Parish, took instructions from Fr. Tremblay to become Catholic before she married in 1982.

“He was a kind and gentle man, and has a special place in my heart,” she said. Her mother-in-law, Marilyn Orthober, said Fr. Tremblay was “soft-hearted, and he gave wonderful homilies.”

Marilyn Orthober, who was the organist at the Jacksonport church for 40 years, said a cross dedicated to Fr. Tremblay was erected near the cemetery in Jacksonport before Fr. Tremblay left. “He was so very respected by everyone,” she said.

Paul Gray was in grade school during Fr. Tremblay’s time as pastor. He remembers being one of the altar boys sent over from the school to serve during funerals. After he graduated from high school, Gray helped Fr. Tremblay with religious education classes, or with taking younger students to basketball games or bowling.

“We’re Polish, and when my own kids were baptized on Sunday afternoons, we’d have burgers and Polish sausage at our house afterwards,” Gray said. “Fr. Tremblay always ended the baptismal ceremony with, ‘Bring on the Polish sausage!’”

Reminders of Fr. Tremblay exist in the beautiful mosaics over the entryway to the Baileys Harbor church, which he was instrumental in installing. They include Our Lady of the Lake, which was the church’s name before the northern Door County churches were merged into the one Stella Maris Parish.

“If you look closely, you’ll see the OMI on the flags in the mosaics,” Schorer said. One of the stained glass windows in the church is also dedicated to the Oblate priests who served the area for many years.

“We were a mission area at first, and the OMIs came here from Peshtigo to serve us,” Schorer said.

Although his parishioners knew nothing about Fr. Tremblay’s Purple Heart, they did know about his own big heart. “Everybody just loved him,” Schorer said.

Perhaps the person who remembers Fr. Tremblay the best is Helen Dunderdale-Hall, who was his housekeeper for 22 years. But that’s only part of the story.

Dunderdale-Hall and Fr. Tremblay met in England when he was a chaplain stationed at the South Ruislip American Air Force Base, where she worked at the post exchange. She sang in the post church choir, and when he found out she had been raised in an orphanage and had no family, he invited her to meet his family when they returned to the states. She said he was like a dad to her, and his family became her family.

Dunderdale-Hall, who is now 81 years old, lives in a nursing home in Manitowoc and is unable to speak because of a stroke. However, when presented with a sheet of paper and written questions, she took up her pen and wrote about her years with Fr. Tremblay and his family.

For a time she lived with Fr. Tremblay’s dad and helped his daughter, Luella, look after him when he was sick. When their dad died, Dunderdale-Hall moved to Colorado, but she stayed in touch. When Fr. Tremblay first moved to Baileys Harbor, his sister, Sr. Eugenia, kept house for him. Dunderdale-Hall became his housekeeper when Sr. Eugenia returned to college.

Upon retirement, he moved to Manitowoc where his sisters, Sr. Eugenia and Sr. Celestine, lived, as well as his brother, Fr. Russell Tremblay. “Everybody loved Fr. Tremblay,” Dunderdale-Hall said. “He had a wonderful sense of humor and loved to tell jokes. He was a humble man who never let people down.”

Like everyone else, Dunderdale-Hall had no idea that Fr. Tremblay had earned a Purple Heart. “He wasn’t one to brag,” she said.

Fr. Tremblay took his secret to his grave, where it remained until that chance rummage through a Goodwill recycle bin brought it to light.