LAKEWOOD — One highlight of Wisconsin’s “up north” is its trees. Yet, amidst the trees of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, something else has been growing strong for a century: the faith life St. Mary of the Lake Parish in Lakewood.
On July 28, the parish will celebrate its 100th anniversary at a 4 p.m. Mass with Bishop David Ricken. Also invited are area priests and former pastors who have served the parish, which also has chapels at Silver Lake and Crooked Lake. The theme for the centennial is “Celebrating a Century of Blessings.”
Those blessings include full-time residents and those who come only part of the year.
“With all the history of the church here, there are a lot of summer people and tourists coming in,” said Fr. Philip Dinh-van-Thiep, pastor since 2015. “So the people are hospitable in that way, very open, even though there is a lot of movement of people.”
More than 360 families
A core of 363 families anchors the Lakewood site, with 37 more at Silver Cliff and 48 at Crooked Lake. In the summer, that number more than doubles.
“We have a lot of snow birds,” explained parish secretary Kendra Yingling, who has served the parish for 24 years. “So the registered members will go down to, well, not many. … Then, in the summertime, we have our normal people plus all the vacationers.”
She added that there are many “dual memberships,” people who live elsewhere and have summer or weekend homes in the area, or whose extended families have places around Oconto County.
The ebb and flow of population has meant that the parish members adapt to each other’s gifts.
Unique sense of family
Mary Schroeder first came as a vacationer in 1965 and then retired to nearby Townsend with her husband, Tom, in 2010. Mary, who serves on the centennial committee, has researched the parish’s history. She said St. Mary’s offers a unique sense of family. “I don’t see a lot of parishes that have that quality,” she said. “Our parish has a very family-like quality.”
Linda Zuleger, another centennial committee member, agreed. She and her husband, David, retired to nearby Surprise Lake two years ago, but they have been coming to Lakewood since 1976, when her father “bought a lake place.”
“I was a little concerned about moving up here, at 62 years of age, and making new friends,” Zuleger said. “I had lived in a small town (before) and I know how cliquey small towns can be and how hard it can be to fit in.”
She, happily, did not find that in Lakewood.
“Partly, I think, it’s because so many of us are people who came from somewhere else to be here. So everyone is very welcoming,” she said.
St. Mary’s started more than 100 years ago, as a station church linked to St. Leonard Parish in Laona. Before long, it became a mission of St. Ambrose in Wabeno. (Today, St. Ambrose shares its pastor, Fr. Philip, with Lakewood.) As what had started as a logging town grew into a more permanent settlement, an increasing number of parish members found it difficult to travel to Wabeno each Sunday. The 13-mile trek did not offer more than rutted tracks for travel and the train that made the trip back and forth only came once a day. So the Wabeno pastor in 1916 began celebrating Sunday Mass in the Lakewood town hall.
In 1917, the town decided to build a new school and sold the old school building for $100 to local Catholics, who used as their first church building. It gained some additions — including a basement and choir loft — and the mission parish of St. Mary’s of the Lake was incorporated on Feb. 12, 1918. Its first pastor was Fr. Amadeus Buytaert.
Lakewood kept growing — adding a cheese factory, dairy farms and a mercantile town center, as well as vacationers. In summer, “the little church,” which seated only 100, overflowed. People had to stand outside the church on Sundays, listening through the windows.
That continued for so long that Zuleger is one who remembers “standing with my children outside an open window listening to the Mass.”
In 1945, the pastor — Fr. Edwin Ocweja — added an outdoor sound system and began planning a larger church. To ease the crunch, Sunday Masses were also celebrated in the town halls at Crooked Lake and Silver Cliff (each about 17 miles from Lakewood). In 1955, a garage-style church was built at Crooked Lake for Sunday Masses. A second garage chapel was built at Silver Cliff in 1956. (Full chapels were later built at both sites: in 1968 at Silver Cliff and in 1973 at Crooked Lake.)
However, even with these accommodations, the Lakewood church remained too small in the summer tourist season. Building of the present church started in 1955, with the dedication taking place on Sept. 5, 1956.
The current church has a unique design to allow for the changing population of the seasons. The building is L-shaped, with a smaller wing that can hold 120 people and a larger wing that holds 300 more. The larger wing can be closed off in the winter, since the sanctuary and altar are visible from both wings.
Over the years, the changing population did not just include summer tourists, but also deer hunters and snowmobilers.
“It was nothing to see a deer season where the whole church was (filled with) orange,” Yingling said. “They used to come in and take their snowmobile helmets off and the whole entryway was full.”
Janet Biese and her husband, Mark, started coming to the area in 1972. She noted how people who belong to the parish are so varied. “I didn’t realize that until I moved up here and found people from Chicago, Milwaukee, out of state and all walks of life,” she said. “We thought we would come up here and do nothing (when we retired) and that hasn’t happened yet.”
A welcoming parish
Fr. Philip describes the members of the parish as “welcoming, patient and also generous.” He added that they have adapted well to having different priests — he is the eighth pastor at Lakewood since 2000, not counting weekend help by retired priests.
He also noted how the parish has chosen — “on its own, before I came here” — to donate five percent of its income to charity. Fr. Philip said that each year, parish members choose three charitable causes to donate to, “including a shelter for children and abused women and a food pantry,” he said. “They also hold monthly collections of non-perishable foods.”
“They are generous to the church always, and to the diocese,” the priest added. “Here, I don’t have to push for Bishop’s Appeal — we are usually over our goal.”
Fr. Philip is assisted by retired priests, Fr. Roger Strebel and Fr. Len Evers, as well as by the parish’s deacon, William Doran. Former pastor Fr. Leo Lessard, who died March 1, also served the parish in his retirement. Fr. Lessard had been pastor at St. Mary’s from 1970 to 1981, and retired to Lakewood in 2000. While pastor, he oversaw major renovations to the church, including his own designs for the Old and New Testament windows that now grace the south narthex. Subtly hidden figures of animals and other aspects of nature appear in the glass.
Linda Zuleger loves the windows, and for more than their beauty: “They also have entertainment value. They kept my sons quiet! They would look at the windows and try to find the animals, the fishermen and the hunter and the boats and the birds.”
Besides the July 28 Mass and dinner to follow, the parish is selling centennial T-shirts and has been hosting anniversary events monthly all year. These have included a Lenten fish fry, a pie social in June, and a parish bus trip to Holy Hill in July.
On Aug. 5, there will be an open house at Silver Cliff Chapel. Another open house, on Oct. 6, will be held at Crooked Lake Chapel and a centennial booth will be set up at the parish picnic Aug. 19. A replica of “the little church” was in the July 4 Lakewood parade and the town’s Mardi Gras celebration, also held in July.
The closing centennial celebration will take place at special Masses on Feb. 9 and 10, 2019.