ISAAR — Outagamie County Highway VV slices east and west across farmland 20-some miles north of Appleton. The road does a north-south jog for a bit, and, where a tiny cluster of buildings break up the fields of corn and beans, that’s Isaar.
It’s where 125 years ago Bavarian immigrants planted St. Sebastian Parish in the town named after the Isar River in their homeland.
Alice Van Denlangenberg takes a realistic attitude toward St. Sebastian, a small parish with 176 registered households, many of those just one or two people.
“We’re very fortunate we’re open,” the long-time parishioner said. “And we’re fortunate to have a priest and our brother, the deacon.”
The priest is Fr. Brian Belongia, pastor of both St. Sebastian and larger St. John the Baptist in Seymour, six miles away. He is in full agreement with Van Denlangenberg.
“From where it came from, it’s kind of a miracle it exists,” Fr. Belongia said. “The parishioners have seen a lot of good times and a lot of tragedy. They’re very proud of that parish. They’re very honest, hard-working, faithful people. The church is the spiritual and cultural center of the little town. The spark is still alive.”
Parishioners have been celebrating St. Sebastian’s existence all year. Events have included a Memories of Mother display; art fair; cemetery walk; fun-run/walk; St. Sebastian feast day Mass and brunch, with a presentation about the parish namesake; and specially-designed Christmas cards. Bishop David Ricken will help put an exclamation point on the 125th anniversary by presiding at 8 a.m. Mass and confirmation on Sunday, Nov. 25.
Families who first settled the area struggled to get permission to build a church, but in 1893 Bishop Sebastian Messmer granted the request. The parish was named St. Sebastian to thank the bishop. Four families each donated $25 to help begin the building, which, thanks to volunteers, was erected at a cost of $2,000 on land donated by the Kroner family.
Bishop Messmer was on hand in 1874 for the dedication of the church, and he gave the parish a St. Sebastian statue, one that had previously stood in the cathedral in Green Bay.
Mid-morning on a Wednesday, Deacon Richard Matuszak took a spare moment to quickly vacuum around that statue of St. Sebastian and the rest of the sanctuary in the church. This isn’t the worship space that those first parishioners built, however.
Tragedy struck that first wooden structure on Christmas Eve 1929, when St. Sebastian Church caught fire and burned.
As disheartening as that was for Isaar’s early parishioners, by April they had built an almost a state-of-the-art church, this time of brick.
The new St. Sebastian Church retained the German Tudor style of the original, with elegant, exposed wood truss beams supporting the roof so that no pillars block views of the altar.
Tall angel statues with golden wings are unique candelabras that light the gleaming tabernacle on the back altar, and a colorful bas-relief depiction of The Last Supper decorates the front altar.
Just about every element in the church has been donated by parishioners, Deacon Matuszak said, and many of the items have been restored to their original glory during the past several years.
The church is so beautiful inside, parishioner Milton Krause said, that couples who aren’t parishioners have asked to be married there.
About 10 years ago, St. Sebastian lost its resident pastor. The parish was served first by priests from Assumption B.V.M. in Pulaski, and now from St. John the Baptist in Seymour. Fr. Belongia presides at Mass on Fridays, and Deacon Matuszak offers a Communion service Mondays and Wednesdays. Faith formation for adults and youth is held in the former rectory that’s been converted into a parish center.
Deacon Matuszak, who grew up in Isaar, was assigned to his home parish six years ago.
“I see myself as keeping the parish alive,” he said. “If people have a question, they know I’m here, and it’s important to them that the building isn’t vacant.
“People have done a lot of work here in the past six years to keep the place up,” he said. “They show up and do whatever needs to be done. We have that core that I think every parish has that they depend on to make the parish function.”