OCONTO — Single-digit temperatures were not enough to chill the spirits of nearly 400 people who turned out for the dedication and blessing of Holy Trinity Church on Sunday, Jan. 27.
After years of planning, the dream of a new church that is welcoming to all people in Oconto became a reality when Bishop David Ricken opened the doors separating the new gathering space (a building formerly used for the parish hall, gymnasium and cafeteria) and the new worship space.
The procession into the church was followed by a greeting and introduction by Bishop Ricken and Fr. Joel Sember, pastor, who gave an overview of what was to take place during the dedication Mass. A blessing and sprinkling of the church interior with holy water was followed by the Liturgy of the Word.
Joining Bishop Ricken and Fr. Sember at the altar were five priests with ties to the parish. They included Fr. Dave Ruby, pastor at Holy Trinity from 1998 to 2006; Fr. Celestine Byekwaso, pastor of Holy Family Parish in nearby Marinette; Fr. Michael Thiel, parochial vicar at the Quad Parishes in Green Bay, who served as a deacon in Oconto; Fr. Edward Looney, pastor of St. Francis and St. Mary Parish in Brussels and a native of Oconto; and Fr. Andrew Kysely, pastor of St. Paul Parish in Combined Locks, who was ordained with Fr. Sember.
In addition, Deacon Bill Evans, whose ordination to the priesthood will take place next summer, and Deacon Steve Gretzinger, a member of the Diocese of Marquette, Mich., served as deacons of the Mass.
Plans for a new church in Oconto date back years, even before the arrival of Fr. Sember as pastor in 2010. “Work on this actually began with the merger of St. Joseph and St. Peter (parishes) on July 1, 1996,” Fr. Sember told The Compass. “The parish had tried to build new under Fr. Dave Ruby.”
Fundraising from that campaign was used to help pay for the new church, a project costing just under $2.8 million.
Putting items from the old churches to reuse helped to hold down construction costs, as well as preserve a link to the past, said Fr. Sember.
“Our new church features many familiar treasures from both buildings, including statues, Stations of the Cross, stained glass windows and a large crucifix.” Two large stained glass windows and two circular windows are in place. Six more windows will be installed in the next few months.
In his homily, Bishop Ricken offered praise and thanks to the parish and its leaders for making the dedication of a new church possible.
“I hope that, as we go through the ceremony and you look around at the beautiful religious articles here in the church, many of which were present in the former churches in the area, that this is a reminder to you of our connection to our families … and your connection to people of faith who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith,” said Bishop Ricken.
“We take that heritage now and move into this new place of worship, because worship really is something of the heart,” the bishop added. “As Fr. Joel said, all of you have worked hard and sacrificed so much to build a beautiful house for the Lord and for God’s people.”
The presence of a church in any community has many important benefits, the bishop explained.
“When there is not the presence of Christ in the community, there’s a lot of other problems that seem to be contemporaneous with that community not gathering to pray, or with the Eucharist not being in that community,” he said. “You see, here Jesus is with us 24/7. He’s walking through with us, he’s with us, he’s real.”
In reference to the day’s reading from the first letter of Peter, Bishop Ricken reminded the assembly that they are like living stones.
“When you come to know and love Jesus, and then you make that connection to what happens here at this altar, and what’s present here 24/7 in the Eucharist, it’s a reminder that God is present here,” he said.
“I’m going to be expecting big things to happen here,” Bishop Ricken told the assembly. “You have the grace of the Holy Trinity. You are present in the name that you honor because, as you come to Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, he will lead you to the Father.
“We are being purified for greater love of the Holy Trinity and for greater love and service to those in our community,” he said. “Thank you for all you’ve done and for all you will do. May the Holy Spirit fill you with love. May he transform your heart or your mind from discourage and despair into knowing him, loving him and serving him in this life, to be happy with him forever in the next.”
The dedication rite began with the assembly singing the Litany of Saints. Relics of saints, which were previously housed at St. Joseph and St. Peter churches, were placed in a space under the altar. According to the Code of Canon Law (1237.2), “The ancient tradition of keeping the relics of martyrs and other saints under a fixed altar is to be preserved.”
After a prayer of dedication, Bishop Ricken anointed the altar and walls of the church with sacred chrism. He then placed burning incense into a bowl on the newly consecrated altar, a gesture of the community’s prayers rising to heaven.
With the parish choir leading the congregation in singing “Christ Be Our Light,” Deacons Evans and Deacon Gretzinger lit the altar candles and smaller candles placed on four walls of the church. The deacons, assisted by Nicole LeMere and Patty Gabrielson, then placed new communion linens on the altar in preparation for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The final rite took place following Communion, when Bishop Ricken inaugurated the church’s new tabernacle, where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. Fr. Sember lit the sanctuary lamp, signaling the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
Before the final blessing, Bishop Ricken gave special recognition to Fr. Sember for leading the church building project. The congregation responded with a standing ovation. Tim Finger, chairperson of the building committee, also recognized the various companies that had overseen the building project, including the general contractor, Boldt Construction, and architects, Groth Design Group.
In an interview after Mass, Finger credited Fr. Sember’s leadership in the church project.
“Fr. Joel was wonderful in the whole process,” he said. “You want to talk about somebody who put a lot of work into it, we have to thank Fr. Joel. Without him, I don’t know if we would have built this place. He’s just a breath of fresh air.”
Finger also acknowledged the work of former pastor, Fr. Ruby.
“If we didn’t have his original fundraiser, which raised almost $1 million, we would have not been here today,” he said.
Fr. Ruby told The Compass he was happy to see the project finally completed.
“I think it’s really needed and it’s a wonderful addition,” he said. “It’s nice to see that so many things from the previous two church buildings were incorporated into the new one. That was always a high priority of mine. That’s why we saved all of that stuff. I’m glad that Fr. Joel was successful.”
Fr. Sember said the church dedication was a highlight of his priesthood.
“Ministry has a lot of quiet moments that I think are probably the key moments,” he told The Compass. “But a big moment like this is just beautiful in a lot of different ways. It’s a huge team effort. So it’s not just my moment. It’s a moment for the whole parish, it’s a moment for the whole community.”
The dedication is not the end of the process, added Fr. Sember.
“We are going to be in debt for a while. We’ll have a loan to pay off, so we continue to work on that,” he said. “I think people need to know that the project isn’t over. In a very real way this is a huge milestone, but we need to continue to look at the old church. We plan to try to salvage as much as we can of the value from the old church — or maybe sell some (items) to other churches.
“Then, of course, the ongoing project of building the church, in terms of being a community, being welcoming,” added Fr. Sember. “Welcoming people into this space and helping them come to know Jesus for themselves and have their lives transformed. That’s the real work.”
VIEW MORE PHOTOS: To view additional photos from the Holy Trinity Church dedication, visit our Flickr page.