GREENVILLE — It was Easter Monday, March 29, 1869, when Bishop Joseph Melcher, the first bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay dedicated the first parish church at Greenville. The church was dedicated under the title “Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
This year, on Laetare (Lent’s “Rejoice”) Sunday, March 31, Bishop David Ricken will celebrate the parish’s sesquicentennial in the community’s second church at the 10 a.m. Mass.
The second St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church was dedicated in 1988, and the bell that hangs in the church is the same bell from the original church. It was blessed for the original church on Feb. 5, 1873, and weighs 675 pounds. It is also a symbol of the sense of community that unites the parish to this day. The parish’s centennial booklet notes that the bell was paid for by donations from the entire town community: “Even non-Catholics were so impressed that they donated money.”
Today, Fr. Michael Warden, parish administrator, says descendants of the founding families will be celebrating the Mass with Bishop Ricken. And he sees them as the strength of the parish.
“I think it’s the generations that have remained here in the parish,” Fr. Warden said. “In a lot of parishes, just because of advances in communications, you have family members — sons and daughters — moving to different parts of country, even the world. Here you have a lot of families where children stay here. So you have generations of families that are still here.”
He said this multigenerational trait has led to a real sense of community in a parish that, just a few decades ago, was a small farming community of about 200 families. Today, Greenville, in Outagamie County, is only a few miles from the edge of Appleton and the parish now has 1,000 registered families.
Yet, the sense of community still remains.
“After any given Mass,” Fr. Warden said, “especially on Sunday morning, people will stay in the narthex and they will talk for sometimes up to an hour, just catching up on things. … Everyone gets along in the communal area because they come to worship God at Mass, and afterward they have conversations about other things that are going on with their lives.”
While there is no specific theme for the 150th anniversary for the parish, Fr. Warden and anniversary committee members say that the focus for the event centers on the painting of Mary that once graced the ceiling of the 1869 church. It is about 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide. The painting was probably done by William Scheer, an Appleton artist who painted similar images of Mary on the original church building for St. Edward, Mackvillle, and the current (1867) church of St. Patrick in Stephensville.
It shows an image of Mary that combines both the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Grace.
When the old church was demolished for the new church, parish members wanted to save the iconic painting. However, since it was painted directly into the plaster ceiling, there was no way to save it. “Unable to do so after several attempts,” explained long-time parish member, Mary Kruetzberg, “the church was pulled down with the painting still encased in the ceiling. … Many days of heavy rain followed before the crew could begin to haul away the rubble. However, when the contractor got to the bottom of the pile, he found the picture of our Blessed Mother completely unscathed, all in one piece, and completely dry.”
Parish members considered this to be a miracle. Today, the painting is located in the church building, but not the church proper. It hangs in what now serves as the school library, on the wall that is the reverse side of the same wall behind the church’s altar.
St. Mary’s history dates back to 1850 and the early farm families in the town. For several years before that, settlers in the area travelled to St. John Parish in Little Chute or parishes in Appleton. The first Masses were held in the summer of 1855, in a family home. By 1855, there were about 50 families living in the area and they wanted to form their own parish. Priests would travel by horseback to the area and celebrate Masses in local homes.
In 1858, four acres of land were donated by Andrew Strupf and Mathias Knapstein. Collections to build a church went on for years until the first resident pastor — Msgr. Andrew Seubert — was assigned in May 1969. The first church was built in 1868-69.
A school started in 1879, with the first classes held in the church’s sacristy. In 1887, a one-room school was built and staffed by the School Sisters of St. Francis from Milwaukee. The school was enlarged in 1900. The School Sisters of Notre Dame arrived in 1914. A new four-room school was built in 1959 and expanded in 2000. Today, there are 148 students in the school, in preschool (3K and 4K) and kindergarten through eighth grade.
Deb Fuller, the current principal, starts each school day with the usual prayers and announcements. But then comes a unique twist: she announces not the birthdays of students, but the names of students who are marking the anniversary of their baptisms.
“We congratulate the student on the anniversary of their baptism by saying, ‘(name) received the light of Christ on this day several years ago,’” Fuller explained, “and we pray that they will continue to let their light shine for all to see.”
Students then go to the office for a “Jesus Loves Me” bracelet.
Fuller added that she asks students “who their godparents are and tells them to pray for them especially that day; just like their godparents must be praying for them.” If they don’t know who their godparents are, I tell them to ask their parents at the dinner table that night, hoping their baptism will be a topic of conversation while eating.”
Mary Kreutzberg, who served as principal for 35 years, found herself wondering about her own baptismal date because of Fuller’s efforts. It was easy to find her husband’s, since he is a lifelong member of St. Mary. Kreutzberg joined the parish when she and Henry married 42 years ago. Her home parish was Holy Cross in Kaukauna. “I had to call Holy Cross to find out,” she said.
The baptismal anniversaries — also honored by Fr. Warden in the parish bulletins for all parish members — add to the sense of community at the parish, Kreutzberg said.
“It is still tight-knit, even though not so small,” she said. “There is a feeling of unity in our church — I credit that to our pastors. They fostered the idea that we are a family together. As needs come up, we help each other with whatever those needs are. That is a factor in keeping us — now a big parish — a caring community. It is very pleasant to go to church.”