ST. NAZIANZ — A community’s history is forever preserved in its cemeteries, and the Village of St. Nazianz can credit Bob Domagalski for helping to preserve what is arguably Wisconsin’s most fascinating community history.
“I’ve always been interested in history, and the history of St. Nazianz and the Oschwald people … is unique to all of Wisconsin,” he said. “It’s a fascinating place.”
Domagalski, who moved to St. Nazianz from Menominee Falls in 2010, has family ties to the Manitowoc County community — and to the religious commune named after its founder, Fr. Ambrose Oschwald.
Fr. Oschwald was ordained to the priesthood in Germany in 1833. After a failed healing ministry and condemnation by church authorities for writing a series of books on prophecies, he came to the United States in 1854, bringing with him more than 100 followers, including a brother and sister, Martin and Margaret Oschwald.
The community, which arrived in New York in early August 1854 and traveled to Milwaukee by train, was known as the Oschwald community or association. They were mainly single people and remained celibate, leaving behind their material wealth and few descendants. Fr. Oschwald purchased 3,840 acres of land in the townships of Eaton and Liberty in Manitowoc County and established St. Nazianz, named after St. Gregory Nazianz.
Domagalski has authored several books about the history of St. Nazianz and the surrounding communities. It was through his research that St. Gregory Cemetery became one of his first projects.
“Until his death in 1873, Fr. Oschwald was a constant buyer and seller of land,” wrote Domagalski. “Outside of a few land speculators (who, unlike Oschwald, purchased land so as to sell it at a profit), there is likely no other person in the history of Manitowoc County who was so involved with the purchasing and selling of land.”
After a rough beginning, the community began to thrive, with members learning important farming and trade skills that allowed them to be self-sufficient. They built Holy Ghost Convent for the sisters and Loretto Monastery for the brothers, with St. Ambrose Chapel next to the monastery. Other people, like Domagalski’s great-great grandmother, Margaret Hess Goetz, who was widowed and had five children, joined the commune.
“Being part of the commune, she could live here for free,” he said. “She would have to give up ownership of everything and give it to the Oschwald people, but she was provided with a house and a garden space and she would have to help with the work in the community.”
Following Fr. Oschwald’s death in 1873, the commune — which in 1866 included 150 Oschwald sisters, 80 Oschwald brothers and 170 married couples and children — slowly began to decay.
While Fr. Oschwald was entombed in a crypt beneath the altar at St. Ambrose Chapel (his body was later moved to another location), his followers were buried in the cemetery behind St. Gregory Church.
The cemetery’s oldest section is known as Old Section One. It consists of 14 rows with 444 graves for people who died before 1874. Many of those buried here are Oschwald associates, as well as non-Oschwald people, including babies and young children, said Domagalski.
“When they were buried, they originally had wooden crosses with their names,” he said. “But because they had no descendants to keep up their markers, they eventually rotted away and there was nothing left to mark their grave site.”
Oschwald associates who died after 1889 were buried in a part of the cemetery known as the Roman Catholic Religious Association Area of Section Two, said Domagalski. “There are 132 Oschwald people buried in these four rows. At one time it was surrounded by a thicket of wooden crosses that bore the names of those buried. These crosses have long ago perished to the elements of time,” he said.
In addition to the Oschwald associates, other early graves at St. Gregory Cemetery were unidentified, so Domagalski took it upon himself to research cemetery records, identify burial plots and create grave markers for them. He has been able to track the burial place of more than 290 people at St. Gregory Cemetery, which he said has 2,702 people buried there.
Disintegrated wooden markers were not the only challenge to identifying graves, he said.
“It’s been quite hard to find where people are buried because church records are very poorly kept,” Domagalski said. Prior to 1941, the parish did not keep track of burial plots. “So before 1941, records are very sketchy,” he added.
In 2011, using old plat maps of the cemetery, Domagalski and members of the St. Nazianz Area Historical Society identified 90 previously unmarked graves. They made 4-by-8-inch granite grave markers for them and placed them near the graves.However, they sank into the ground or were damaged by lawn mowers.
This year, they decided to put four-inch concrete borders around the 90 stones – as well as place 200 more markers with concrete borders on newly-identified graves.
“There are about 576 people buried in the cemetery for whom we have no exact burial location,” said Domagalski. “We placed markers on all the Oschwald people who died in the period 1874-1889. Those who died before 1874 are in Old Section One and thus do not have markers.”
Domagalski said keeping the past linked to the present has “sort of become my life’s work. That’s my avocation.” He serves as vice president of the St. Nazianz Area Historical Society and his home (one of the very first blockhouses built by Fr. Oschwald) serves as a regional research center for history and genealogy, housing nearly 1 million historical portraits.
Domagalski said he has the family geneaology of everyone who has owned land in the Eaton Township, as well as parts of Liberty, Meeme, Rockland and Schleswig townships. Anyone who wants to learn more about their family history in these areas can visit his research center.
“I really like helping people understand their history and genealogy,” he said. Domagalski can be reached by phone at (920) 881-4002, or by email at [email protected].