Early 1900s artist left mark on churches around diocese

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | February 19, 2020

While some of William Scheer’s paintings no longer exist, several can still be found

GREEN BAY — Michaelangelo’s reputation is forever linked with the ceiling frescoes he painted in the Sistine Chapel in 1508-12.

While the Diocese of Green Bay lacks a Sistine Chapel, it has had a church fresco painter whose work first graced several local churches about a century ago.

Bishop David Ricken and members of Immaculate Conception Parish in Greenville view a painting by William Scheer of Mary as the Immaculate Conception. The painting originally was painted on the ceiling of the original church in 1869, which was razed in 1988. It now is framed in the parish school’s library. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

William Scheer was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1865. His father, John, was a church decorator and taught his son. He also sent William to train with “some of the best known mural artists of his country,” according to Scheer’s 1946 obituary in the Appleton Post Crescent.

Scheer came to America as a teenager in 1882. He painted in several states, including Illinois and Michigan, before settling in Appleton. There he joined St. Joseph Parish, married Frances Goosens and included her brother, Henry Goosens, in his art business. To get that business established, Scheer offered some painting services for free. (William’s father, John, followed him to America and settled in Wisconsin in 1885. He also worked, separately, as a church and building decorator until his early 70s.)

While William’s obituary claims that Scheer decorated “two-thirds of all Lutheran and Catholic churches in Wisconsin, the facts are not easy to prove. However, he definitely did frescoes — as well as wood carvings and decorative painting — in many diocesan churches. These include St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, Green Bay; St. Mary, Menasha; Holy Cross, Kaukauna; St. Joseph, Appleton; and St. Lawrence, Stangelville.

According to Jean Sell of St. Mary Parish, the wooden stations in the Menasha church are by Scheer. They have since been refurbished and gold leaf added. It is not known exactly what work Scheer did at his home parish (St. Joseph in Appleton). However, the Stations of the Cross there, while now lacking their original wood frames and partially painted over, resemble those at St. Mary in Menasha. Church records from 1905 show that Scheer and his brother-in-law donated work for a renovation at St. Joseph that year, including decorating “a new high altar, two side altars and communion rail.” These were all removed during later renovations.

At St. Lawrence in Stangelville in 1912, Scheer painted ceiling images from the life of Christ. These can still be seen today and include Christ’s childhood, his walking on water and the Resurrection. The church dates to 1894. (In 2000, St. Lawrence was merged with two other parishes to form St. Therese of Lisieux Parish.) The Kewaunee County church remains. The interior, including Scheer’s paintings, can be seen at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s historical markers’ site: wis consinhistoricalmarkers.com/2017/06/st-lawrence-catholic-church.html.

This early work led Scheer to execute three ceiling paintings of the Virgin Mary. These images are at St. Patrick Church in Stephensville, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Greenville and St. Edward Church in Mackville. The only church still standing in which Scheer painted an image of Mary is St. Patrick. It holds the honor of being the oldest wood-frame church in the Diocese of Green Bay. It was completed in 1867, two years after Scheer was born. His portrait of Mary’s Assumption over the nave was painted later.

Scheer’s Mackville painting of Mary was for the parish’s second church, built in 1873. When that church was taken down to make way for a new building in 1997, the painting of Mary’s Assumption — very similar to the Stephensville image — was saved. It now hangs in the ceiling of the present church’s cupola.

The painting of Mary as the Immaculate Conception was painted by Scheer on the ceiling of Greenville’s 1869 church building sometime in the 1890s. When that church was taken down in 1988, one major concern was to save Scheer’s work. However, since it had been painted on canvas that had been mounted directly into the plaster ceiling, this proved impossible. After several unsuccessful attempts to save the painting, the old church was pulled down with the image inside. Days of heavy rain followed the demolition.

According to Mary Kruetzberg, longtime parish member at Greenville, “When the contractor got to the bottom of the (rubble) pile, he found the picture of our Blessed Mother completely unscathed — all in one piece and completely dry.”

The image now safely resides inside the new church building.

Scheer’s work at the diocesan cathedral — which was consecrated in 1881 — consisted of several projects done from 1908 to 1910. He also worked for the parish again in 1918, when an addition to the sanctuary area was made. This is now the Sacred Heart Chapel.

An image of the Assumption of Mary on the ceiling of St. Patrick Church in Stephensville is one of numerous murals around the Diocese of Green Bay painted by William Scheer. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Financial records of payments to Scheer for “decorating” still exist in the cathedral’s records, according to Sherry Steffel. She is president of the board of directors of the Green Bay Diocesan Museum, housed in the lower level of the cathedral. Ledger records show that Scheer was paid in at least 10 installments between 1909 and 1910, totalling about $4,000. In 2020 dollars, that would be at least $100,000. (Scheer received $480 for the sanctuary addition work.)

“We surmise that the ‘decorating’ indicated was actually all of the intricate ceiling, arch and wall painting designs,” Steffel explained.

However, after much research, Steffel has concluded that all of Scheer’s work in the cathedral was removed or covered over in subsequent renovations, especially one done in 1935.

“I really wanted to find some piece of Scheer’s painting remaining,” Steffel told The Compass. She said she poured over old photos of the church building and compared them to the present church interior.

Finally, however, she concluded that, “If you look carefully at the photos, you will see that the mural border, ceiling vault spines, columns and arches are all decorated in a different style now than what was painted by Mr. Scheer in 1908. … Therefore, it appears that nothing remains of William Scheer’s church decoration from 1908.”

What about his later work in what is now the side chapel? Steffel explained that, since the 1935 photos of the chapel renovation also match the rest of the church, “I believe that chapel holds none of Scheer’s work today.”

However, Scheer’s work can still be seen in the other churches mentioned above, as well as Zion Lutheran Church in Appleton, built in 1903.

Scheer even has a connection to the Green Bay Packers. His work was also located in Green Bay’s Cherry Street Opera House, which in 1915, became the first home of the Press Gazette. It was in this building, razed in 1948, that the Green Bay Packers were formed in Aug. 11, 1919.

William Scheer died in 1946 and is buried in St. Joseph Cemetery, along with his wife, their daughter, Elizabeth Schutter and her husband, Robert. Robert and his brother, George, founded the Schutter-Johnson Candy Company in Chicago. It was famous for creating Schutter’s Bit-O-Honey candy bar.

Kris Beisser Matthies contributed to this story.

 

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