BEAR CREEK — It will be a double celebration Sunday, Sept. 19, when St. Mary Church hosts confirmation and parishioners mark the centennial — one year delayed — of their sturdy brick house of worship overlooking this small village 44 miles west of Green Bay.
Bishop David Ricken will preside at the 10:30 a.m. Mass and confirmation that day. A reception will follow.
Rose Peeters plans to be there. She’s been coming to St. Mary for all of her 78 years.
“It’s like coming and being home,” Peeters said, taking a break from sorting donations for the parish rummage sale with a handful of fellow parishioners. “You can be relaxed if you’re stressed. You can talk with God and Mother Mary and put yourself at ease.”
Brightly colored stained-glass windows are “the jewels” of the 101-year-old Old English or Gothic Revival-style church, according to Norbertine Fr. Timothy Shillcox, who serves as pastor both at St. Mary and St. Rose in nearby Clintonville.
Built in 1920 for $33,000, the current church is the successor to what was likened to a roadside chapel on a farm and later a wooden church building, just up the hill from the present site.
Through the years, the parish has been a cradle of vocations. Some 18 women religious grew up at St. Mary, as did eight priests, including Bishop Robert Morneau, auxiliary bishop emeritus of Green Bay.
The reception Sept.19 will be held in what at one time was the parish elementary school, reconfigured into a parish hall. The new school building had opened in 1960; five years later a new pastor, Bishop John Grellinger, then auxiliary bishop of Green Bay, started the St. Mary’s Sauerkraut Festival as a way to pay for the school’s construction. Bishop Grellinger, who attended the Second Vatican Council, was pastor from 1965 to 1974. “In some ways, he’s still the pastor here,” Fr. Shillcox said. (Bishop Grellinger is buried in the parish cemetery.)
Although the school building was closed in 2004 and merged with St. Rose, the Sauerkraut Festival continues at St. Mary.
Karen Balthazor attended again this August.
“I’ve been to all 57 of them,” she said with a bit of pride. “I helped with the kids’ games for many years. It’s become a village project as much as a parish event. It’s a fundraiser, but it’s more of a community builder.”
Lorraine Bricco and her late husband, Loy, chaired the Sauerkraut Festival back in 1969. She’s been St. Mary’s sacristan for “12, maybe 15 years or so,” she said.
“I love doing it. It’s such a peaceful thing — it’s a great pleasure that I have to serve the Lord that way.”
St. Mary parishioners have a history of jumping in to help at the church. Peeters, herself an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and a member of the Parish Council of Catholic Women, said, “We are blessed that most parishioners are willing to work in one thing or another. Sometimes we feel like we’re going to be short on help, then somebody will show up.”
Their pastors have, too. Bishop Grellinger and later Msgr. Mark Schommer were known to join men of the parish in the work when the church pews needed to be refurbished, for example.
Attendance at the parish Sauerkraut Festival is down from the years when 3,000 sauerkraut dinners were served, and the parish of some 450 in this farming community is now an older community which has not had a resident priest for 27 years.
In recent years, Spanish-speaking Catholics who have come to the area for work have bought houses and are more and more permanent residents, Fr. Shillcox pointed out.
“There’s a real opportunity to welcome Spanish-speaking families,” he said. “That would be in the future, I hope.
“It’s hard for St Mary’s not to have a resident priest of their own,” Fr. Shillcox added, but what keeps the parish going is “a deep sense of history, of family. There are a lot of sentimental ties, in the best sense of the word.”
If there can’t be a priest living in Bear Creek, sharing a priest with St. Rose Parish, seven miles away, is seen as a positive alternative.
Peeters is one who feels that way about the ministry and availability of Fr. Shillcox.
“We know where he is when we need him,” she said, “and he’s here for us when we need him.”