GREEN BAY — A respect and appreciation for its history is one way to describe parish members’ love for St. John the Evangelist Church. Not only is it the oldest continuous worshipping Catholic community in Wisconsin, it was founded in 1831 by a Dominican priest, Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli, who was declared venerable (the first step toward sainthood) in 1993 by St. John Paul II.
Like most churches with long histories, St. John the Evangelist has experienced destruction and renewal. The present church, built in 1932, is actually the fourth home to worshippers. The first three were destroyed by fire.
Upon the ruins of the third church, which went up in flames on March 13, 1911, a rectory to house priests serving the parish was constructed. It was completed in 1921, during the pastorship of Fr. Joseph Therien, who moved into the new rectory on Oct. 17, 1921.
On Saturday, Oct. 9, guests and members of the parish celebrated the rectory’s centennial. Following the 4 p.m. Mass, which was celebrated by Fr. Paul Demuth, guests had an opportunity to tour the two-story rectory, known for its Prairie School architectural style.
Fr. Demuth was co-pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish from 1975 to 1985. Today, he is a senior priest of the diocese who now lives at the rectory. He joined guests at the open house after celebrating Mass. Rooms on the first floor and hallway were decorated with photo displays and other memorabilia of the rectory’s history. Finger food and drinks were also served.
During his homily, Fr. Demuth spoke about the church and rectory. He told the congregation that people mean so much more than buildings.
“When Fr. Dave Kasperek and I came to this parish, back in 1975, oh, there were stories about Fr. Jimmy Jacobs and Fr. Dick Allen, who came right before us,” he said. “But the shadow that was over everything was Msgr. (John) Loerke. He was there for a long time (26 years).”
Fr. Demuth then described what recently happened at the rectory while workers did repair work following flooding in the basement.
“You know, the rectory is built on the ruins of the last church that was destroyed by fire in 1911,” he said. “From the pictures I’ve seen, it was a beautiful church, but destroyed completely. I moved in as a retired priest four years ago and, as we have had lots of rain, the basement kept flooding.
“So they finally decided, ‘We’ve got to solve this.’ So what do you do? You dig a hole,” Fr. Demuth said. “They went down 12, 13, 14 feet behind the house and all of a sudden I heard somebody say, ‘Oh, my gosh, we found a hand.’”
It was the hand from a statue which had stood in the church destroyed by fire.
“Well, here’s the hand,” he said, holding up the small object. “From the pictures, it looks like this was the hand of Mary as a young girl, with St. Anne standing behind her. There was a statue like that in that church.”
A wing of an angel was also found, he said.
“How that puts things in perspective for me,” Fr. Demuth continued. “Our Scriptures tell us tonight that wisdom is so much more important than anything else. Losing three church buildings in the history of this community since 1831 is something else, but nothing compared to the perseverance of people’s faith, generation after generation after generation, until here we are today.”
Fr. Demuth said that the parish’s history is in the “memory of the ministry that occurred and in all of the people who rolled up their sleeves as baptized members of the church and lived out their commitment.”
It continues today, he said, at St. John’s Homeless Shelter — which is located on the parish property — where the community reaches out “to those of our brothers and sisters who do not have a permanent residence, who are so often inflicted by drugs, by mental illness. That’s where the Gospel is lived out.”
“Enjoy the wonderful architecture of this beautiful Romanesque church,” he added. “It’s awesome. And enjoy the tour of the house after. But what is its meaning? It’s the place where Grandpa was baptized, where our daughter got married and, yes, where Grandpa was buried. Those are the events in people’s lives that really make this church and this area holy, a place of love and of wisdom.”