GREEN BAY — Who was the first priest to serve in northeast Wisconsin? What was the name of the first church in the Green Bay area?
On May 1, the Green Bay Diocese Museum, located at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, 140 S. Monroe Ave., reopened, after a two-year closure for inventory and setting up a new four-part, three-year exhibit.
The first person to tour the reopened museum was Bishop David Ricken on April 30.
“You started all this,” Sherry Steffel, president of the board for the museum, joked with the bishop. It was the bishop who had said to Steffel a few years ago, “I always see the same things when I come down here.”
Judging by the tour on April 30, several things the bishops had never seen before are now on display.
“This is magnificent,” the bishop told The Compass. “I love the history overview.”
The first display, as the museum doors opened, made the bishop gasp. With dramatic lighting, the oldest artifact of the diocese, the Perrot Ostensorium (monstrance), glimmered in its display case.
Crafted in 1686, the silver monstrance was donated by Nicholas Perot, a French-Canadian fur trader, to the mission of St. Francis Xavier, then in De Pere. Perrot, who served as liaison between France and local indigenous people, gave the monstrance to Jesuit Fr. Claude Allouez, pastor of the mission. Fr. Allouez was the first priest to serve in the area.
Moving to the right and around the display room, visitors can travel through the centuries, from the 1600s to the 19th century, watching the area grow from one bark chapel mission to the architectural sketches for what would become St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in 1881. (The display sketch shows the cathedral with two spires, which were never added to the completed building.)
Also on display is a copy of the St. Joseph statue that stands near the ceiling in the nave of the cathedral. That original statue, Steffel told the bishop, is the oldest statue on display in the cathedral.
Further down the way, the bishop explained, “There it is,” as he spied a photocopy of the 1868 papal bull that established the Diocese of Green Bay.
“Where was all this stuff?” the bishop asked. “In storage?”
It was. Not only in the cathedral and at the diocese, but in various repositories, such as the Neville Public Museum, the De Pere Historical Society and Heritage Hill State Park, to name just a few.
For example, the silver processional cross which Bishop Joseph Melcher, the first bishop of Green Bay, brought from his native St. Louis had been thought to be lost. However, it was found in storage in the Neville Public Museum and is on display. “It’s quite heavy and would need a strong man to carry it,” Steffel said.
There are also several items from the various church buildings of St. John the Evangelist Parish which is the oldest in the diocese — and the oldest continuing parish in the state of Wisconsin — dating to 1831.
A highlight of the open house was music of the pump chapel organ in the background. The organ dates to the first decade of the 20th century. Regina Reale, director of music for the cathedral, played several older hymns, including one from 1902, while using foot pedals to pump the bellow.
After the current display of artifacts from the 1600s to 1880, there will be three other displays of diocesan history: from 1881 to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the timeframe of Vatican II itself and the post-council years to the present. The displays will rotate every 12-14 months, except for the one on Vatican II, which will run for a shorter time.
Also on permanent display are new exhibits on the 12 bishops of Green Bay and relics of several saints, including St. Jude Thaddeus and a relic of the True Cross.
“I am so overwhelmed,” Bishop Ricken said at the end of the tour. “I love the way you can take a set of history at a time. It will attract people to come back here several times.”
The museum is open Sundays after the cathedral’s 9 a.m. Mass until noon and on Saturdays for an hour before the 4 p.m. Mass. Groups can arrange a private tour by calling the cathedral office at (920) 432-4348.