Cooperstown parish has come through fire, language barriers
Manitowoc County parish celebrates 150 years on August 6
By Susan Gloss
Spirit, struggle, and growth. The history of St. James, Cooperstown, is not just the story of one small-town parish, but of something much larger. As the parish celebrates its 150th anniversary, it reminds us of the survivior spirit and promise to future of Catholics in our area.
The parish will be celebrate its anniversary on Sunday, Aug. 6, with a 10:30 Mass with Bp. Robert Banks. A picnic follows, with two bands, booyah and games. There is also an historical exhibit.
St. James Parish began as a log church, built in 1850 on a donated parcel of land. Fr. Brunner, S.J., served as the first pastor, followed by a number of missionary priests during the next two decades. The log building served adequately until 1871, when a new church, complete with a 44-ft. steeple, was built to accommodate growth. It was then that the parish took the name of St. James the Apostle, under the leadership of Fr. Jaems Gauche.
A larger building did not put an end to the parish's challenges, however. The first parishioners had to overcome language barriers in order to find common ground in a mixed ethnic community. An 1897 census documented 125 families at St. James, 56 of whom were Irish, 56 German, and the remainder Polish. Many of the families documented in those early years -- Dewane, O'Brian, Steinhorst -- are still active in the parish today.
The afternoon of May 9, 1914, brought with it yet another struggle for the St. James community. Fire consumed both the church and the new school, dedicated just the previous winter. When a new church and school were built immediately afterward, they were built of brick.
Though the school closed in 1964, that same brick church church still stands and serves the parish today. It has been remodeled and expanded through the years.
Though the parish community has seen its share of struggles -- hard Wisconsin winters, fire, the Great Depression -- it has also seen a great deal of growth and accomplishment. It has watched sons grow into ordained priests and deacons, such as Fr. William O'Brian (1988), Fr. Frank Dewane (1990), and Dcn. Cal Naidl (2000).
It has seen old families persevere, and new families add to the richness of the community. The strong Irish, German, and Polish roots that once posed a communication challenge for the pastors have become a binding force, keeping alive a sense of unity and pride.
Fr. Ron Colombo has served as pastor of St. James for seven years. "Our dedicated and committed parishioners have helped the parish survive and grow," he says. "We are a welcoming community. The people here love their roots -- there is a strong sense of history and tradition."
The priest adds that he believes "a commitment to our youth" is one of the strengths that will carry St. James into another century of history.
LeRoy VerKuilen, a parish member since 1950, says that he has noticed "growth, both in spirit and in membership. St. James has grown from a small, rural church to an area-wide parish."
Approximately 450 families make up the parish today. As of July 1, 2000, St. James is now linked with the neighboring parishes All Saints (Denmark) and Holy Trinity (New Denmark).