The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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October 27, 2000 Issue
Local News

Love of history keeps old church doors open

Friends of St. Thomas, Poygan, care for 19th century church

By Joanne Flemming
Compass Correspondent

Although St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Poygan, west of Winneconne, stopped functioning as a parish more than 30 years ago, it remains precious to former members and their children. So precious that two years ago they organized the Friends of St. Thomas to preserve the country church for "historic and sentimental reasons," said Donna Wicinsky, the group's co-chairperson.

"Too many hearts are tied to this church," she said, and too many people have warm memories associated with it.

Even people seeing its "plain, simple structure" built in the 1860s and walking through its adjacent cemetery for the first time "fall in love with it," Wicinsky said. "You can't help it. It just grabs hold of you."

The Friends of St. Thomas do not want it torn down as other historic buildings have been. If that happened, "it's something our children would never be able to experience. That's why it became so close to our hearts," she said.

A parish history written in 1913, says French missionaries may have celebrated Mass in the Poygan area as early as the 1600s. St. Thomas cemetery is believed to have been the site of an early Native American cemetery.

Many Irish immigrants settled the region. The church, which was built in 1860, was first served by priests from Oshkosh, but got a resident pastor after a rectory was built in 1870.

During the mid and late 1800s, Poygan looked after the mission parishes in Omro and Winneconne until those congregations built their own churches.

St. Thomas prospered at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries when the church was remodeled and a barn and new rectory built.

The parish was closed in 1969 and placed under the jurisdiction of St. Mary in Winneconne. As a non-functioning church, the Winneconne pastor or his appointee could celebrate only five Masses per year there. Special permission had to be given for other liturgies or celebrations.

Various groups continue to look after it. The St. Thomas Christian Mothers clean the building and launder the altar linens. The St. Thomas Cemetery Association administers the cemetery.

The Friends were organized in August of 1998 under the leadership of Wicinsky and her husband, Mike.

Meetings are held the third Sunday of each month. Membership numbers about 75. Support has even come from other states such as Illinois and California.

At first, the group wanted to buy the church, but the Green Bay Diocese turned down the offer. Instead, the diocese and the Friends negotiated a 25-year lease that became effective in July, 1999. Under the lease, the Friends pay the Cemetery Association $100 rent per year. They are responsible for the church's upkeep and improvement and insurance. The lease continues to provide for five Masses per year. These are celebrated May through September, usually on Saturday evenings.

Wicinsky said the group is satisfied with these guidelines. "We are very grateful for what was given . . . just to sit here and be in the church, people are happy with that."

The Friends are using parish and family pictures and records in setting their restoration goals, Wicinsky said.

Their first concerns were the stained glass windows, especially the one in the sacristy which was bowed and broken. They hired Stonehouse Stained Glass Studio in Avon, Minn., to restore it. The studio specializes in 19th century stained glass and has in-stock what St. Thomas needs. The church's windows are repaired one-by-one as the Friends raise money. So far, three have been completed.

After their installation, they were covered with plexiglass to protect them from future damage. The window over the front entrance is being repaired now.

The names of the windows' original donors remain inscribed on each. Plaques listing the restoration donors will be placed in the wooden sills beneath them.

The group's second goal is restoring the steeple. Lightning destroyed the point at the top. Two carpenters have offered to rebuild it. The steel cross within the steeple was recently replaced. The bell still works.

Overhang from the shade trees surrounding the church have been cut back. Some work needs to be done on the roof. Otherwise the building is structurally sound, Wicinsky said. Her husband crawled under the foundations and checked the logs from the 19th century which support the floor. None show dry rot.

Future goals call for additions to the landscaping and modernizing the outhouse.

The Friends have located just about all of the church's original communion rail. The gate is still missing. They want to restore it.

A woman has offered to restore the two angels that used to stand on each side of the altar. Wicinsky wants to set up a small museum with displays of old photos and artifacts in the front entrance.

The Friends have raised nearly $30,000 through holiday bake and candy sales and food booths at special events for St. Thomas preservation. Donations have also come into the group's account at Winneconne's F and M Bank.

Wicinsky said none of the Friends' accomplishments were possible without the diocese's support.

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