In 1877, a small group of Catholics in the farming village of Dover, Wisc., gathered together to form a new organization, which they named the “Literacy and Benevolent Society of St. Mary’s Church.” The group’s aim was outlined in a charter, now carefully preserved in the Archives of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: “To form a society to improve our religious, moral, intellectual and social condition; and to afford mutual assistance in time of sickness and distress, and inter the dead; being impressed with the importance of united efforts to accomplish these great objects proposed, do pledge ourselves to be governed by the following constitution and by-laws.”
This desire for spiritual formation and enrichment has helped hold this small parish community in Racine County together. It was formally established in 1867 by Bishop John Martin Henni of what was then simply called the Diocese of Milwaukee. Up to that time, the Irish Catholics of that area had to travel to Waterford, Burlington, or Brighton to receive the sacraments. An early history of St. Mary’s expressed the hope that the parish those faithful families formed “will long outlive their earthly existence and remain a lasting monument of Catholic zeal and Irish perseverance.” A window dedicated to St. Patrick in St. Mary’s Church celebrates the Irish heritage of the parish.
That zeal and spirit of perseverance continue to guide and sustain the life of this small parish community 150 years later. And this parish — dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary — remains a steadfast presence in the town of Dover and the township of Kansasville.
The first frame church began in 1867 and was dedicated on Jan. 6, 1868. That same year, Thomas and Martin Brody, who had helped build the church, died of “black measles” within days of each other, becoming the first to be buried in St. Mary’s historic cemetery. In those early years, St. Mary’s was often without a resident priest but the parish continued to grow, celebrating its first recorded baptism and first recorded marriage in 1872.
The turn of the century saw new families moving to Dover and summer visitors to nearby Eagle Lake brought many guests to St. Mary’s. To provide more space for the growing community, a new church was begun in 1907. The cornerstone of the English gothic-style church was laid on June 9 and this is the same church that visitors to Dover will find today. The “annex” of the parish church was added in 2000.
The beautiful worship space is obviously a source of pride for the community, including Fr. Russell Arnett, who became the administrator of St. Mary’s in July 2016. At the same time, he assumed leadership of three other neighboring parishes: St. Robert Bellarmine, Union Grove; St. Francis Xavier, Brighton; and St. John the Baptist, Paris. “They put me over these four parishes to begin a collaborative process in earnest. And we’re doing very, very well, making lots of progress,” said Fr. Jose Edapparakal, of the Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, who assists Fr. Arnett with the pastoral care of the parishes.
The collaboration includes shared elementary religious education programs with St. Robert Bellarmine Church — which was founded from St. Mary’s parish in 1965 — and religious devotions (including weekly Eucharistic Adoration). Masses for holy days are shared between the two parishes. This year, for the first time, the four parishes administered by Fr. Arnett celebrated a combined Palm Sunday liturgy at Union Grove High School. “The liturgy, which brought together about 700 people, was spectacular. I had a vision for the liturgy and brought together our two music directors and painted a picture of what I’d like and they ran with it. They really knocked it out of the park!”
While he admits that he is still new to the community and is still getting to know the many families who make up this small parish community, Fr. Arnett also expressed his respect for the parish: “If guests want to be with a community that enjoys tradition — that highly values tradition — and a prayerful attendance of the Mass, this would be a good place for them to go. Because this is a tight-knit community,” Fr. Arnett said, “they are also very welcoming. They are close and they like to talk a lot with each other and with visitors.”
The former St. Mary’s School (which was closed in 1979) was sold a few years ago and was converted to a women’s shelter. “The parishioners still feel a great deal of fondness toward this facility and for these ladies and the people who run it. Recently, something happened at the shelter and the parishioners really stepped up and provided support for the women,” said Fr. Arnett.
Tom Halter, a lifelong parishioner at St. Mary’s, shared what the parish has been for him: “Starting as a child along with my parents, I have been at St. Mary’s for over 50 years. This parish has influenced me from baptism through marriage and continues to be a guide through life.” Halter remembered being a bit mischievous at Mass as a child: “One day in church, I crawled under three pews and borrowed a man’s hat and then stood in the aisle and yelled, ‘Mom, look at me!’” Halter is one of the many parishioners for whom St. Mary’s has truly been “home.”
“I think this parish is an entire family of parishioners that are committed to the Catholic faith and show it through their support of St. Mary’s Church. Our annual famous pork chop dinner and festival (held on the second Sunday of August) has been so successful because our parishioners are always willing to step up and volunteer.” Halter concluded, “St. Mary’s has so many unbelievably passionate and dedicated parishioners, which makes this truly an amazing place to worship.”