Visitors to the Sunday Mass site of St. Francis Borgia Parish in Cedarburg will find a spacious, “brick and beam” style worship space nestled into the gently rolling hills of Ozaukee County. The free-standing brick bell tower stands in stark contrast with the trees that surround the church grounds. This building, once the home of the parish community formally known as “Church of the Divine Word,” was begun in 1968 and dedicated in 1970 by Archbishop William E. Cousins to serve as a new home for parishioners of the recently divided St. Francis Borgia Church. The beautiful simplicity of the buildings and grounds of the site now known as “North Church” welcome visitors and guests but provide only a recent snapshot of a parish community that pre-dates both the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin.
The story of St. Francis Borgia Parish dates back to the late 1830s, when a small enclave of Irish Catholics settled near the newly formed town of Cedarburg. These settlers called their small village “Newland.” By 1842, Jesuit missionary Fr. Martin Kundig had begun to celebrate Mass in area homes for a flock that was then simply known as the “New Church of Newland.”
At the time, several missionary priests — mostly Jesuits — were serving as “saddle-bag” priests, traveling to the various villages scattered throughout the Wisconsin Territorty. Fr. Kundig saw great potential in this mission for the people of Wisconsin. He helped organize the settlers into small parish communities with mission chapels. By 1844, the Catholic community at Newland had been named for the Jesuit St. Francis Borgia, an homage to the religious community to which so many of those first missionaries belonged. St. Francis Borgia Parish received its first pastor in 1844. This priest, Fr. J. Thomas Morrisey, S.J., served the Newland community and a dozen other parishes in the region.
By 1850, the original log cabin church had become much too small and a frame church was built in 1851. The following year, St. Francis Borgia received its first resident pastor, Fr. Jacobus Colton.
The parish soon outgrew the frame church and, by the mid-1860s, it was decided that a larger home needed to be built for the Catholics of Newland. The pastor, Fr. Joseph Hermon, selected a unique, triangular parcel of land at the intersections of historic Hamilton Road and Plank Road in Cedarburg. This would mean moving the church from its original location in Newland, but the pastor was confident that the location within the boundaries of Cedarburg would ultimately be in the best interest of the parish.
During these years, St. Francis Borgia helped establish two other parishes in the area: St. Bridget in Cedarburg (1851-60) and St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Salter (1860-1923). While these parishes no longer exist as separate entities, they nevertheless form part of the heritage of St. Francis Borgia Church and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
The leaders of Cedarburg, primarily German Lutherans, saw the benefit of having the church built in the town. As an early history of St. Francis Borgia Parish notes, the town leaders “recognized that the erection of such a significant structure, the first church of such ‘grandeur,’ was important to establishing Cedarburg as the dominant community in the area. … All necessary funds to purchase the parcel where the stone church now sits were accumulated through donation and the land was funded by the primarily non-Catholic segment of the community.”
The beautiful stone church (now called “South Church”) was dedicated in 1870 and remains an important part of the life of the parishioners at St. Francis Borgia Parish.
The years around World War I and the Great Depression challenged the leadership and parishioners in some significant ways. Always in need of funding to maintain the church and support parish activities, “pew rentals” were a common source of income, as were “assessments,” essentially “membership fees.” Despite these challenges, the parishioners were able to continue to enrich the church with a pipe organ, new statues and stained glass windows, and they also constructed a rectory. By the late 1930s, plans had also begun to build a school at St. Francis Borgia. This long-time dream was finally realized in 1950, when an eight-room school and auditorium were constructed. To accommodate the young “baby-boomer” generation, a 14-room addition was built before the end of the decade.
As the parish continued to grow and expand its mission within Cedarburg, difficult choices had to be made. During the 1960s, it was proposed that the parish demolish the old stone church and build a larger, modern facility. Ultimately, this plan was rejected and a new, separate parish was planned. This would become Church of the Divine Word.
In 2002, the original St. Francis Borgia community reunited with community at Divine Word, forming the parish we know today. With its two worship sites, St. Francis Borgia Parish is home to more than 2,000 families and its celebrated school was moved to the “North Church” site in 2015.
Father Patrick Burns has served at St. Francis Borgia since June 2016 and officially became Parish Administrator on June 1. He sees the initiatives of parishioners as one of the greatest strengths of the community.
“We have all kinds of ministries that were started by parishioners,” he said. “We also have parishioners who do their own personal apostolates through faith-sharing groups, Bible studies, rosary groups, book discussions and more. The people here are also so very prayerful and generous. This is really the hallmark of our parish: the people here love the liturgy and they want to serve the Lord. I’m humbled and honored to serve these people.” (Fr. Patrick is assisted by Fr. Al Veik, OFM, Cap.)
Julie Larrivee, the parish’s director of stewardship, has been a parishioner at St. Francis Borgia since 1999.
“Everyone has something to share. Hopefully we can help them tap into these gifts God has given them, so that they can use them to serve others. We’re trying to be the hands and heart of Jesus for those in need.”