The motto of St. Dominic Parish is “Alive in the Spirit.” That sentiment is no mere tagline drafted for marketing materials. To the men, women and children who worship at St. Dominic on Sheboygan’s north side, it is a philosophy of life that defines who they are as a faith community. Through decades of liturgical and social change, through grief and loss, and on the cusp of a new collaboration with nearby parishes Holy Name of Jesus and St. Clement, the faithful of St. Dominic remain alive in the spirit.
“Always, at St. Dominic, there has been a real focus on sharing and living our baptismal call — and that is to be of service to other people,” said Jeanne Bitkers, a lifelong parishioner. “That is the glue that has held the parish together all these years.”
“St. Dominic has an incredible amount of people who are so dedicated to living out their call to discipleship through the parish — they are people who would do anything for the parish,” said Fr. Matthew Widder, who has been the shared pastor of St. Dominic, Holy Name of Jesus and St. Clement for the past year. “From the Thursday morning grounds crew to the sacristan team to the people who take Our Lord to the homebound in the community, there are always people working behind the scenes. There’s just a great sense of responding to our call to discipleship.”
St. Dominic was founded as an offshoot of Holy Name of Jesus Parish, itself the oldest Catholic community in Sheboygan, located less than 2 miles to the east. The church’s “founding father,” the aptly named Monsignor Dominic Thill, pastor of Holy Name of Jesus, died in 1927, shortly after the formation of the new community of 150 families. It was in 1928 that the first St. Dominic Church and school building was dedicated. Family and community connections would persist between St. Dominic and Holy Name of Jesus throughout the years, most notably in the form of the Knackert brothers — Monsignor George Knackert was a longtime pastor of St. Dominic (1927-54) and his brother, Fr. Anthony Knackert, was a longtime pastor at Holy Name of Jesus (1950-68). The brothers are now buried together at Calvary Cemetery in Sheboygan, their pastorships of the great local churches inscribed on their shared tombstone.
A new church building was dedicated in 1966. The liturgical trends of the period have remained close to the parish’s heart, said lifelong parishioner Judy Strauss, who also served as the parish’s director of music for 34 years. Another hallmark of the community, likewise inspired by the era of the Second Vatican Council, is the emphasis on lay leadership.
“At St. Dominic, the laity gives the direction,” she said, noting that St. Dominic was the first city church to have a parish council. “Sure, the priest makes the ultimate decision, but it’s a team approach.”
“In some churches, the direction of the parish is handed down — at St. Dominic, the direction is given up,” agreed Strauss’ husband, Steve, who has been at the parish for 62 years and serves on the finance council.
“The church has had really some all-star disciples who have been themselves led by the Holy Spirit and help make St. Dominic Parish the really vibrant place that it is,” said Fr. Widder.
It all comes back to a communal embrace of the baptismal call, said Bitkers, who said that at St. Dominic, great emphasis is placed on “calling forth the gifts of other people.”
“That’s just what we do at St. Dominic,” she said. “This sense of stewardship permeates the parish.”
That stewardship takes shape most notably in the community’s ownership of the parish, said Strauss, who dubbed St. Dominic parishioners “the worker bees” of Sheboygan. Throughout the years, the parish has had a variety of thriving ministries, including a very active human concerns committee that oversees outreach through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army and the Northside Christian Food Pantry, which is located at the St. Dominic rectory and serves dozens of people every week.
“The people in the parish are very much motivated by a love of Jesus and love of the parish, and want to do anything possible to live out their call to discipleship through the parish,” said Fr. Widder. “St. Dominic is usually the champion bell-ringing church in the Sheboygan area for the Salvation Army — we always have the most participants at Christmas time.”
“We were always willing to go out of the box to make solutions,” agreed Judy Strauss. “We make things happen.”
Recalling the $2.3 million construction of the parish activities center and gymnasium in 2006, “We saw an enthusiasm — I saw people coming in, families coming in, every night to help with cleanup — sweeping up dirt, helping wax floors. That’s how we saved money. There was an enthusiasm that permeated through all ages.”
What is so remarkable about that enthusiasm is that it has endured even in the face of great trials faced by the community, particularly in recent years. The parish suffered the death of its pastor Fr. Jim Jarumbo in 2005; just seven years later, St. Dominic School was shuttered, combining with Holy Family Catholic School (itself a merger of Holy Name of Jesus and St. Clement) to form St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School.
“In the mission statement, which we drafted in the mid-1970s or early 1980s, it does say that we need to learn to understand and accept changes. That’s kind of remarkable because we didn’t know what we were saying at the time — there have been a lot of changes,” said Bitkers. “The school closing was extremely painful. It was like the breaking down of a family because school families are typically so close.”
“We’ve had adversities, but our parish is a very resilient group of people — very resilient,” said Judy Strauss. “We’ve always said: alive in the Spirit. That is our slogan, our motto. And we use that. When the chips were down — when Fr. Jim passed away, when the school disappeared, whenever we had other issues, we still maintained we were alive in the spirit. We did it within ourselves, within our own family.”
This year, the parish marks its 90th anniversary. Celebrations kicked off in January with a Mass presided by Bishop James Schuermann, and have continued with a variety of events each month that focus on bringing the community together and highlighting its unique place in the new family of Sheboygan’s North Side Catholic churches. Since the departure of St. Dominic’s pastor Fr. Phil Reifenberg last summer, the three parishes have shared the ministry of two priests, Fr. Widder and associate pastor Fr. Gideon Buya.
Moving into this new collaboration, said Fr. Widder, the community of St. Dominic has once again shown that it is, more than ever, alive in the Spirit.
“A great blessing of this year has been the openness of St. Dominic to working in a cluster. We started the year with two pastoral councils and almost right away, through ongoing collaboration, we were able to combine into one council,” he said. “It was a tremendous sense of: what can we do for the greater good?”