CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
One day, Dcn. Tom McKenna, the parish director at St. Catherine in the town of Sharon, was told he had a call from a producer at the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Unsure of what it could possibly be, McKenna asked them to take a message.
When he called back, he found out the producer had fond memories of attending the church, located just one block north of the Illinois border, during her family’s summer trips to Lake Geneva and she wanted to have her wedding there.
In the lead-up to the wedding, after all the proper permissions were lined up, Dcn. McKenna said he was receiving phone calls from guests asking for directions and how many stoplights between directions.
“I said, ‘If you find a stoplight, you’re in the wrong town,’” Dcn. McKenna said. “We weren’t used to that many Mercedes and big cars. They had a harpist and all this fancy stuff.”
That is the quintessential story of this small town (population 1,605), located about as far south and as far west as you can get in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
It’s also not difficult to see why the little building, which seats about 150 people (200 if people like each other, McKenna jokes), would be sought for an out-of-town wedding.
The building, built in 1911 after strong pressure from Archbishop Sebastian Messmer, just oozes with charm despite its simplicity.
Founded in 1846, St. Catherine started as a mission church and still has its cemetery in neighboring Rock County, in the Diocese of Madison.
Its geographic location leads to some other quirks. McKenna works as the secretary to Rockford (Illinois) Bishop David Malloy, a former Archdiocese of Milwaukee priest, lives on a northern Illinois farm you can see from the church’s bell tower, and he estimates as many as a third of his parishioners live in Illinois.
The parish balked at Messmer’s urging to replace its dilapidated building (built in 1896) and suffered through financial hardships at times in the early 1900s; separate historical documents show the parish had a balance of $11.50 in its treasury one year, and less than a dollar another year.
However, Fr. Wm. H. Hermes, who came to the parish in 1909, was able to raise the funds to raise the new building.
Dcn. McKenna has served as parish director since July 1, 1994, after joining the parish in the 1970s while Fr. Stephen Peil was the administrator. Peil was at the parish from 1940 into the 1980s, making McKenna the parish’s third leader in the last 79 years.
“That’s the history here,” McKenna said. “Priests served here for a long time.”
As an influx of Hispanics moved into Walworth County, McKenna put up a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a gesture of welcome. The parish has two Masses each weekend, a 4 p.m. Spanish-language Mass on Saturdays, and a 9:30 English Mass on Sundays.
“If I had to say what is this parish known for, it’s hospitality (and) it’s reaching out to others,” Dcn. McKenna said.
PLAN A VISIT
St. Catherine Parish
125 Pearl St.
Sharon, WI 53585
Saturday: 4 p.m. (Spanish)
Sunday: 9:30 a.m.
WHO WAS ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA?
- St. Catherine of Siena was born during the outbreak of the plague in Siena, Italy on March 25, 1347. She was the 25th child born to her mother, although half of her brothers and sisters did not survive childhood. Catherine was a twin, but her sister did not survive infancy. Her mother was 40 when she was born.
- At the age of 16, Catherine’s sister, Bonaventura, died, leaving her husband as a widower. Catherine’s parents proposed that he marry Catherine as a replacement, but Catherine opposed this. She began fasting and cut her hair short to mar her appearance.
- From 1375 onward, St. Catherine began dictating letters to scribes. She petitioned for peace and was instrumental in persuading the Pope in Avignon to return to Rome.
- She also established a monastery for women in 1377 outside of Siena.
- She died in 1380 after an illness, followed by a stroke.
- St. Catherine’s feast day is April 29.