BEAVER DAM — Acknowledging the pain felt when a parish closes, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki on Saturday, Dec. 14, helped members of St. Katharine Drexel Parish mark 10 years as a growing Catholic community following the emotional 2003 merger of three historic parishes in this rural town of 17,000 residents.
Hundreds of people packed the pews of the former St. Peter Church, and later the parish’s new community center, for a special Mass and celebration of people coming together to form a community.
“This is the mission to which we have been called – to follow the Lord. Bringing together three communities over the past 10 years was no easy task,” Archbishop Listecki said before walking across the street to bless the new parish center.
A former big box grocery store, some see it as a neutral site that allows the hurt feelings of merger to be replaced with a unified spirit of evangelization benefiting the entire Beaver Dam community.
“Is the parish center helping to unify the parish? Yes, it is,” said parish trustee Christopher Brooks. “No one particular parish owned that (parish center) site before; plus it is a beautiful facility.”
Merger came as a surprise
Former Milwaukee Archbishop (now Cardinal) Timothy M. Dolan surprised many in the Beaver Dam Catholic community when he announced in 2003 the city’s three parishes – St. Michael, St. Patrick and St. Peter – would join under the name St. Katharine Drexel.
“At the time, it was a surprise to everyone. No one had a concept about who St. Katharine Drexel was. That almost added to the turmoil of merger,” said Deacon Ed Cody, one of two permanent deacons at St. Katharine Drexel and chairman of the parish human concerns committee. “Over time, people came to realize she helped the poor and helped children with their education.”
Merger talk was just beginning when Deacon Cody was ordained in 2000.
“Initially, members of the three parishes were concerned and fearful they would lose their parishes and all they meant to them. It’s been hard on the pastors in terms of trying to guide us,” Deacon Cody said.
Celebration marks change in focus
The 10th anniversary marks a change in focus for St. Katharine Drexel from thoughts of the mergerand its issues to consideration of the parish’s mission of evangelization, according to its pastor, Fr. Michael Erwin.
“Our focus on evangelization and outreach is well underway,” Fr. Erwin said. “We now have a youth center designed from scratch as a facility to serve our youth. It’s really an exciting place.”
Fr. Erwin has drawn praise from parishioners for his efforts to encourage consolidation of church facilities and functions as much as possible on one campus.
St. Katharine Drexel church, school and parish center, as well as a small convent serving the church community, are all located within two blocks of one another.
“Through the consolidation onto one campus, while we are doing new things, people are finding a level of comfort with the merger and are seeing some excitement for the Catholic Church in Beaver Dam,” Fr. Erwin said.
The priest said archdiocesan officials have been helpful in guiding the parish in its evangelization efforts and its Sunday efforts as well.
He said it was important for Archbishop Listecki to attend Saturday Mass recognizing the 10th anniversary of the merger.
“As Catholics, we always need to be connected to the bigger church. Having the archbishop here to celebrate with us meant a lot to the people,” Fr. Erwin said.
Pastor led consolidation efforts
Deacon Cody praised the efforts of Fr. Erwin to consolidate all parish facilities.
“That has been a tremendous unifying event,” Deacon Cody said. “Attendance at Mass has been increasing and more parish members are becoming active in different ways in the parish.”
A past Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus Blessed Pope John XXIII Council 1837 in Beaver Dam, Deacon Cody said the parish center is a place “humming and active.”
On Sunday, Council 1837 hosted an Eagle Scout Court of Honor at the parish center at the same time another group of youths were celebrating a trip to an international youth conference.
KC council helps unify parishioners
Deacon Cody said the Knights of Columbus council has made efforts to ease unification efforts, most recently with plans to distribute copies of author Matthew Kelly’s book “The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic” to every person attending Mass at Easter.
“We are distributing 1,000 copies of the book in English and 150 copies in Spanish for members of our large Hispanic population. It (book distribution) is part of the council’s evangelization efforts to get more people active in their faith.”
The council also has a supply of tools parish members can use to fix and maintain their homes, an idea fostered by Fr. Erwin.
New convent established
Grassroots efforts by people and groups like the Knights of Columbus to deal with the three-parish merger began literally years before the 2003 event, said School Sister of Notre Dame Mariel Kreuziger, a former director of Christian formation at the former St. Peter Church.
“In the early ‘90s, there was talk about the probability of a merger, so we started coming together to talk about it. We would have a Mass in a local park and bring members of all three parishes together,” said Sr. Mariel, who left Beaver Dam to serve as an organist and religious educator at parishes in Illinois.
Sr. Mariel, 82, recently returned to Beaver Dam where, in April, she and two other sisters, all officially retired, established the Living Springs Convent in a house purchased by the parish and remodeled by parish members.
All three sisters work as volunteers at the adjacent parish center.
“More and more the parish center, I think, has really jelled us into one parish. The center itself belonged to no one. It was a new enterprise we could all claim,” she said.
Some hard feelings remain
Still, the decade-old merger continues to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of some parishioners, said 88-year-old Jim Hammer, whose ancestors were among the founders of the former St. PeterParish in the 1800s.
“We’ve lost so many people in the last 10 years what with everything that was going on with the merger,” Hammer said. “Many of us felt the archbishop (Dolan) pushed the merger on us unnecessarily because of a shortage of priests.”
Hammer said many older parish members still attend St. Katharine Drexel, “but where the big problem comes is the middle-aged population who have left and gone elsewhere, including to a Baptist church in town.”
“I’ll never leave my faith and my church, but I still have lingering hard feelings with church closures,” Hammer said.
Gail Nampel, whose ancestors helped found the former St. Michael Parish, said she understands and felt the pain of being a member of a closed parish.
“When they closed St. Michael, it was very hard on me,” said Nampel, a lector and member of the capital campaign committee for remodeling the parish center.
“Everyone felt a myriad of emotions when the merger was finally announced. Everyone knew it was coming. We knew it was going to happen. It was hard being told we had no control over the closing.
Like an elderly family member being told they can’t live in their house anymore, no one wanted to leave their home. But they eventually accept it and then things definitely improved. I came to realize the only way to be part of the new parish was to become part of the new parish,” she said.
As more and more people came to the same realization, the St. Katharine Drexel parish became “a vibrant community.”
Archbishop’s presence welcomed
Nampel also noted the importance of Archbishop Listecki celebrating Saturday’s anniversary Mass.
“It shows he knows we are there and how strong and how much we’ve come together over time,” Nampel said.
Nampel said the new parish center helps in continuing efforts to unify parish members, particularly with the inclusion of separate meeting rooms named after the closed parishes.
“People remain aware of their roots. It’s a part of us that we will never be able to let go of,” Nampel said. “Now, with every day that goes by, we grow as a parish community. We now have everything in our parish to ensure a long-lasting existence.”