BEAVER DAM — A decade ago, when Beaver Dam’s three Catholic parishes faced merger into one,  hurch leaders had no idea a grocery/furniture store, a convent in Mount Calvary, a future Eagle Scout and a hospital held pieces to a project solidifying the new parish into a future beacon of evangelization.

Officials of St. Katharine Drexel Parish are putting finishing touches on a new parish center, fulfilling a desire to bring the St. Katharine church, school and parish center to one site.

In addition to cementing the parish as a single entity, the $1 million project to renovate a Super Valu grocery store – later a retail furniture store – is anticipated to create a point of Catholic outreach throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said Fr. Michael Erwin, pastor.

“As we finish this merger we are bringing the three parishes to one happy home,” Fr. Erwin said. “This project is about repositioning the church toward the future and, for us, ending the merger on a positive and creative note. That means a lot to us. The new parish center is capturing peoples’ imagination and their desire to evangelize. People are pretty proud of what we have here.”

Parish is merger of 3

St. Katharine Drexel was formed in 2003 with the merger of St. Patrick, St. Michael and St. Peter parishes. The former St. Peter church and school near the center of Beaver Dam were selected to host the new St. Katharine Drexel church and school.

The question of what to do about locating a parish center in the same vicinity as the church and school was answered in 2010 when the 23,000-square foot former grocery store, located in the shadow of the St. Katharine Drexel Church steeple, came on the market at an attractive price, Fr. Erwin said.

“They dropped the price from $600,000 to $300,000. It was time for the merged parish to make a decision. Should the parish build a new church, school and parish center that might cost $15 million in a location outside the city?” Fr. Erwin said.

Instead, parish officials decided to buy the store and invest $700,000 to renovate the facility into a parish center.

The price tag grew by $85,000 when the parish purchased an adjacent single family home to gain enough property to meet city setback codes for the renovation project.

Convent a bonus

The home purchase had the unexpected benefit of establishing a new convent within the archdiocese.

A former teacher at St. Katharine Drexel School, then called St. Peter School, Sr. Mariel Kreuzier, a School Sister of Notre Dame, lost her home at the former Our Lady of Mount Carmel Convent in Mt. Calvary, which closed its doors in 2012.
Sr. Mariel got on the phone and called friends in Beaver Dam looking for a place to settle for her and two other Notre Dame sisters.

“They weren’t quite ready to go to our motherhouse in Elm Grove,” Fr. Erwin said.

Church officials welcomed the sisters and the house was renovated to accommodate the needs of the fledgling convent.

Sr. Mariel is one of three sisters to move into the convent, named Living Springs Sister House.

“I felt I really wanted to continue doing service to the community and I had served in Beaver Dam,” Sr. Mariel said.

Sr. Mariel, 82, has a heavy schedule of volunteering, including assisting poor residents at Church Health Services, an ecumenical program where medical personnel help the uninsured and underinsured. She also volunteers at the local St. Vincent de Paul store and its food pantry, holds Bible study meetings and presides over a twice-monthly current events discussion group.

“People are extremely happy to have us sisters come to them and live in their community. We are like a presence to them,” she said.

Sr. Anton Marie Voissem, 82, also lives in the convent, providing English as a second language education to Hispanic residents, a job similar to one she performed for 30 years for the Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services program.

Building is for evangelization

Although the center is not finished, it opened its doors in April and serves an increasing number of church and community groups with an eye toward bringing waning Catholics back into the fold.

“The basic purpose of this building is evangelization,” Fr. Erwin said. “In this era of democracy, people want ever more to make decisions for themselves. We’ve learned 90 percent of (fallen away) adults re-choose their faith. We want to be there for them in their moments of decision, as well as make ourselves accessible to the community.”

A 200-seat dining and meeting facility named “Mission Hall,” complete with a commercial-type kitchen, is a highlight of the renovation project.

In addition to hosting church and community dinners and meetings, Fr. Erwin said Mission Hall is used as a location for night programs for parents of St. Katharine Drexel School children.

“Parents send their kids to our schools, but don’t come to church on weekends. They start drifting away. I’m trying to remedy that,” Fr. Erwin said.

Adjacent to one wall of Mission Hall is a soon-to-be-opened Catholic bookstore.

“Otherwise, people in Beaver Dam have to travel at least a half hour to find an equivalent bookstore,” he said.

Two large mosaics of Mary and Jesus adorn Mission Hall. The mosaics were on display at the former St. Joseph Catholic Hospital, now Beaver Dam Community Hospital.

Parish histories kept alive

Statues, pictures and photographs from the three merged parishes were used to decorate several meeting and conference rooms. Each of the rooms is named after one of the former parishes. “We want to keep the histories of the parishes alive and not bury them in some downstairs room,” Fr. Erwin said.

The parish center includes separate offices for volunteer groups and a small, eucharistic chapel.

Rivers Edge Café attracts teens

A second major feature of the parish center is a spacious, lower-level series of rooms, known as the “Rivers Edge Café,” geared toward teenage parish members.

“The church needs to be present during the teenage years to minister to them. The question was how do we bring in that generation?” Fr. Erwin said.

The answer was a survey of teenagers asking their input into the renovation project. The survey produced one surprising result.

“The number one priority of the teenagers was to have soft places to sit,” Fr. Erwin said.

Donated overstuffed chairs and couches line a sitting area of the Rivers Edge Café, a place growing in popularity with the teenagers, Fr. Erwin said.

A smoothie and coffee bar are in the works.

Eagle Scout creates stage

A centerpiece of the teen area is a large stage, designed and built as an Eagle Scout project by parish member Aaron Kraintz.

Kraintz spearheaded efforts to raise $2,000 to buy materials and led construction work to make the stage a reality.

“It’s turned out to be a nice place for teens to come here for any event, whether it’s to hear a band or go on retreats,” said Kraintz, a 17-year-old senior at Beaver Dam High School.
“We made a space for the youth. It’s definitely going to draw kids.”

The stage is supported by a state-of-the-art media room complete with a professional quality sound mixer.

Fr. Erwin sees the teen center as a place to offer more contemporary, alternative liturgies for teens and adults alike and to provide an evangelizing link to and for the archdiocese.

“Hopefully, we can use this space and its technology to link ourselves better with and take advantage of the good things happening at the archdiocese and Cardinal Stritch (University),” Fr. Erwin said. “We are hoping to host learning through more remote teleconferencing opportunities.”   Steve Wideman, Special to your Catholic Herald