Judy Esch thought she knew the entire Lake Geneva/Fontana/Williams Bay area like the back of her hand. After all, this beautiful region with its waterways, rolling hills and scenic vantage points is one of Wisconsin’s most popular vacation spots. She had been coming to the area from her home across the Illinois state line in the town of Harvard for most of her adult life.
But one day, she discovered something entirely new: St. Benedict Parish, a Catholic church she had somehow missed all these years.
“I actually found this church by accident,” Esch laughed. “We were going to a Catholic church in Harvard and we decided to come up to the lake area. I grew up coming up here to the lakes and we always took the back roads to get to Lake Geneva or Williams Bay. (But this time) we decided to take a main road (Highway 14) up to Highway 67 and when we saw it we thought, ‘Oh, my goodness. We didn’t know there was a Catholic church here.’ So we went the following Sunday and I’ve been here ever since.”
That was back in 2000. Judy and her husband have been making this Sunday trek for 17 years and counting. What keeps them coming back?
“Coming to St. Benedict’s has expanded our faith in many ways, especially for my husband,” Esch explained. “I’m a convert to Catholicism. I was raised in the Lutheran church but when I got married, I decided that I really wanted to share my faith with my husband by attending the same church. We have such great homilies. The atmosphere here and the music here are wonderful and uplifting. It just begs people to keep coming back.”
You might think that in a vacation destination such as this, summer church attendance might decline as the temperature warms up and the lure of the outdoors takes hold. Actually, it’s quite the opposite.
“In most parishes during the summer they slow down a little bit,” said Fr. Mark Danczyk, who also pastors St. Francis de Sales in Lake Geneva under a cooperative arrangement with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “Here, it’s a complete and total opposite. Mass attendance probably easily doubles and sometimes it even triples. We have standing-room-only times during the summer because there are so many who come to this area for vacation. If people are on vacation, how many really take the time to attend Mass? A lot, and it’s wonderful to see that many people who are on vacation but still have the need to stay close to their God and worship with one another.”
St. Benedict Parish in Fontana has been around a long, long time. In 2015, the church celebrated its 150th anniversary. Property for building a church on Third Street was purchased in 1915 and the deed was recorded at the courthouse ayear later.
According to a March 16, 1916, newspaper article, Fontana Catholics were anticipating building a church.
“Frank Feathersone and Eugene Sullivan are hauling stone for the foundation of the church to be built this spring,” the article proclaimed. The men of the congregation built the church, which was completed in 1916. According to one long-time parishioner, parents took turns transporting the nuns from nearby Sharon to Fontana for summer religious classes.
At first, St. Benedict’s was a mission church of St. Catherine’s in Sharon, which was established in 1846. Early town of Sharon history shows that Elton or Sharon Corners was the site of the first church for St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, built in 1896.
On January 28, 1912, the Board of Trustees and Directors met and agreed to “hire” the money necessary ($4,000 or more) to build a new church. On March 10, 1915, the articles of incorporation of St. Benedict’s Church were signed by Rev. Thomas Pierce as well as Archbishop Sebastian G. Messmer.
The first St. Benedict Church Bazaar was held in 1917 and this successful event has been held ever since thanks to the many volunteers who work throughout the year and on that particular weekend.
Fr. Pierce served the congregation from 1912 until Fr. James E. Kelly came for the next 10 years. The parish hall was built in 1926 just east of the church. In 1952, Fr. Arthur Kelly arrived and was named pastor and the first resident priest of St. Benedict’s.
As the congregation continued to grow, Fr. Kelly began a plan for building a new church to accommodate expanding needs. The present St. Benedict’s Church was built on drained wetlands with construction beginning on March 21, 1960, and completed exactly one year later on March 21, 1961, the feast of St. Benedict, patron saint of the parish.
Fr. Danczyk has only been at St. Benedict since last June. But he says the first time he set foot on the grounds left an impression that lingers to this day.
“The grounds are absolutely beautiful,” said Fr. Danczyk. “As soon as you enter the grounds, you can feel its serenity, the peacefulness and truly the presence of God. You know that this is a holy place. I found it very interesting that the population of our parish community is actually three times larger than the actual city of Fontana. So I know that we draw people from all different areas.”
The grounds feature a marvelous statue of St. Benedict of Nursia, the church’s patron saint, which was dedicated in 2005. The picturesque rolling hills sprawl to the west toward town while a large, striking cross hovers over the church’s main entrance.
The inside of the church has a warm and contemporary feel with its stained-glass windows and multicolored stone wall behind a traditional marble altar flanked by a large, detailed crucifix. These visual elements combine to create a welcoming atmosphere for worship.
“At St. Benedict’s, all are welcome,” Fr. Danczyk emphasized. “We join together, we pray together. We cry together, we laugh together and support each other. As a parish, we have a wonderful sense of community. What I’ve found unique here and at St. Francis in Lake Geneva is that after Mass, people don’t necessarily run to their vehicles to go home. They spend time visiting and that pleases me. They care about their neighbors and they care about the people they sit next to in the pew and in that way they strengthen each other.”
The sights and sounds of St. Benedict’s provide a treasured worship experience right in the heart of vacationland.
“The music here is absolutely wonderful. It can be very lively but it can also be very traditional. Our worship music just makes you want to celebrate God’s love and that’s what it should be. It should be a joy to celebrate the Mass and to pray with one another.”