(Submitted photo). Top: A cross hangs behind the altar at St. John the Baptist. Above: The exterior of the parish. (Photos by Tom Andrews)

“For me, St. John the Baptist is family and has been family since I grew up.”
– Kristin Strehlow, parishioner

Indeed, St. John the Baptist Parish in Plymouth has been part of Kristin Strehlow’s life for 47 years and counting. Following in her parents’ footsteps, Strehlow’s church life and family life are in some respects practically inseparable.

“I went to school at SJB and then went to the high school in Plymouth while going through the SJB CCD program,” Strehlow said. “I was confirmed in this church, left for school and then came back to raise our family with my husband and have put our own kids through the school. When we come, we see all the people I’ve either grown up with or because we’ve met all the families who’ve moved through the area through our kids.

“I remember that my parents were always involved in church. They were involved with parish councils and my mom was involved in various school activities. I sort of followed suit and have been involved in the parish council here and then as it changed to Pastoral Council.”

In sharp contrast to Strehlow’s longevity at St. John the Baptist church, Fr. Philip Reifenberg is a relative newcomer. Prior to becoming pastor in June, he served as temporary administrator of both St. John’s and St. Thomas Aquinas in Elkhart Lake for one year. Yet, when he took over as pastor, he says he already had a strong sense of what this parish and its people are all about.

“I found a really strong core of leaders, community activists and people committed to making St. John the Baptist really hum,” said Fr. Reifenberg. “I was working with some really strong individuals and a fairly functioning organization. I think people who come here will find a welcoming community and a pretty progressive group of people. It’s a fairly large congregation of about 1,500 families covering the span of old and young. We have a parochial school with 170 children, so we have families coming together and it’s a good mix of people.”

St. John the Baptist Parish boasts a long, rich history in this charming community nestled along the banks of the Mullet River in Sheboygan County. The first work done for this church was performed by Lawrence Ziegler, who got out the first timber and hauled the first stone for the church in 1856. The congregation of St. John the Baptist was established in 1861 by the Rev. Father Schmitting. Prior to this time and even dating back to 1848, the people in the vicinity received occasional visits from the Rev. Fathers F. Schraudenbach and Rehrl, who were among the pioneer missionaries of the Northwest and who said Mass in the houses of different settlers. Ziegler is given credit for beginning construction of a church building in 1856.

The congregation was attended as a mission by the Fathers Stehle and Haider between the years 1863 and 1868 with services being held once every month. Next came the Capuchin Fathers from Mt. Calvary, who ministered to the spiritual needs of these people until 1888, when Rev. J.P. Van Treek of Sheboygan visited Plymouth every three weeks.

Rev. Van Treek continued to minister the area until 1890 when his brother, Rev. J.A. Van Treek, temporarily ministered to the congregation during his brother’s illness. Upon his return in August 1891, Rev. J.P. Van Treek again took charge of the congregation. His first services as resident pastor were held Aug. 9, 1891, and there were only 22 families in the congregation.

The first parsonage was built in 1893 and three years later, the first Catholic school opened its doors. The church was growing and, in 1906, the cornerstone was laid for a second church building followed by acquisition of the St. John the Baptist Cemetery in 1929. As the congregation continued to expand, an eight-room school with auditorium and gym was built in 1952 followed by a convent and school addition in 1961.

These wooden sculptures depict the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist. (Photo by Tom Andrews)

The current church building was built in 1987 followed by another school expansion in 1998 and a new parish rectory was built in 2004. A beautiful painting of St. John baptizing Jesus graces one of the school’s hallways. Finally, in 2007, the cross and lighting were installed on the church steeple. A new organ was dedicated and hand-carved Way of the Cross stations were ordered from Belgium.

Without question, the rich history of St. John the Baptist Church was something Fr. Reifenberg noted as soon as he arrived.

“To build upon that legacy is always just an awe-inspiring event. I know that the church is going to last a lot longer than I will, so it’s just a privilege to be part of this history and this dynamic that is the Roman Catholic Church in its various articulations in parish forms. I’ve been really thrilled though the last seven years to be part of the Sheboygan County identity. I was in the city of Sheboygan for six years before I came out here. Prior to that, I had been a Milwaukee priest in the metropolitan area. Truthfully, I wasn’t interested in going north but once I got up here, I found that the people, the locale and the environment is just absolutely wonderful. To be inserted into this dynamic in the city of Sheboygan and now Plymouth and Elkhart Lake I’ve found to be just life-giving.”

The building of the current St. John the Baptist Church also holds special memories for Strehlow.

“I remember what I consider the old church, which was on the corner of Mill Street and Pleasant Street,” Strehlow recalled. “It was a cathedral-style church with high ceilings and a balcony with a beautiful organ. It was where our library, kindergarten and pre-school are right now. That steeple was always there and I remember that. It was the church on the hill. I also remember the new church being built. It was this beautiful church where you could see the altar from every pew because of the angle of the floor.” So what of this parish’s future? How is it continuing to carve out its mission and role in the Plymouth community?

“We’re in the process both here and at St. Thomas Aquinas of trying to re-focus our mission on discipleship with a Catholic identity, stewardship and all of the things I think are being really highlighted by the archdiocese and the archbishop,” said Fr. Reifenberg.

“One of the biggest arms that gets us involved in the community is the St. Vincent de Paul Society here,” added Strehlow. “Our society here is just so interwoven into the community. We have the food pantry and the Crossroads religious store. Of course, there is the St. Vincent Thrift Store. They’ve just added on and now have shower facilities for people that need them and they do wonderful gift programs at Christmas and all year round to help families out.”

“It’s exciting and there’s enthusiasm for the faith here,” said Fr. Reifenberg. “There’s a sense of identity and pride. It’s a welcoming community and parishioners are eager to bring people into the fold. I think people will find this a good home.”