This is the story of a church that was born long before the city it now calls home.

Top: St. Kilian. Above: The entrance to St. Kilian Parish. (Photos by Tom Andrews)

St. Kilian Parish first opened its doors in 1863, a full 20 years before the city of Hartford would be incorporated. But the church’s roots go even further back to 1843 when the first Mass was celebrated in Erin Township at the home of William McGrath near Monches. Those who came to worship there were organized as St. John’s Parish and in 1855, northern Erin residents decided to build their own church dedicated to St. Patrick. It was initially served by St. John’s pastors.

By 1860, there were 180,000 Catholics in Wisconsin and the Hartford area proved to be fallow ground for new church opportunity. The St. Kilian Parish we know today was actually founded with the 1999 merger of two congregations: St. Patrick in Erin (1855–1999) and St. Kilian (1863). The city of Hartford was incorporated in 1883.

“The church was formed before there was a town so when I see pictures of people in buckboards, the horses, the black dresses and big beards on all the men, we’ve come a long way,” said Fr. David La Plante, now in his 11th year as St. Kilian’s pastor. “It’s pretty impressive that the church has been here so long and it wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t been for the people in this community.”

About 1858, two brothers, Simon and Casper Dorn, began the effort of building a Catholic Church in Hartford. They put their money where their hearts were, too, offering to give $400 each toward the project, provided the other 22 Catholics in the area would raise $1,000. However, those plans fizzled when they were unable to raise the needed funds.

Undeterred by this initial setback, a man named A.B. Thornson offered to give an acre of land under the condition that the local Catholics use it to build a church. The deed was made to Bishop Henni but the certificate was found to be defective because the railroad company had a mortgage on the land. Even though the lumber for the building was already on site, the project had to be abandoned.

And so it was that in 1863, Fr. Michael Deisenreider of nearby St. Lawrence Parish in rural Hartford, organized 100 Catholic families (40 Irish and 60 German) from the city to form St. Kilian Congregation. Simon Dorn donated the land for that church built in 1876 and, though no longer distinguishable as a church building, it still stands on the northwest corner of State and Forest Streets across the street from the St. Kilian of today.

In 1883, Fr. Nicholas M. Zimmer became the pastor at St. Kilian and was given custody of Holy Hill by Archbishop Michael Heiss. Under Fr. Zimmer, Holy Hill added Stations of the Cross, three new altars were installed and the church was frescoed. In 1953, St. Kilian built a new school building for its 700 active families and 2,400 parishioners.

It was time for a new church building.

At the 1954 annual meeting, parishioners voted to put $450,000 toward a new church, rectory and convent. The new building was dedicated July 12, 1959, by Archbishop William E. Cousins. It has undergone several structural modifications since then, but it retains the look and feel of the liturgical, scriptural themes that were so common in the late 1950s.

St. Kilian, for example, was built to emulate the shape of Noah’s Ark, as is evident by its beautiful raised, sunlit ceiling. The centrally located altar surrounded on three sides by seating areas embodies the strong feelings of community that the church nurtures. A beautiful stained glass wall of the Sacraments is a reminder of the need for spiritual renewal.

“The renovation really reflects the values of worship,” said Fr. La Plante. “We’re an intergenerational congregation and the building really does have a lot to do with meeting the needs of the parishioners. The fact that there is a well-kept grade school means we value Catholic education. The fact that there is a very updated church means we value the liturgical reforms of the second Vatican Council. Those are things I am enthusiastic about.

“The most important thing to know is we are a liturgical church, a forward-looking church. We have a lot of ministry opportunities, a great grade school, great adult education program, societal ministry programs. We have everything a person could look for in a Catholic church.”

The grade school and the St. Kilian youth ministry command special priorities for parishioners and church staff alike.

The pipe organ behind the altar at St. Kilian Parish. (Photo by Tom Andrews)

“I was born and raised here, baptized here and received all of my sacraments here,” said Mary Murphy, who’s been attending St. Kilian since 1949. “I went through eight years of Catholic education here at St. Kilian School so that was a big part of my life. I was very active in school and had a good relationship with the Sisters here. We raised our six children here and they all went to the school. I guess St. Kilian has always been a big part of our lives. I’ve liked the community, and because we’ve been here so long, we know a lot of people and I also enjoy seeing the newer people who come into the parish.”

“Two important features of youth ministry at St. Kilian are our music program and mission outreach program,” added Fr. La Plante. “It involves junior high and high school students in the liturgical music ministry of the congregation, including our youth orchestra, youth ensemble vocal groups, cantors, bell ringers in our bell choir and readers. Our music ministry connects the entire spectrum of age groups in the congregation.

“Meanwhile, the mission outreach is through the WorkCamp program, which again involves youth from ninth grade through college, as well as adult leaders. This has been a part of youth ministry at St. Kilian for the last 15 years.”

Bev Oechsner is another lifetime Hartford resident and St. Kilian member who knows firsthand the importance of her Catholic education. That education eventually turned into her career choice.

“Today, I work here so it’s been an extension of my years going to school here and I’m still connected,” Oechsner explains. “My kids had a wonderful education here and they really appreciate what they learned at St. Kilian School, how much the teachers meant to them and how the education they received here helped them get where they are today.

“Our church has been great and we’ve had many wonderful priests. I really get to know people when they come through the office. It’s an older parish with older people who are wonderful to deal with. I always have a soft spot in my heart for the older people who just need somebody to talk to. I’m also part of the music program, playing hand bells and that’s something else I really enjoy.”

Spreading the Gospel to all who enter St. Kilian’s’ doors was, is and will always be the church’s primary objective.

“Ministry to young people is the same as ministry to anyone and that is to be an open channel with the Gospel,” said Fr. La Plante. “We do a lot of evangelization through hospital ministry, through funerals and weddings. Young people who come to church for the first time in a long time is a wedding. We have a lot of funerals and that, of course, affects people of all generations. I would say our main evangelical work is through the sacramental ministry of the Church.”