In a wedge-shaped area of lush green land, located between highways 175 and K in Hartford, the historical St. Lawrence Catholic Church steeple watches over acres of farmland, tree-lined streets and local residents.
Lightning struck the steeple three times, leading to its destruction in 1909, and damage to the carillon system in 1987, and in 2004 it struck the bells, resulting in installing a surge protector to prevent further damage. Despite these acts of nature, St. Lawrence is more vital than ever and will be commemorating its 175th anniversary with a 10 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Aug. 8, celebrated by Archbishop Jerome E Listecki.
In 1845, Fr. Michael Heiss traveled to Washington County to bless the cabins of a dozen pioneer families who arrived from his native Bavaria.
While traveling, he wandered into an Indian village, where the friendly Winnebagos invited him to dinner, befriended him and taught him songs, dance and games. In return, Fr. Heiss taught them about the Holy Trinity and the Cross. Later that evening, he went with an Indian brave to celebrate Mass with the Bavarian families.
The elderly priest returned several times to pray with the small group of immigrants and, a year later, he supervised the erection of a tiny log church nestled in the woods. St. Lawrence Church, which was located in the southwest corner of the current cemetery, was blessed by Bishop John Martin Henni in October 1846.
The simple log church served the parish for 16 years until it was replaced by a frame church, blessed by Fr. Michael Beiter on Feb. 1, 1854, and was located east of the rectory.
When Fr. Beiter served St. Lawrence, Johann and Margaretha Schuetz donated land, and Bishop Henni purchased 20 acres with plans to build the St. Lawrence Seminary. Because the building did not materialize, he later sold some of the land, and St. Lawrence Seminary was built in Mount Calvary.
In 1874, St. Lawrence constructed the parish rectory, and six years later, they built the current church at the cost of $40,000, under the leadership of their pastor, Fr. Martin Weiss. The new brick schoolhouse was started in 1885 and completed in 1886 for $5000.
Approximately 800-900 members from 152 families belonged to St. Lawrence, one of the oldest Catholic parishes in Washington County. School attendance during that time averaged 155 students.
Served by the Sisters of St. Francis and the Sisters of St. Agnes, a new school was constructed in 1963 with 148 students in grades 1-8. Unfortunately, due to financial issues, the school closed in 1969, marking the conclusion of 82 years of Catholic education at St. Lawrence. The parish razed the school, and the grounds were converted into a parking lot.
According to Fr. Richard J Stoffel, shared pastor of St. Peter, Resurrection, and St. Lawrence parishes with Fr. Jonathon A. Schmeckel, the parish has remained strong and vibrant over the years due to the many “generations of faith.”
“Many of the families and individuals who comprise our present membership are descendants of original founders; many of our families are also lovingly inter-married, so much so that to speak of someone it is automatic to refer to who their father, mother, grandparents and great grandparents were,” said Fr. Stoffel. “Genealogy and local history matter very much, as people truly care for one another and put their faith into practice through their daily living with each other.”
While many of the smaller parishes surrounding St. Lawrence have closed or merged, Fr. Stoffel said it has made the parish more determined than ever that it will remain open.
“They are fiercely faithful folks,” he said. “Now that we are clustered with St. Peter (Slinger) and Resurrection (Allenton), we are discovering some mutual advantages to working together that do not threaten each parish’s identity but do present opportunities to offer a strong Catholic witness in the communities we serve.”
This year, St. Lawrence updated the church’s physical plant with new doors, sanctuary floor, sound system, exterior cleaning and tuck pointing, landscaping and parking improvements. Additionally, St. Lawrence and Resurrection parishes entered into a cooperative venture for religious formation ministries by jointly hiring a full-time coordinator to serve both parishes. All three cluster parishes are collaboratively offering the same curriculum.
“It is an exciting venture that will allow our parishes to focus with the energy it takes to intentionally form and shape disciples in our children, youth and families,” said Fr. Stoffel. “We’re excited about beginning this.”
Following the 175th Anniversary Mass, a meal prepared by parishioners and Gehring’s Meat Market and Catering will begin at 11:30 a.m., with family entertainment beginning at 1 p.m.
“Planned while pandemic restrictions were still quite substantially in place, we were concerned as to what the response in terms of attendance might be, and it has exceeded our expectations, so much so that we had to order a much larger tent for the luncheon to accommodate a very enthusiastic response by parishioners and honored guests,” said Fr. Stoffel.