It’s not so far away. It’s just up the hill.
When Sue Nygaard reflects on her 45 years as a member of St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception Parish in West Bend, she good-naturedly scoffs at those who might say it’s too far away from downtown West Bend. She reflects on her church with a great deal of pride and emotion.
“This was the first church in West Bend, up in Barton and it’s very much a part of the Barton community,” said Nygaard. “It’s the best hour on Sunday that you could ever spend. The music is beautiful and the liturgies are always lively and I love it. If you want to hear an excellent sermon, if you want to have very inspiring music and if you want to be part of a very living community, this is the place to come.”
Fr. Nathan Reesman, who pastors this church along with St. Frances Cabrini Parish a short ways down the road under a shared arrangement with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, took a moment to elaborate on Nygaard’s assessment of the church’s location.
“We are perched upon the Barton Hill,” explained Fr. Reesman. “The Barton neighborhood goes back a long way in this part of the county. I think there’s a reputation in West Bend that we’re kind of this out-of-the-way place because we’re on the north end of town, which to some people seems so far away. We want to tell people that we are not far away. We’re right next door and we’re a hidden gem in a changing neighborhood of historic and beautiful value. It’s kind of like being on a retreat with the serenity that’s captivating.”
Sept. 12, 1857, marked the beginning of a church which proudly remembers its past while nurturing its future. On its 160th anniversary, including 117 years in the current church building, its members value tradition while projecting a keen sense of family and community.
In 1845, the village of Barton was founded by Barton Salisbury. German Catholic immigrants settled the village and its surrounding farms and these hard-working people were known for their devotion to the faith. It was for these hearty people that Fr. Caspar Rehrl established Immaculate Conception Parish. The parish name was chosen to commemorate the 1854 proclamation of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mother.
Fr. Rehrl founded many parishes in the area and celebrated the first Mass of Immaculate Conception Chur ch on Christmas Day, 1857. The ceremony took place just two blocks from the present location, at the corner of Barton Avenue and River Drive.
“We have a very strong sense of history and I’m very proud of the tight-knit community with a very family-like atmosphere,” said Fr. Reesman. “We look out for each other and we welcome newcomers. We go out to the streets and bring people into our campus facilities for things that they need. It’s a warm family place with a lot of history and tradition.
“Generations have sacrificed, scrimped and saved and worked hard to keep everything going all the way down to today. When you come to this place, you can just sense and feel all the memories, all the lives and the families that come in and out the door. It’s a living place because of all the people who have sacrificed to make it so. They own it and they know it, which is really beautiful.”
In 1860, the church was furnished with bells and the present rectory was built in 1882 at a cost of $3,500. The current church building was erected in 1900 at a cost of $35,000 and incorporated the clock from the original church building.
As the parish grew, more improvements were made. In 1926, the present convent was built, while in 1968, the church was remodeled and redecorated. Further growth was marked in 1987-88 as ground was broken for a church addition and the new Parish Center. Mindful of church history, part of St. Mary’s was zoned as a Barton Historical Site in 1992.
Bringing us up to present day, St. Mary’s celebrated its 150th Anniversary in 2007, repaired the steeple in 2016 and, in 2017, the church completed Queen of Heaven Community Park, right across the street where its school playground once teemed with children.
“It’s a community park for surrounding families to come and use however they want,” said Fr. Reesman. “It’s a beautiful place to walk around and pray in the neighborhood.”
Through each stage of this church’s growth, the interior of the church has retained its beautiful, classic Gothic characteristics.
“People really like the interior of this church,” said Fr. Reesman. “It has height and you are drawn up with its Gothic revival structure complete with historic stained-glass windows. Visitors also find interesting how we added onto it with newer wings in 1988.
It was a clever way to expand the size of the building back then yet maintain the integrity of the original building. In the back hall, we have preserved several wonderful banners from the old church along with historic photos to keep those memories fresh.”
Though the interior beauty of the church remains, there are areas that need to be upgraded. Hence, the current interior renovation campaign, which beckons people to contribute with the words, “Beauty inspires and invites. It originates in God and leads us back to God.”
“We would like to do some work mainly in the sanctuary because that was the area most impacted by the last renovation 30 years ago,” Fr. Reesman explained. “We want to construct a high altar that will match the original altar but on a simpler scale. A lot will also involve painting to restore some of the original ornateness of the interior. The rest is simple mechanics of age. The carpet has worn thin, the floor needs to be updated and we want to put some statues back in here. It will make the church even more classical than it already is.”
Beyond the church building itself, parishioners like Nygaard are even more enthused about the new neighborhood outreach program now underway.
“We are starting a neighborhood outreach at this point asking our neighbors if they need any help with anything and said, ‘Please just give us a call and we’ll be there to help.’ I think it’s really a blessing because when you go out you’re meeting new friends and you’re spreading God’s Word and goodness. I go to the Catholic Church and someone else may go to another church doesn’t mean that we’re different. We’re really all the same. We’re all God’s children and whatever we do, we’re doing God’s work.”
Leading people to God will always be the main objective here, especially with an opportunity to work in a tight knit community.
“Each place does have its own unique feel and we try to make sure that is celebrated in the Mass,” added Fr. Reesman. “This is a smaller community and while you can’t ‘hide’ here as everyone knows you. Many people find that very inviting because as soon as you are here, they greet you and welcome you into the family that is the church community.”