MARYTOWN — The spire of Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary church towers above a forest of steel, electric-generating windmills surrounding this small community north of Milwaukee, proclaiming God’s presence to all in an area known unofficially as Wisconsin’s “Holyland.”
Catholics from several farming communities and parishes came together Saturday, Aug. 1, to celebrate their identity as living, working and worshipping in the Holyland.
St. Mary’s in Marytown joined St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Mt. Calvary and St. John Parish in Johnsburg as a cluster called the “Holyland Catholic Parishes.”
“It’s time for us now to cluster, what with less priests and fewer Catholics coming to church,” said Suzanne Mueller of Mt. Calvary. “We have to get all the parishes together and see if we can get more people to come to church and make us stronger in years to come. There are so many in our community who don’t come to church and I don’t know why. That’s what we have to find out is why.”
In a Mass marking the coming together of the parishes, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki installed Capuchin Fr. Gary Wenger, pastor at St. Isidore, as pastor for St. Mary and St. John, too.
“There is a rich Catholic tradition here in the Holyland. Where did that come from? It comes out of a willingness to hold God as a priority and to imbed him in everything we do,” Archbishop Listecki said.
In 1841, Capuchin Fr. Caspar Rehrl, along with pioneer families from Germany, founded St. John the Baptist in Johnsburg, the oldest parish in the archdiocese north of Milwaukee.
St. Mary’s the Visitation was established in 1849 — the same year Fr. Rehrl, known as “Apostle to the Holyland,” built a log chapel in Mt. Calvary, where the present day St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in 2010 grew out of an earlier clustering of Holy Cross Parish in Mt. Calvary, St. Cloud Parish in St. Cloud, and St. Joseph Parish in St. Joseph.
The new cluster will be served by four Capuchin friars; Fr. Wegner, associate pastor Fr. Zoy Garibay and weekend assistants Frs. Oliver Bambenek and Larry Abler.
Parishioner Connie Pickert of St. Mary said clustering is important because there are not enough priests to take on individual parishes.
“It makes sense because we were all one family way back yonder. It just stands to reason we should be one family again,” Pickert said. “I think the clustering is great because Fr. Gary is such a dynamic person. With the other priests we should get new ideas.”
Pickert noted Holy Cross, St. Cloud and St. Joseph churches clustered for 10 years before becoming one parish – St. Isidore.
“I foresee in the future the three newly clustered parishes will become one united parish,” Pickert said.
Following the installation of Fr. Wegner, Archbishop Listecki told him “my direction as archbishop is to go out and love this community.”
Fr. Wegner noted that he grew up in loving relationships with three brothers at home, an experience that will help him in his expanded priestly duties.
“My brothers taught me you could love three people equally. I can love three churches equally,” Fr. Wegner said. “We (Frs. Wegner, Garibay, Bambenek and Abler) are all Capuchin priests. I hope people will experience that sense of fraternity we have for each other.”
Bringing the school into the Holyland identity fold is expected to clear up confusion from the initial name as the Consolidated Parochial Elementary Schools, as well as raise attention to and increase funding for Catholic education, said Rick Erickson, principal of Holyland Catholic School.
“We want people to know we are the Catholic school in the Holyland, not just for St. John,” Erickson said of the name change, approved by the archdiocese July 1. “Hopefully, we will see an increase in enrollment, which has gone from 55 a couple years ago to 63 this year. Foundations and generous individuals will be more willing to fund Catholic education in the Holyland. If we can maintain a steady student population, the school will be here for years to come.”
Erickson said the original name derived from what he calls a banking “error.”
“A group of parishes formed 46 years ago and wanted to pay the school’s bill, but the bank said they needed a name. They came up with Consolidated Parochial Elementary School which later became corrupted to CPES and then ‘seepus.’ It got to the point no one knew who we were, where we were or what we were.
“We think now people will know where we are, in the Holyland, who we are, a Catholic school and proud of it, and what we are, a school,” Erickson said.
Archbishop Listecki said renaming the parish cluster and school to reflect their Holyland presence makes their missions collaborative while keeping their identities separate.
“Isn’t it truly Catholic to work together so their communities remain vibrant?” Archbishop Listecki said.