The city of Ripon is one of those smaller towns that seems to offer something for just about everybody. It’s a thriving community of 7,833 located just 20 miles west of the Fox Valley in the heart of Wisconsin. A family-oriented community, Ripon offers the advantages of living near a metropolitan area such as Ripon College plus the peacefulness and safety that small town Wisconsinites have enjoyed for decades. Once voted the No. 7 “Happiest City in Wisconsin,” Ripon’s college can also boast that, long before Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford had a brief stay here as a philosophy major.
Ripon’s welcoming reputation also extends to its large church community which, for Catholics, began as St. Patrick’s Parish in 1883. Located on Oshkosh Avenue, the parish was established by Archbishop John Martin Henni.
“When you look at the history of the Catholic community in Ripon, the original parish was St. Patrick, which obviously was an Irish parish,” said Fr. Robert Fictum, who serves as pastor today. “It’s my understanding that many of the first Catholics who came to Ripon were drawn here by work on the railroads. The Catholic community gathered kind of informally and it officially became a parish with an assigned pastor in 1883.”
As more immigrants moved to Ripon from Poland and Germany, it was time to add a second church that would more closely fit emerging needs.
“In 1896, a group of Polish and German speaking Catholics requested a priest who would speak their language and St. Wenceslaus was established at its current site on North Fond du Lac Street,” said Fr. Fictum. “It was founded in 1896 and Fr. Wenceslaus Kruszka, the first pastor, was well known in the Polish community. The cornerstone was laid and a church, school and rectory were built.”
Ripon now had two Catholic churches but it wasn’t long before tragedy shook the community. On July 11, 1906, the mill across the street from the new St. Wenceslaus church was engulfed by fire, and sparks from the blaze landed on the church roof. The church burned to the ground but was re-built and re-dedicated in 1907.
In 1922, the original St. Patrick’s church was taken apart and moved to the current Blossom Street site.
Fr. John Schmitz built a new church on the Blossom Street site in 1974. Ripon maintained a pair of Catholic churches until 2005. On July 1, 2005, St. Patrick and St. Wenceslaus Parishes formally merged to form a new parish, St. Catherine of Siena. St. Catherine of Siena was chosen as the patron saint of the parish after parishioners voted to submit three names to the archbishop for his final selection.
“I think when I came in 1998, I became pastor of St. Wenceslaus with the knowledge that when the pastor of St. Pat’s retired I would become pastor of both separate parishes,” Fr. Fictum recalled. “Initially, there was a language issue. By the time I came, both parishes were a mixture of people. Originally, St. Wenceslaus was much more rural with many of the people being farmers. It retained its ethnic character longer than St. Pat’s did.
“As I became pastor of both and as time went on, there was more and more interaction between the two churches. I think combining the two councils and a combined Mass schedule (smoothed the transition). The actual impetus to merge the parish came not from the archdiocese but from the parish itself. Both parishes wanted to merge. That’s kind of unique in that they realized in light of fewer priests and duplication of services, it just made sense to merge. We had a joint council that functioned through the transition. There was a lot of energy to merge and there was a whole process by which we named the parish.”
It’s an energy that certainly lives on today. Jay Klemm has been a parishioner here since 1990. He and his wife, Karen, have two sons who are both attending college and the family enjoys the faith community at St. Catherine’s.
“St. Catherine’s is a welcoming community and you tend to know a lot of the folks,” said Klemm. “We also have Ripon College here so you will see some of the local students as part of the Mass. But it is a smaller community so those that come to Mass regularly get to know each other and become pretty close.”
Why have he and his family stayed all of these years?
“Again, it’s the community and the consistency of the faith,” Klemm explained. “I was born a Catholic and, in my younger days, I didn’t practice as faithfully as I have once I matured and actually came to the Ripon community after I graduated from college. Through the years and through the people here, I’ve grown in my faith and it’s continuing to get stronger with time and with the community.”
“I think we pray well, we worship well and there is a lot of parishioner involvement,” said Fr. Fictum. “A big portion of the people who have joined the parish never belonged to the previous two churches. So they are comfortable in the new entity.”
Beside the liturgical experience he enjoys at St. Catherine’s, Klemm points to the church’s ever-expanding footprint in the community through great events that usually involve food and good, wholesome family fun.
“Our church, the Knights (of Columbus) and the women put on pancake breakfasts,” said Klemm. “There’s a chicken dinner usually in the spring and, in the fall, there’s a chili feed and another festival. There are multiple events, usually food related, celebrations that do attract some people from around the community.”
So what lies ahead as St. Catherine’s moves further into the 21st Century? Fr. Fictum points to geographical location as one key factor.
“We are kind of in a unique position in the sense that we are in the corner of the archdiocese,” said Fr. Fictum. “We have parishioners in three dioceses. There’s that sense that we are somewhat geographically at the far distant part of the diocese. Because of the closeness to Green Lake, we do get a lot of people through here and at certain times of the year, we become a tourist place. With Ripon College and the hospital, we’ve had a real mixture of people. It’s a real healthy mix with other cultures and we’re reaching out to them.”
“We have to begin to look at a lot of our programs in terms of changes because we are becoming a bit older. We also have to do a little more recruiting of new parishioners, partly because we do not have a lot of industry in town. We don’t have as many new people coming in, which can become problematic. The parish is also becoming more aware of the Hispanic presence in Ripon due to the canning factories. A lot of these people are coming into the community and are planning to stay.”