On the surface in its present configuration, St. John XXIII Parish might seem relatively new. But look a little closer and you’ll discover a thriving church community rich in both history and tradition as it serves its congregation in both Port Washington and Saukville. On July 1, 2016, three parish communities merged to become one. Immaculate Conception in Saukville joined St. Mary’s Church and St. Peter of Alcantara Parish, both in Port Washington, to become St. John XXIII Parish.
As is true in any church merger, there have been periods of adjustment and uncertainty as members seek to preserve their church identity while learning how to adjust to worshipping and serving at three different worship sites. So far, the merger adjustment process appears to be going well.
“It’s been a very positive experience here in Port Washington and Saukville because the parishes were working together before I came,” said Fr. Pat Wendt, who became pastor at St. Peter’s in 2005. Four years later, he became part of a pastoral team for all three parishes before they merged and he was named pastor at St. John XXIII. “They were sharing schools, the religious education program and adult formation ministries. The movement towards a united, one parish out of the three, was a natural progression and a good portion of our people could see that vision moving forward. It’s been a positive experience.”
Bill Henkle, a parishioner his entire life, first at St. Mary’s and now in the unified parish, is also a longtime member of church leadership. He serves as the trustee treasurer and sees the merger as both a challenge and a blessing in a variety of ways.
“We’re surviving in the era of an ever-dwindling number of priests,” said Henkle. “Obviously, it’s been a challenge and not something that we were wanting, to have fewer priests at our disposal, but we’re blessed to have one and I think the community’s done a really great job of making the best of the situation. We’re really elevating our ‘lay game,’ so to speak, to maintain three worship sites.”
Immaculate Conception in Saukville has the deepest roots of the three churches, having been established by the first Catholic settlers to arrive in the area in 1847. On Feb. 24, 1856, the Catholic community gathered with Fr. Seif to prepare a resolution to form a congregation. That resolution contained a request to Bishop John Martin Henni in order to construct a church. The request was granted and a half acre of land was donated for a small stone building that was erected in 1858.
Bishop Henni was present for the laying of the cornerstone along with Frs. Francis X. Sailer and Dougherty, as well as the original parish trustees, Alois Topper, John Seng and Paul Suennen. Of significance is the fact that this same year, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes.
In 1865, the congregation completed the first small church where they could celebrate the liturgy, naming it St. Mary’s Parish. Seven years later, Fr. Joseph Albers became pastor and it was during his term that the parish built a larger and more impressive church. They built it right above the old church, leaving a large portion of the old foundation in the present church’s basement. The new church was dedicated in 1875 and chiseled in stone above the main entrance in Latin are the words, “The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin.”
According to formal church history, Immaculate Conception was the pioneer in establishing parish councils for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. In 1966, a steering committee formed to prepare bylaws and an organizational chart, later adding subcommittees. After that, the archdiocese mandated this concept for all parishes.
Meanwhile, atop a hill overlooking the city of Port Washington and unofficially known as “St. Mary’s hill,” the cornerstone for St. Mary’s church was laid Oct. 7, 1882. The Port Washington Star newspaper noted that, “Fully one thousand people witnessed the laying of the cornerstone” with ceremonies officiated by Archbishop Michael Heiss. Almost exactly two years later, on Oct. 11, 1884, the new church building was dedicated with the proceedings again officiated by Archbishop Heiss.
By comparison to Immaculate Conception and St. Mary’s, St. Peter of Alcantara Church is relatively new. Originally constructed and formally dedicated on Oct. 19, 1966, the church was named after St. Peter, born Peter Garavita, in a small Spanish town of Alcantara in 1499. Known as a deeply religious man, he was credited for founding many monasteries.
As the congregation grew, plans to renovate the inside of the parish building began to develop in 1993. On Jan. 21, 1995, the first Mass was celebrated in the new church. The updated church includes a bright sanctuary with a centrally located chancel, a baptistery, Eucharistic chapel and a daily Mass chapel. St. Peter’s celebrated its 40th anniversary Nov. 18, 2006.
“People from all of our former parishes move through all three sites, mostly responding to what fits into their schedule,” said Fr. Wendt. “I think an important part for people to experience when they come here is that we have combined and that we are looking forward. We are an open and welcoming community trying to refocus our attention on evangelization, moving forward and getting our message out to the public.”
“With the three separate parishes each in their heyday had their own schools,” said Henkle. “Thankfully, we always maintained a school presence. Now, bringing the school back into the parish allows for a greater connectiveness and strengthening in the community from birth to death. We’re more consolidated so we can pool our resources and take advantage of the strengths that existed all along in the three distinct parishes. We have an excess of facilities and I think we have the opportunity to develop some new ministries. Our pastoral associate just proposed an Ecumenical Center, a retreat center if you will. It would help our outreach go beyond our parish and it could even be cross-denominational for people looking for a place to develop their faith life without any strings attached. Just come and we will support you in that interest. We hope to get the center up and running this summer.”
United in purpose, Fr. Wendt says he is excited for what the future will bring as St. John XXIII Parish expands its community outreach footprint.
“We want them to take an opportunity to grow a little bit deeper in their relationship with Jesus.”