It’s a church community blessed with a rich history dating back to the earliest Irish immigrants in the 1800s and all the way to its modern footprint in a university town bustling with college students and an ever-growing population of Mexican immigrants. It’s a welcoming melting pot of people who carry on its traditions of beautiful liturgy, music and singing while encountering the Lord in a manner that would make the church’s namesake – St. Patrick of Ireland – very much pleased.
Welcome to St. Patrick’s in Whitewater.
“St. Patrick’s has been known for its beautiful liturgy and music, and we’ve been working to instill that there is a certain type of charism or experience here that is connected to St. Patrick and also the experience of a very home-like atmosphere within our church,” said Fr. Mark Niehaus, parish administrator for the past three years. “With the readings and the encounter with Christ in the Eucharist, it all amounts to a beautiful encounter with the Lord.”
“This is my home parish and I know everybody here,” said Kathy Bolchen, a parishioner for 68 years and counting. “Luckily, I met a Catholic gentleman and we decided to settle here. Our children have been raised in this church and it’s truly home to us. St. Patrick’s Parish is very welcoming. We have a diversity of people who attend here, including university students, the townspeople of Whitewater and we have a large Hispanic population. Everyone is welcome.”
Whereas some parishes may have some difficulty in attracting younger people to come to Mass and truly participate in parish activities, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater has proven to be an asset to St. Patrick’s.
“I moved here in 1968 and have been at St. Patrick’s ever since,” said Kathy’s husband, Pete Bolchen. “The thing that I’ve noticed is a progression in which we are getting more young people here. You’re seeing more kids and that goes back to our staff. They want to come to church because of the Christian upbringing they can get here. Part of it is the university influence. We have a lot of young families here that are completing their education. Again, they’re attracted to the staff and what is offered here.”
The demographics in Whitewater have further changed with its growing Hispanic population.
“Part of the reason I’m here is that there is a fairly sizeable Spanish-speaking community,” said Fr. Niehaus. “They make up about a third of the parish, so it’s been very beautiful with these people of Mexican background. We have about 650 families in the parish, so on any given weekend it’s about 900 people participating in our liturgies, including about 110 university students.”
In 1837, the first Irish immigrants began to settle in the Bluff area upon which the city of Whitewater stands today. Over the next five years, Ireland was struck with a devastating hurricane and then a three-year famine. These catastrophic events spurred even more immigrants to seek a better way of life in America. As many came to the Bluff area, they naturally needed a place to worship and express their Catholic faith.
An early missionary named Rev. Thomas Morrissey said the first Mass in The Bluffs in 1845 at the home of Martin Langan. The Langan house was built of logs and was later covered with boards for warmth. Fr. Morrissey made monthly visits to The Bluffs, celebrating Mass at different homes where the early pioneers of Catholic faith met to attend services.
As this group of Catholics continued to grow, a pair of missionaries, Fr. McKernan and Fr. Kundig, began making regular stops in the Bluff area and it was Fr. Kundig who convinced landowner Harold Luddington to donate two lots to the church in 1846. In 1851, Fr. James Doyle suggested the need for a permanent church structure and six more lots were acquired and the first church was erected in 1853. Fr. Doyle was named as the first pastor and in 1857, Fr. Richard Dumphy became the first resident pastor at St. Patrick’s.
The second church building was erected in 1867 at a cost of $11,000 and was dedicated by Bishop Henni on May 19. The old church was moved and remodeled to serve as the parish’s first school. While a new rectory was built in 1926 and the church walls were remodeled along with installation of a new heating system, the congregation continue to outgrow these facilities.
On Aug. 15, 1955, Fr. Thomas Berry announced that the church was unfit for service and it was condemned. Seven and a half acres were purchased on the corner of Main and Elizabeth streets for a new church site. The cornerstone was laid in 1957 and the present church complex was dedicated June 29, 1958, in solemn services before 600 parishioners and guests. In addition to Archbishop Albert Meyer, 75 priests and nuns were in attendance. Fr. Berry offered the high Mass following the dedication.
The present St. Patrick church complex was Fr. Berry’s great legacy to Whitewater. T.C. Esser Stained Glass and Mosaic Studios in Milwaukee created the stained-glass windows and the mosaic and sanctuary appointments in the church. Particularly beautiful is the large north window incorporating within an ornamental tapestry an heroic figure of St. Patrick in imported antique glass. The same material was used in the 24 windows of the nave, eight in the sanctuary, nine in the chapel and nine in the sacristy.
“On the one hand, you have the physical structure so you have a beautiful building,” said Fr. Niehaus. “The church, the rectory and the parish offices were all built at the same time. Fr. Thomas Berry’s name ought to come up often because he’s the one who built all of these at the same time. It’s just a really warm, hospitable community and I was very well received. There’s also the aura of St. Patrick and we know who he was, not just as a historical, Irish-based (man) but also as a saint who can be an inspiration for us. St. Patrick had real pride in Ireland. He was an Englishman who was a slave in Ireland and escaped but went back to Ireland to share the good news of the Gospel.”
The structure and location of St. Patrick’s have served the church very well as it continues to build its community outreach.
“It’s interesting because we are one of the churches that aren’t on Church Street. We’re further out of town. Just the physical structure of our land where there is a lot of green grass when you come up to the church, which is set off nicely, there’s a sense that people can really come and be present. Some folks will come and picnic right on our property here and it’s a nice experience. From my work as the administrator, folks have a really strong desire to connect with Christ in the Eucharist and Christ in each other,” Fr. Niehaus added.