Church: Neillsville - St. Mary’s Celebration (100 Years - 1978)

Contact: Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon

Surnames: Hawkes, Henseler, Freking, Beck, Resong, Short, Gassen, Bauer, Chaltry, Ross, Sturtz, Leketas, Pritzl, Paul, Biegler, Kelly, Nelson, Brady, Puerner

----Source: Clark County Press (Neillsville, Clark Co., WI) 9/21/1978

St. Mary’s Celebration (100 Years - 1978)

It was a rough, tough area back in the mid-1800’s. A few French missionaries had worked through the area, but churches were few and far between. In the 1960’s, a catholic mission was set up at the home of Richard Hawkes with 50 members. Humbird, at that time, had the only Catholic Church in the county.

Soon, Catholics in Neillsville believed that their community could support a parish of its own and in 1978, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was founded.

This Sunday, September 24, St. Mary’s parish is celebrating its 100th birthday. To mark the event, two bishops will be in attendance, along with numerous priests and nuns who have resided at St. Mary’s, joining the parishioners in a special celebration mass and dinner.

It portends to be one of the largest events in the Neillsville community in decades. Father Joseph Henseler stated that besides the special mass, complete with various types of music, the friends, neighbors and parish members of St. Mary’s may participate in two afternoon banquets. (Two banquets, each held simultaneously at the Bali-Hai, Wildcat Inn, and the church dining hall, will be held due to the large, expected crowd.)

Local Impact

In a history of the parish prepared for the centennial, it is believed that St. Mary’s Church may have had an impact on the community far more than spiritual.

The original St. Mary’s Church was destroyed in a violent electrical storm in 1923, burning the church to the ground, and seriously damaging the rectory. Volunteer firemen arriving on the scene hooked their hoses to nearby hydrants and found that there was not enough water pressure to fight the blaze/ From that unlucky incident, ferment rose in the community and soon the city’s water system was completely updated so that fire emergencies could be handled safely and efficiently.

Soon after the destruction of the church, congregation members agreed to build again, and the present St. Mary’s Church was created. $50,000 was earmarked for the project.

The church also had an impact on the community when it came to education. In 1887, a parochial school was established, operating under the School Sisters of Notre Dame, until it closed in 1968.

Numerous generations have passed through the parish. As of September 1, 3,227 children and adults were baptized under the arched roof of the church. And weddings also took place, a total of 810 over the 100 years. The church has also served as a stop on the way to the final resting place for 1,068.

Coupled with the maturity of the parish has been economic growth, in 1935, 180 parishioners contributed regularly to a sum of $5,060.91. In 1977, 486 were counted among those as regular givers and the income for the church stood at over $90,250.

Special Services

The centennial celebration will begin with a 90-minute pontifical high mass at noon, to be offered by the Most Rev. Frederick Freking, Bishop of the La Crosse Diocese.

Music for the occasion was specially selected for the service and will range from traditional Latin Gregorian chants to a rendition of “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In.” St. Mary’s Choir, under the direction of Dr. Guy Beck, will join organists Ron Resong, Mrs. Glenn Short and Virginia Gassen. Also participating will be Susan Bauer, Lisa Chaltry and Connie Ross, offering guitar and vocal music, and Howie Sturtz offering trumpet selections.

The Rev. Peter Leketas, who served the parish from 1952-1957, will give the centennial sermon and serve as deacon for the mass. Sub-deacon will be Father John Pritzl, who served the church from 1946 to 1952.

Guests of honor will include both La Crosse diocesan bishops, the Most Revs. Frederick Freking and John Paul.

Expected to join in the celebration are the six remaining former parish priests, Joseph Biegler, 1938-1946; Pritzl, 1946-1952; Leketas, 1952-1957; Bernard Kelly, 1961-1966; George Nelson, 1966-1970; and Charles Brady, 1970-1974. All former sisters who taught in St. Mary’s first and second school are also expected to attend, including three who taught at the school prior to 1923.

Local clergy of the Neillsville Ministerial Association will also take part as will Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus from Clark County. Also attending will be the Rev. John Puerner, St. Bernard’s and St. Helwig’s Churches, Thorp, who is dean of the area deanery and will be with priests from all Catholic parishes in Clark and Jackson Counties.

Special Activities

A banquet will be served at 2:30 and 4:00 p.m. to accommodate the large crowd expected.

Parishioners, relatives and friends will go to either the Bali Hai Supper Club, Wildcat Inn or the church dining hall for the 2:30 banquet and to the Wildcat or church for the later banquet.

Father Henseler stressed that reservations are required for the banquets.

An open parish dance is slated for the Silker Dome Ballroom from 9:00 p.m. to midnight, featuring the Howie Sturtz Orchestra. The event is also open to the public with tickets on sale at the door.



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