Erin — Nearly every year for more than a century, Catholics in and around this rural town have gathered at this small church on St. Patrick's Day to invoke the lessons and blessings of the patron saint of Ireland.
Many feared the tradition might die in 1999 when the church closed its doors and the congregation merged with St. Kilian in nearby Hartford. Or again last year, when the Rev. David La Plante of St. Kilian was too ill to preside at the annual Mass.
But La Plante and the faithful returned to the former St. Patrick Church again on Tuesday to celebrate the Eucharist and reflect on the missionary zeal of its fifth century namesake — at a time when all Catholics are being called to newly evangelize the faith.
"We use it as a celebration of the Irish," said La Plante, who called on worshippers to emulate St. Patrick's spirit of charity and mercy.
"But the mission is to the whole world. This mission of mercy and charity has to go out to everyone."
The annual Mass offers a prayerful alternative — or perhaps prelude — to the more raucous traditions of a holiday better known for free-flowing green beer than spiritual reflection. This year, about 200 worshippers filled the pews, many donning green attire or the woolen sweaters of the Aran Isles, with more than a few red heads in the mix.
"This is such a blessing, a miracle," said Maureen Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel, who had moved to the area years ago because of the church.
Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel, like many of the longtime members, was devastated when the church closed. And like many, she returned to revel in the memories of marriages and baptisms, and the rhythms of life in this rural church that had been the center of a community for nearly 150 years.
"There's just so much history and tradition and love for this church," she said.
'Irish in spirit'
Built in 1855 by Irish immigrants, many of whom are now buried in its cemeteries, St. Patrick's is one of the few churches in Wisconsin built in the shape of a cross, according to the nonprofit organization founded to ensure its preservation. An imposing statute of its patron saint flanks the altar in a testament to its history.
Germans and other immigrants eventually made their way to Erin and the surrounding communities over the years. The annual St. Paddy's Day Mass has come to reflect that diversity.
"We're Irish in spirit, if not in biology," Steve Tennies reminded his German father, who moved to this small town to farm in 1923 and was the last president of St. Patrick's Holy Name Society before it closed its doors.
Tennies helped prepare the music for Tuesday's Mass — from "This Day God Gives Me" sung to a Gaelic folk tune, to "St. Patrick's Breastplate" and, of course, "Oh, Danny Boy."
Tom Byrne and his sister Eileen came from Chicago. Their family has deep roots in the area. They grew up visiting their grandparents' home as children, and Tom Byrne now owns land in nearby Hustisford. They've been coming to the annual Mass on and off for 30 years.
"We just want to keep those ties and to reconnect with the people," said Tom Byrne, wearing the sash of the Ancient Order of Hibernians across his chest.
Mary Jane Gallo, whose family owns the nearby Erin Meadows Equestrian Farm, calls the annual reunion "Our Brigadoon." It's a frequent reference here to the Lerner and Loewe musical about a mythical Scottish village that reappears once every hundred years.
There is a poignant line in "Brigadoon" uttered by the lovestruck protagonist, Tommy. "Why," he asks, "do people have to lose things to find out what they really mean?"
It is a question that resonates for many in this simple space.
"Since the church closed, it's here now just one day a year," says Gallo, whose bright red hair belies her married surname — she's an O'Hare by birth.
"But," says Gallo, "we all hope the Catholic Church, in its wisdom, will reopen it some day."