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Ladies Altar Society keeps
142-year tradition alive
Erin group remained intact despite closure of St. Pat's church 1 year ago


By BRENDA KLETTKE - Daily News Staff

 June 9, 2000

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Members of the St. Patrick's Ladies Altar Society gather for a photo in the parish house. Since the church was closed one year ago, meetings have been moved to the Erin Town Hall.


New organizations seldom outlast the institutions they were created to support. The St. Patrickís Church Ladies Altar Society in the town of Erin is a definite exception.

Though the church was closed one year ago by the Milwaukee Archdiocese, the Ladies Altar Society remains intact.

According to Nancy Henke, a member since 1969, the St. Patrickís Altar Society was established June 1, 1858 by Rev. T. A. Munich. The groupís original purpose was to clean the church monthly, including floor waxing at Easter and Christmas.

Dorothy Beine, current president of the society, commented that such responsibilities, and others, like making altar cloths, went by the wayside even before St. Patrickís closed, when the church hired someone to oversee those tasks. She says she remembers being told that the cleaning was "a happy affair, about friendship more than cleaning."

That theme - friendship - seems to be the common thread at the heart of the societyís longevity. Henke, who in the past has held a number of terms as society president, considers the organization a way to be social. She was brought up, she said, to believe that people should focus social energy in support of school and church rather than on other types of activities. She added that, despite age differences among members, the group has always been made up of a "nice bunch of ladies that all get along well."

Henke comes by her association with the Ladies Altar Society honestly. Her mother, Erna Collins, in addition to serving as organist for St. Patrickís for more than 30 years, was also a member of the group. With such a history, itís not surprising that Henke takes it upon herself to call new parishioners and personally invite them to join the organization.

She is not the only member with a family connection to the society. Pauline Kenealy, current treasurer and a member since 1958, credits the influence of her mother-in-law, Lillian Kenealy, as a motivating force for her own involvement. Lillian became a member in the 1920s, according to Pauline. After the younger Kenealyís own marriage, she says joining the group seemed a good way to take an active part in her new church community.

For Pauline, belonging to the Ladies Altar Society these days is about "keeping the bond together." After sitting in the same bench at St. Patrickís for 42 years, she said she hopes the church will be reopen and would like the society to continue along as it always has. The camaraderie of being part of the group and the spiritual aspect of joining together in support of a common faith are what she enjoys most about the organization.

Of her involvement, Beine said the most enjoyable part of membership has been the friendships developed over the years. In recognition of members' commitment, Beine herself obtained for each member a commemorative pin decorated with the words "Christian Mothers" and a picture of the Blessed Virgin. Intended for special occasions, the pins were worn when society members served as honor guard at the funerals of members who had passed away.

"I want the group to be about the people," Beine said.

Each of these ladies has committed her time, at least once a month, to the Ladies Altar Society. Meetings are scheduled for the second Wednesday of each month, from September to May. According to Henke, though the group has tried holding evening meetings, many of the current members prefer to meet in the afternoon.

Whenever they take place, the gatherings offer a variety of activities. Meetings traditionally begin with a formal reading of the minutes and the treasurerís report, Kenealy said. Afterward, the ladies might listen to a presentation from a speaker, watch an informational film or play games, complete with prizes. Before adjourning, the women enjoy coffee and dessert, contributed by members on a rotating basis.

Historical information on the Ladies Altar Society lists a number of places that have served the group. Sites have included the Tally Ho, the parish house, membersí homes, the meeting room in the church basement and, beginning in 1981, the hall attached to the parish house. Since the merger with St. Kilianís a year ago, the ladies hold meetings at the Erin Town Hall.

Despite so many changes, the St. Patrickís Ladies Altar Society goes on. No longer the cleaners and caretakers of the church, formal messengers of sympathy or congratulations nor contributors to parish luncheons, the women cling tightly to something that has managed to resist the flow of change.

The bond of friendship, the strength at the core of this group, has allowed them to preserve some of what they found so appealing in the first place.