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A brief history of St Patricks




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Archdiocese can take the church,
but not the spirit.

By Mike Nichols
the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Published Wednesday, July 21, 1999
in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Erin-- Gone are the days when the parish sign in front of old St. Patrick's Church here announced Mass schedules and confessions, or told passers-by the name of the local priest whose door could be knocked upon in times of need.

Instead, on a brilliant summer Tuesday that would make the most inveterate agnostic raise upward an eye, there was taped over the glass in large and determined script a different sort of pronouncement.

"They can take our money and they can take our signs, but we will keep on praying and we will survive. Only 959 days until St. Pat's reopens!"

It was a message of faith and hope-- and defiance -- rather than fact. The archdiocese last month merged this small but vibrant 144-year-old country parish with St. Kilian Catholic Church in Hartford, and there is no reason to believe Archbishop Rembert Weakland -- whose retirement happens to be, according to folks here, somewhere around 959 days off -- will change his mind.

You cannot have a parish, says the archdiocese, without a priest.

And yet how else to describe what remains here

St. Patrlck's is a simple church all of white, little embellished from the outside or adorned, but for the stained glass windows that line its nave. It is a church that ministered mostly to Catholics, but even a local Lutheran minister says losing St. Patrick's is like losing the center of a community.

Erin is stunning, with its rolling hills of green and narrow, tortuous roads. But it is a town, not a city, and it has no real community focal point other than this one. Some here would like to build a new town center for the future; others would like to start by saving the old town center of the past. In the meantime, St. Patrick's will remain a chapel for use only on special occasions.

Some parishioners have dispersed to other parishes. But every Tuesday, dozens of others have been meeting-- first in the church itself until they were no longer allowed a key, and now in the Town Hall--to discuss how they might persevere. Most would dearly like permission to find a part-time or retired priest who could say a single weekend Mass.

"They are angry," said Maureen Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel, who built her home on nearby St. Patrick's Circle because of its proximity to St. Pat's. "They cannot understand why they cannot have one Mass (per week) at this church."

It is not, suggests the archdiocese's communications director, Jerry Topczewski, quite so simple.

"There is more to a vibrant Catholic community than a Mass on Sunday," he says.

Parishioners are undeterred, and bewilderment has metamorphosed into anger in some quarters as the archdiocese moves to take over -- in archdiocesan words "protect'' -- what remains of church funds.

"The last words I had with the archbishop were they were a bunch of robbers and thieves, and we left it at that," said Frank Weber, a St. Patrick's trustees whose name was, without his acquiescence, recently removed from parish bank accounts. "He was very disappointed and said so, and I said I did not care."

Weber's roots run deep. His parents were married at St. Patrick's 55 years ago, and he himself, one of nine, was baptized there in 1946--- on St. Patrick's Day no less. His own kids have, in turn, all received their sacraments there, and one day at least some of his family will probably rest in St. Patrick's cemetery across the street.

There is no talk here of what prompts salvation. Nor is there much discussion of why, last year, there was only one priest--an unmarried male need it be mentioned? -- ordained in the entire archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Instead, it is to the people who grew up here, spiritually and otherwise, plus those who have lately joined them, simply a matter of surprise, if not exactly disbelief, that what was built here with their own sweat and fervent prayers suddenly, for reasons well beyond them, seems to belong to somebody else.

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