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St. Patrick's Parish makes 'Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties' list
By GAY GRIESBACH - Daily News Staff
    March 30, 2000

TOWN OF ERIN - An independent advocacy group has named St. Patrick’s Parish, a rural Catholic church in the middle of contentious debate, as one of Wisconsin’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties.

Built in 1857, St. Patrick’s was chosen for the Endangered Property List because it served as a community focal point for the town of Erin, said Michael Hamer, executive vice president for the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation. Another religious building, St. Joseph’s Church in Marinette, was placed on the group’s Preservation Watch List.

Nancy Henke reviews numerous 
old photographs and historical
information she has gathered
regarding St.Patrick's Church
on Hwy 83 in Hartford. Henke and
other parish members are
fighting to save the church which,
thanks to their efforts, has recently
been named to the Wisconsin Trust
for Historic Preservation's 10 most endangered historic properties list

St. Patrick has been surrounded by bitter feelings since the Archdiocese of Milwaukee closed it in June 1999 and consolidated the parish with St. Kilian in Hartford.

“If a church feels the need to consolidate and can’t cope with two or three churches, we’re not here to tell them how to run their business,” he said. “Our concern is that the property be saved.”

Although the first preference of Hamer’s organization is to have the facility saved as a church, he said buildings can perform other services to the community.

“The question then becomes what will the church allow the property to be used for. It is normally happy if (the structure) can be used for a youth center or day care,” he said.

The announcement is welcome news to the Save St. Patrick Parish organization, which has been rallying to preserve the church building since it was closed following the consolidation.

“We are thrilled,” said Maureen Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel, group spokeswoman. “Hats off to their organization,” she added, referring to the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation.

However, the Archdiocese contends the designation is a misstatement, as the church building is not in jeopardy of being sold or demolished, said Jerry Topczewski, spokesman for the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

“We have no intention of selling or doing anything to the St. Patrick’s property other than maintaining the building and the cemetery and using it as a chapel of St. Kilian,” he said.

Churches, in general, are a priority for the organization, Hamer said. St. Patrick and St. Joseph’s churches were picked because they are “of the greatest significance,” he added.

“(The Wisconsin Trust’s) focus is preservation,” said Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel. “They look at any option as long as the building is not demolished. We are looking at any option so we can get inside our church building.”

Topczewski contends that the building can be - and has been - used for funerals, weddings and special services.

“We don’t want to get into a fight with the parish,” said Hamer. “It can get awkward when it comes to who is buying and preserving it. The business of ownership and control makes it difficult to do the things everyone knows should be done.”

Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel said the church is not actively seeking a buyer at this time. In order to dissolve the church corporation, a board consisting of the archbishop, bishop, pastor and two church trustees are needed to sign off on the sale - which St. Patrick’s representatives will not do, she said.

The group would consider buying the church “but our ultimate goal is to become a parish once again. Buying the church will not solve the problem.”

Topczewski said the archdiocese is committed to preserving the building but not to re-establishing St. Patrick as an independent parish.

“A fund has been established to maintain the church building and cemetery perpetually,” he said. “That should be a clear message to reasonable people that we are not looking to do anything to the St. Patrick building.”

Hamer said many rural churches are threatened.

“Often they were one of the first landmarks built and were the center of the community,” said Hamer.

“We try to draw public attention to the situation so it becomes more visible and people become more aware of the issue. Sometimes people get together and the building can be saved.”

Hamer said the WTHP did a survey a few years ago and found public attention gained by the endangered list saved structures about half the time.

“(The list) has a real impact - people get excited,” he said.

The St. Patrick’s group submitted information to the WTHP in an effort to keep the church from being sold or torn down.

That information came from Erin resident Nancy Henke. Henke is documenting a history of the church, collecting photos and reminiscences. Her husband, Evarist, made a replica of St. Patrick’s that was used for the recent Erin St. Patrick’s parade.

She was pleased the church made it to the endangered list.

“My history is here. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were parishioners at St. Patrick’s.”

Hamer said the WTHP tries to pick properties where there are indications the structure will be demolished or will collapse from neglect. The condition of St. Patrick’s is listed as good because of recent updates after soot damage caused by a furnace malfunction, but a brief description of the property provided by the WTHP states the main threats to the facility are disuse and the possibility of development.

Hamer said WTHP campaigns have proved successful in preserving and revitalizing historic structures about half the time.

The WTHP is a Madison-based group with more than 1,300 members throughout the state.

The preservation trust will have two displays with photographs and commentary touring libraries and local historical societies in the state until fall. This is the ninth year that the group has designated endangered historic properties. The endangered structures were announced at the March 23 Preservation Day ceremony at the Capitol in Madison.

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