Your Parish

A footprint along the river

The history of parishes in Prairie du Chien dates back to the French and British colonists who were the first Europeans to settle there.
These settlers battled nature and the untamed territory years before Wisconsin was granted statehood. They were determined to not only practice their faith, but build a foundation of worship for generations to come.

Here the beginning stages of the new gymnasium for Prairie Catholic School begin to take shape. Other improvements also included a new roof and windows.
1. The St. John Nepomucene Church stands complete with the completion of the new Fellowship Hall.
2. Parishioners gather inside the new community Fellowship Hall, which allows for a larger gathering space for bigger events.
3. The new gym is just one example of the parish’s continued commitment to give back to the community in Prairie du Chien.

That foundation has held firm. Many current-day parishioners are ancestors of settlers who founded the parish they attend today. A deep-rooted example of this is St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Prairie du Chien. Not only is St. Gabriel’s the oldest operating church in Wisconsin, but also a testament to the determination of its forefathers and the will of their ancestors to pass on the Catholic faith.

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The St. John Nepomucene Church stands complete with the completion of the new Fellowship Hall.

Before the church cornerstone was laid in 1839 and the parish rededicated to St. Gabriel the archangel, Jesuit priests ministered to the Catholic congregation in Prairie du Chien beginning in 1817. Catholic education began in 1866, with the School Sisters of Notre Dame establishing a 120-year presence within the parish in 1872.

As the years passed, growth along the Mississippi River led to an increase in population. And, with growth came change.

In 1891, St. John Nepomucene Parish was founded to provide a more effective ministry for the Bohemian population in the area. St John’s built a church, followed by a convent and school to better serve the faithful. Prairie du Chien now had two parishes located within two miles of each other for the Catholic community to worship at.

“One of the instrumental aspects of coming together was that we weren’t going to close a place of worship for the community. We would be one parish with two vibrant churches.”

Throughout the years, both parishes thrived. Congregations grew, Catholic education was alive and the entire community benefited. Additions and improvements, including building a new school and rectory at each location, increased the Catholic footprint within the community. Irish, German, French Canadian and Bohemian descendants carried on the faith of their ancestors.

Though the long history of each parish is remarkable in itself, their ability to overcome challenges throughout the past two decades and how they joined together as Catholics is incredible. Their faith and determination are examples of working together to accept change for the benefit of a parish, community and future generations.

In 1992, 152 years after the first Catholic parish was formed in Prairie du Chien, the reality of smaller families and decreasing school enrollment set in. This set the stage for a very progressive transformation that would take place over the next 25 years. Though initially hesitant, both parishes embraced the changes that would carry them into the future.

The consolidation of St. John’s and St. Gabriel’s schools in 1992 to form Prairie Catholic School was the first step in the transformation process.

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Parishioners gather inside the new community Fellowship Hall, which allows for a larger gathering space for bigger events.

Then, in 2012, the two parishes combined to form Holy Family Parish. Father James Weighner explained the importance of the consolidation:
“One of the instrumental aspects of coming together was that we weren’t going to close a place of worship for the community. We would be one parish with two vibrant churches.”

A capital campaign was launched by the newly formed parish to build a year-round day care center and parish offices at St. Gabriel’s. A new gymnasium and other improvements for Prairie Catholic School were also planned, including a new roof and windows. A new community Fellowship Hall would be constructed adjoining St. John’s Church. Many other items were included in the building contract. The interiors of both churches were painted and areas that had been neglected were repaired.

“Both of these sites will be used to serve the entire community. By doing projects at each location, we’re hopefully building confidence in the community that we’re not going to lose a worship site,” Father Weighner exclaimed.

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The new gym is just one example of the parish’s continued commitment to give back to the community in Prairie du Chien.

Mary Novey is on the Parish Council and was a Catholic school teacher for 29 years and principal for four years. “Over time, parents’ expectations as to what a school can offer change. Parents expect a nice building and quality facilities. Otherwise, you have a very hard time recruiting. I think this will make a statement to the community that we are serious about our school. We have a lovely facility and hopefully we can build on our enrollment. It shows that we are committed to Catholic education.”

Tom Farrell is a member of the parish Finance Committee and is actively involved in the capital campaign. He agrees with the need for a Fellowship Hall and kitchen. For years, all large events were held in the basement of St. John’s Church, which wasn’t handicap accessible. The new Fellowship Hall was completed in February 2016. Farrell agrees it’s refreshing to see all people now able to attend parish events.

Construction and renovations are nearing completion, but pledges toward the capital campaign continue. “Even though we met our $2.5 million goal, there are two more years left on the five-year pledges,” commented Farrell. “We had a lot of tradesmen in the parish volunteer their time and talent. That’s what enabled us to get a lot of bang for our buck.”

What the parish represents to the Prairie du Chien community speaks for itself. They received the best material and construction prices from local businesses. The local hospital built a new facility and decided to tear down the old facility, which was in great condition. The parish was invited to take what they needed from the old hospital for the school renovations. They secured significant savings by getting doors, windows, bath and light fixtures, along with many other items from the hospital’s generous donation.

Everyone agrees it’s not just the pledges and donations that made everything happen. Credit goes to the parishioners and the community. Everyone is more than willing to help. Because of parishioners and their neighbors, Holy Family Parish and Prairie Catholic School will have a lasting footprint in the community.

By Sharon Sliwka

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