The backroads of Wisconsin are home to discreet villages and small family farms. The steeples of old country churches dot the landscape and act as beacons shining on a tranquil, rural lifestyle. These remote regions drew settlers in the 1800s for the same reasons people live there today. Pioneers braved the wilderness and brought fortitude and their Catholic Faith. Churches were built, towns were formed and families grew. Wisconsin’s countryside and rural Catholic parishes thrived.
Fairchild is one of the villages that followed this pattern. Irish, German, French-Canadian and Polish immigrants considered this area home in the mid-19th century. By farming the land and logging the forests, they formed a close-knit community and gave thanks for their many blessings.
In 1887, St. John Cantius Parish was formed by several Polish families, originally as a mission church of St. Joseph’s, Fairview, a nearby country parish. About 40 families were served by a traveling priest who visited once a month to celebrate Mass.
The parish flourished over the years and was the foundation for the Catholic community. Babies were baptized, marriages were sanctified and the faithful worshiped Our Lord.
But time has taken its toll on the village. Decades later, the logging industry is no longer the vibrant industry it was in the past and many family farms have disappeared. The population of this small community is now reduced to fewer than 500.
After serving the faithful for 133 years, St. John Cantius church will be transitioned to an oratory this summer. The church building will continue to serve the St. John Cantius Cemetery and provide Mass for funerals and other designated occasions.
Bob and Sandy Mayer have been lifelong residents of Fairchild. Sandy was raised in a house located across the street from the church.
Bob recalls, “I used to know everyone who lived here. Most of those people have passed on or moved away. With the steady decline in population and parish membership dwindling, I knew a couple years ago it was time to close the parish.”
With no running water in the church, Mass was held there every other weekend from mid-May to the end of October. The parish’s handful of remaining parishioners will likely join St. Joseph Parish, Fairview.
Father Dan Thelen is pastor of the tri-parishes, Immaculate Conception of Alma Center, St. Joseph, Fairview and St John Cantius.
“This opportunity provides a transition for the church building to remain standing and in use,” said Father Thelen. “Even though this won’t be a parish anymore, it allows this building to be financially solvent. Parishioners accept the change and tell me their heart says no, but their head says yes.”
Thus begins a new chapter for the Catholic faithful of the area. They’ll continue to carry on the history of their ancestors with enthusiasm and optimism.
Story by Sharon Sliwka
Published July/August 2020 Catholic Life issue