During the past 150 years, parishes have sprung up, merged and disbanded in the Diocese of La Crosse, which has seen its borders change three times.
“The constant throughout time is our faith that calls us to community as one,” according to “Feed My Lambs,” a 464-page coffee table book detailing the history of the diocese in pictures, first-hand accounts and memories.
To honor that faith, the Most Rev. William Patrick Callahan, the 10th (and current) bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse, is opening sesquicentennial celebrations today at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Prairie du Chien. (St. Gabriel, now part of Holy Family Parish, is the oldest church in the diocese.)
“One hundred and 50 years cover a lot of history and so much evangelization — telling the good news,” Callahan said. “We’ve done that very well during our first 150 years, and we should all share a bit of the glory that comes with it.”
Two area priests — the Rev. John Schultz and the Very Rev. Justin Kizewski — couldn’t agree more.
Schultz, a Chippewa Falls native, was ordained on Dec. 18, 1965, at St. Peter’s Basilica, and he presided over his first Mass on July 23, 1966, at his home parish, St. Charles Catholic Church. Over the years, he’s served parishes in La Crosse, Wausau, Blair, Whitehall and Eau Claire, where he spent more than two decades at St. James the Greater Catholic Church. Today, he serves as a chaplain at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls.
“I think if there are people who, like me, have been around here awhile, they will feel a connection to this celebration,” Schultz said. “If people just moved into the diocese, attending the (sesquicentennial) celebration may give them a better sense of the church.”
Kizewski, pastor at Holy Ghost and St. Bridget parishes in Chippewa County and dean of the Chippewa Falls deanery, was ordained almost 10 years ago and has spent all of that time in the diocese.
The Chippewa Valley, especially Chippewa Falls, has a rich Catholic history, and that’s a history people should recognize and be proud of, said Kizewski, who also is looking forward to showing Callahan to some of that during his visit here in August.
In Chippewa Falls, The Church of Notre Dame has earned the nickname of “the Mother Church of the Chippewa Valley.”
Originally, the church was established in 1856, according to “Feed My Lambs.” The wooden structure later was expanded.
When the Rev. Charles Goldsmith arrived in Chippewa Falls in 1869, “he set to work organizing the building of a third, larger and more durable church.” The sandstone structure, still in use today, was dedicated on Aug. 22, 1872.
But, Goldsmith’s efforts didn’t end there.
“As the city and its environs developed through births and new settlement, Fr. Golds pastoral responsibilities were divided once again, and organized into ‘daughter parishes,’ within the city at St. Charles (1884) and Holy Ghost (1886), and in the outlying communities of Jim Falls, Edson and Eagle Point.
“It was during this time too that parish leaders joined with Fr. Goldsmtih in launching the first parochial school in the city (1881) and St. Joseph Hospital (1884). It is due to such energy and enterprise of the parish’s pioneering families and priests that Notre Dame gained the nickname of ‘the Mother Church of the Chippewa Valley.”
Ten years after The Church of Notre Dame was established, bishops assembled during the Second Plenary Council, from Oct. 7 to 21, 1866, recommended the creation of two new dioceses in Wisconsin, according to “Feed My Lambs.” The dioceses of Green Bay and La Crosse were to be formed out of the northern and western parts of the Milwaukee diocese.
Nearly two years later, Pope Pius IX confirmed the recommendation, establishing the diocese on March 3, 1868, and appointed the Rev. Michael Heiss as the first bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse.
Upon arriving in La Crosse, Heiss traveled the diocese, where he found 30,000 Catholics served by 18 priests and 40 churches scattered across 28,000 square miles, according to “Feed My Lambs.”
Today, there are more than 1.4 million Catholics in Wisconsin’s five dioceses, along with 1,821 priests and deacons and 722 parishes, according to the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.
The Diocese of La Crosse is made up of more than 150 parishes serving 19 counties in west-central Wisconsin.
Between today and Oct. 7, additional celebrations and Masses are planned in rural Cashton, Rudolph, Wisconsin Rapids, Camp Douglas, Tomah, Wausau, Mosinee, Rothschild, Marshfield, Stratford, Hewitt, Loyal, Abbotsford, Chippewa Falls, Arcadia and La Crosse.
“There is a little bit of something for everybody in this diocese,” Callahan said during a Feb. 21 interview in La Crosse.
And while the diocese has changed during the past 150 years, “the truth about Jesus Christ is still the truth about Jesus Christ, and that’s never going to change,” he said.
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