Wednesday, September 19, 2018

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Fire, fury and fulfillment: Churches in La Crosse Diocese have colorful history

Churches in 19-county diocese comewith diverse, interesting histories

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    “Feed My Lambs,” a coffee table book three years in the making by the Diocese of La Crosse, includes histories of the more than 160 churches in the diocese, along with photos like these from page 298. Members of the Ku Klux Klan hate group used to march up Main Street in Cornell in their hoods and torches when the Catholic priest came to town.

    “Feed My Lambs”

Picking up a copy of “Feed My Lambs,” a coffee table book celebrating the Diocese of La Crosse’s sesquicentennial, one might expect to see photos of men in robes.

However, as I was reading about the histories of the 163 churches in the diocese, I got a surprise on page 298. The men in robes weren’t priests — they were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Having grown up in the Chippewa Valley, I knew the hate organization had made its way here back in the 1920s, but I wasn’t expecting to see a reference to the Klan in a book about diocesan history.

But that wasn’t the only interesting story I found among the church histories in the 464-page book about the diocese’s history from 1868 to 2018.

The good, the bad

• The bell for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Keyesville in Richland County was donated by Margaret Adams with money she made while running a restaurant in San Francisco.

“At the end of the day, she would sweep the dirty floor saving the dirt,” according to the church history in “Feed My Lambs.” “She would then separate the gold dust left by miners from the dirt. Margaret sold the gold dust and bought a bell, inscribed with her name, for the church.”

• Fire damaged and destroyed a number of the churches in the diocese, but Sacred Heart Parish in Polonia in Portage County experienced five.

On May 4, 1875, a newly built convent was destroyed by fire. Spread by wind, the blaze also claimed the church.

In 1914, an orphanage for homeless boys, the former convent, burned to the ground, and that same year fire destroyed the church rectory.

In 1934, lightning struck the church, and the building was obliterated by fire. But, by Christmas of that year, construction of the current church was finished.

• The Rev. Philip Wagner was assigned to St. Philomena’s Church in Rudolph in 1917. Because the original buildings were beyond repair, land was purchased for a new church in 1919, according to “Feed My Lambs.”

Wagner later began building the Grotto Shrine, receiving help from Edmund Rybicki and other parishioners.

The grotto, in Wood County, was built to fulfill a promise made by Wagner while studying for the priesthood, according to His health failing, Wagner visited Our Lady’s Shrine in Lourdes, France, and promised Mary that, if his health were to be restored allowing him to be ordained, he would build a shrine in her honor some day.

Wagner died on Nov. 1, 1959, and in 1961, the church was rededicated and given the name of St. Philip the Apostle.

• St. Francis Xavier Church in Knowlton in Marathon County was formally chartered in 1875. Sixty-seven years later, a dam built on the Wisconsin River created the Lake DuBay reservoir, requiring the church foundation be raised eight feet and resulting in the church being located on an island.

In 1948, a fire destroyed the church, but it was rebuilt and dedicated on Oct. 2, 1949.

Fiery crosses

I haven’t read all of the church histories yet, but of the ones I have perused, the story about Holy Cross in Cornell — the northern most parish in the 19-county diocese — is the one that has stuck with me the most.

The first church, according to “Feed My Lambs,” was built in 1916, and the priest came to Cornell once a month to say Mass.

“During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was formed in the area, and by 1924, they were very active in Cornell, marching up Main (Street) with their hoods and torches when the priest came to town. There was a wooded area at the end of Main (Street) and here the Klan would burn a cross.”

(The KKK was resurrected in 1915 and grew slowly until the end of World War I, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. Postwar fears of radicalism and disloyalty led Klan members to organize and call themselves defenders of Americanism. Klansmen were openly hostile toward Catholics, Jews, African Americans, immigrants, freethinkers and radicals.)

During one of those “fiery episodes,” the priest — the Rev. Peter Minwegen — went to Eau Claire to find out who owned the land.

“The option had expired one week earlier, so he put down $50 of parish money, and the 10 acres at the end of Main (Street) now belonged to Holy Cross,” giving the “black-robed devil,” as one of the Klansmen called Minwegen, the upper hand. Eventually, Holy Cross Catholic Church was built on the land.

Contact: 715-830-5838,, @CTOBrien on Twitter

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