After John baptized Christ, he told his disciples to follow Jesus. St. John the Baptist Church in Egg Harbor has been blessed with many priests and parishioners who have followed and continue to follow Jesus. The sacrament of Baptism is our first step in following Jesus. To quote the United States Catholic Catechism:
"Jesus’ immersion in the water is a sign for all human beings of the need to die to themselves to do God’s will. Jesus did not need to be baptized because he was totally faithful to the will of his Father and free from sin. However, he wanted to show his solidarity with human beings in order to reconcile them to the Father. By commanding his disciples to baptize all nations, he established the means by which people would die to sin--Original and actual--and begin to live a new life with God." It is not only at St. John the Baptist Church, but at all the Stella Maris sites that each and every time we worship we are called to "begin to live a new life with God."
Living a new life with God was the driving force that influenced many Catholics to settle in the Midwest portion of the United States. The country had a growing world reputation for democratic ideals and work opportunity during mid-1800. In 1850 Catholics made up only five percent of the total U.S. population, but by 1906 seventeen percent of the total population (14 million out of 82 million people) were Catholics. In 1906, Catholicism constituted the single largest religious denomination in the country. The immigrants held onto their Catholic roots for spiritual comfort and group identity. The neighborhood Catholic Church was not just a church; it was the focal point of a whole community, a whole way of life. It is recorded that in 1857 the first two Catholic families of Thomas (Blackjack) and William (Redjack) Carmody set down roots in a location three miles south of the Egg Harbor village which became known as "Carmody Settlement" (later known as Sunny Point Settlement). These two families with a total of fifteen children, some of whom were born in Ireland, some in Ohio, and some in Egg Harbor, proved to be the first step in establishing St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. These pioneers wanted to be able to have Mass, receive the Sacraments, and have their children educated in the tenets of their faith. In 1865 French Canadian families started to arrive in the area. Among the first to come were Levi Baraboo, Peter Parent, Jerry LaMere, the Monicas and the Vertzes. In 1868 Father Burnett from Menominee, Michigan began visiting the families in the Carmody Settlement. He continued in this work for about six years when the Rev. J. J. Rhode, who was pastor at Ahnapee, Wisconsin, began visiting the area. Father Rhode came for a short time from about January, 1875 to August, 1875. Father Engelbert Blume began coming in August.
The Egg Harbor congregation was organized in 1876 by Rev. E. Blume of Sturgeon Bay. Land was donated on July 1, 1876 by William and Margaret Carmody. Finally, in 1878, through the efforts of many local families and Father Blume a small log church named St. John of the Desert (it was not until December 6, 1908, that the parish name became the congregation of St. John the Baptist) was constructed two miles South of Egg Harbor on the northeast corner of what is now the cemetery.
The Egg Harbor area continued to receive more French Canadian families: Charles LaRouche, Eugene Gagnon, Peter DeFere, and the Eugene Cordier families came in 1884. And it was in 1884 that Rev. G. J. Pellegrin succeeded Father Blume. Father Pellegrin was followed by Father J. O’Loughlin in 1886. Then Father J.J. Fox is noted as being pastor for a short time. But in 1888, with the arrival of Rev. Hugenroth, it was determined that the little log church no longer met the needs of the growing population (within a span of forty years, 1857-1897, the Catholic community grew from two to fifty-nine families, mostly of French and Irish descent).
A new wooden frame church was built in 1899 across the road from the little log church. The timber for this church came from Plum Bottom owned by Leathem Smith. Some of the parishioners donated a great deal of labor, notably John Carmody and Eugene Cordier. The Cordier family whose home was near the church graciously hosted visiting priests.
Church details consist of a choir loft filled with French and Irish voices and the music of organist Esther Carmody Cassidy. The interior of the church held plastered walls and brown painted floors and pews. All proved to be quite an improvement over the first log church.
The following items from the "Door County Advocate" tell the story: August 17, 1888 - "Work has commenced on the new Catholic Church. The structure is to be 30’ x 40’ and is to be completed as early as possible." November 2, 1888 - "The new Catholic Church is rapidly nearing completion, the plasterers now being engaged in finishing the exterior. The edifice is not only an ornament to the town, but to the whole County as well. Great credit is due to Rev. B. Hugenroth, the pastor, who conceived and carried the project through successfully." December 11, 1888 - "The raffle for the benefit of the new Catholic Church held at the town hall on the evening of the 21st (of November) brought the neat sum of about $150 into the treasury. This includes everything, however. James Nugent, Jacksonport, held the lucky number that drew the handsome gold watch. It was No. 19. A gold cane was also raffled, No. 227 taking the prize. This was held by Alphonse Cote. Services will be held in the new church on Monday, December 9. The congregation is indebted to Jas. Nugent and J. C. Krock, the carpenters, who performed their duties so acceptably and with so much fidelity. Although they received only $300 for the work, everything was done in a conscientious and workmanship like manner."
With Parish life being the focal point for many social activities during the early 1900’s, one important activity occurred at the Charles LaRouche home. The choir met there for practice with the dedicated Carmodys and Reslers walking miles to be there. Two violinists, Tom Cassidy and Grace Carmody, along with organist, Laura LaRouche, volunteered their talents to make Sunday worship of our Lord as beautiful as possible. It is nice to know that this type of dedication continues today!
Fourth of July Picnic in connection with the parade was the big fundraising project for the church during the early 1900’s. On the menu was chicken pie and biscuits with a real treat for dessert - homemade ice cream! Fundraising is an ongoing necessary church activity...St. John the Baptist Church was no exception.
As the village of Egg Harbor grew, there was a movement to build a church in the Village. A controversy had arisen between the Irish and French families about the location of the church. Finally land was deeded to the congregation on January 9, 1901, by Charles and Delia LaRouche and the present site was accepted as the location for the new church, and Father Nolin, O.M.I., the pastor of Baileys Harbor, set about to build a new church.
In 1909 after the building had a foundation and a rough floor in place a corner stone laying ceremony officially started the building project. It was an ecumenical ceremony with anyone who placed coins in a box being allowed to pound on the cornerstone. The highlight of the ceremony was a High Mass in the open with the choir and organist Lily Gagnon providing the music.
Finally, on October 5, 1910 the dedication of St. John the Baptist Church took place (only the bell tower structure needed completion which did occur the following year). At the dedication people from all over the peninsula came to celebrate with the parishioners of St. John’s. Bishop Fox of the Green Bay Diocese who was present for the dedication praised the people and their pastor for their wonderful achievement in erecting a splendid building which combined in a remarkable degree both beauty and solidity. The solidity of this church is evident because on October 24, 2010 the 100th Dedication Anniversary Celebration of this church took place with presiders, Bishop Ricken and St. John the Baptist-Stella Maris Parish pastor, Father David Ruby.
It is interesting to note the original cost of this beautiful church was approximately $2,000, excluding the altar and the pews, which were built by Charles LaRouche. Some of the cost details follow: door and window frames $30.00, doors and windows $66.00, maple flooring of 3,000 square feet $90.00, mason work of 104 cord stones $300.00. The stone was quarried locally. The beautiful pink and gray granite stones on the outside of the building are sometimes referred to as "hard heads" and are believed to have come from the fields of local farmers.
The church basement, when the new church was built, was left unfinished so the ladies of the parish took it in hand to improve conditions. For many years Phoebe Carmody was president of the ladies organization and was ably assisted by Mrs. Roman Mazur and her crew Annie Baraboo and Mother (Mrs. Joe) Haen. The wood cook stove that they used required constant stoking.
By 1918 it seemed that it was time that the parish has a resident pastor. Father Berneche supervised the building of a rectory (the present building). The same design of the church outside walls mirrored the rectory. Father Berneche was pastor until 1922. During the 1920’s Door County moved from fishing and farming livelihoods to catering tourists in a vacation land. The scenic area that had drawn the Scandinavian people because of the similarity to their homeland began to attract all nationalities, and many of these families began to live in the area all during the summer time.
The Great Depression brought tough times for our entire nation, but no matter how severe the hardship parishioners of St. John the Baptist Church persevered in paying off debts and doing the needed renovations. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Fr. Barrette paid off the rectory debt despite bad times, and repairs continued to be accomplished when Father Fortier came in 1933. In the 1940’s Father Tardif ordered a new roof on the rectory as well as redecorating the church. Much work was done by Father Savard (1952-1961) with a new heating system installation, blacktopped parking lot, and he did much work with the CYO. During the 1960’s, Father Beausoleil renovated the altar and sanctuary. The Holy Name and Altar Societies aided these improvements with many fund raising activities such as chicken dinners, bazaars, and card parties.
In 1964 the shrine in honor of the Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Grace was donated by Felix and Julia Milfeld of DeSoto, summer visitors of Egg Harbor for many years. This shrine not only honors Our Lady, the Mother of God, but gratitude to the Oblate Fathers who served the parish for many years. The general design of the shrine was conceived by the Milfelds while Fr. Beausoleil worked out the details. The shrine is situated between the church and rectory. It can be seen from the highway that passes in front of the church property. The statue of the white Carrera marble stands four feet tall on a pedestal of cut stone seven feet high. On both sides of the pedestal, and slightly lower, a wall extends five feet. Below the ends of these walls two flower beds three feet wide extend about six feet. A stone kneeler ten feet wide unites the extremities of the flower beds. Inserted into the side walls are two plaques of reddish granite which are inscribed the two parts of the Hail Mary. A small plaque of the same granite inserted on the front of the pedestal reads, "I am the Immaculate Conception" and "Our Lady of Grace pray for us."
The year 1968 brought a complete renovation of the church rectory under the guidance of Father Clarence Meile. Father Frank Ryan supervised church renovation in accordance with Vatican II in 1972. Then in 1975 Father Vincent Ott, assisted by Father John Louis, completed work on the church hall and kitchen. During the latter 1970’s, in preparation for the centennial celebration of St. John the Baptist Church’s establishment (1876-1976), the interior of the church sanctuary underwent another update with a contemporary design with strips of narrow wood accenting the altar wall. This interior again changed when Father Matt Simonar became pastor in 2000.) Under the leadership of Father Stoeckel, who came to St. John’s in 1976, many of the directives of Vatican II were put into practice, such as men and women lectors, men and women Eucharistic ministers, greeters, bible classes, and updating music.
Music plays an important part in the church liturgy. Father Berneche (1913) was a good musician who composed music and played the violin. He had Laura and Leda LaRouche as organists. Father Fortier (1922) organized a three part choir with Avila Bauldry as organist. Mrs. Bauldry taught organ and piano for many years with future organists of the parish among her pupils. The choir prepared a solemn high mass to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the church building on September 20, 1934 with Mrs. Leo (Vera) Carmody as director and organist. While Father Tardiff (1942) was here the pump organ era came to an end with the donation of an electronic organ by Mrs. Agnes Ryan, a summer resident at Fish Creek. During Father Savard’s pastorate (1951) a junior choir, organized by Jeanne Chase, sang frequently at mass. Jeanne Chase along with Millie Lemere and Carl Dahlen shared their musical talents as organists for many years. Brother Andrew of the Sacred Heart Fathers directed the children’s choir while Father Beausoleil (1960) shepherded St. John’s. Father Labrie (1965) was choir master for the first three-part English High Mass. After Vatican II, the list of parishioners who continued to serve in the choir, as canters, organists, and choir directors is too long to list them all in this history, but many continue to make a joyful noise to the Lord and all who worship at St. John the Baptist Church-Stella Maris Parish are grateful to them for their uplifting music at mass.
Teaching catechism has also changed dramatically over the years. It has gone from Father Barrette (1922) teaching class in the rectory, followed by the priest teaching weekly catechism in various parishioners’ homes, and then The Franciscan Sisters from Bay Settlement (1940’s) conducting summer sessions at the village school, during the 1960’s the brothers from the Sacred Heart congregation taught catechism every Saturday morning in the church hall, to the present in which lay people are responsible for the teaching of catechism. Oftentimes a catechism lesson will involve the life of this church’s namesake, St. John the Baptist.
All four gospels introduce John as being present at the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. Other references to John suggest that his ministry of calling people to repentance was well received, and as a result of this ministry, suggest that John "prepared the way" for the ministry of Jesus. Today at St. John the Baptist Church in Egg Harbor and all the other Stella Maris Parish sites we pray with John the Baptist, not as the popular baptizer or the prophet who drew great crowds, but rather John the man, struggling with the Word of God as he understood it. Imagine what it must have been like for him to arrive at the decision that "he must increase and I must decrease," as he became more and more aware of his role in God’s plan. It is never easy to change and it is not always easy to accept God’s will, so this, too, is a prayer for all who worship at Stella Maris Parish.