Celebrating our Catholic faith at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Jacksonport has been going on for many years. St. Michael the Archangel’s feast day is September 29th, and this date has been a time of great celebration (also known as Michaelmas) in Europe for centuries. Is it any wonder that the people of Jacksonport chose St. Michael to be their church’s namesake? Festivals abound in Door County: Fall Fest in Sister Bay, Old Ellison Bay Days, Ephraim’s Fyr Ball, and the Fish Creek Winter Carnival. And then there is the festival that occurs in Jacksonport for Door County’s main agricultural resource cherries named appropriately “Cherry Fest.” Also, the Irish consider September 29th to be a lucky day for fishing. It is probably true in Jacksonport as well!
In continuing research on the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, from The Lives of Saints author Fr. Alban Butler writes, “MI-CA-EL,” or “Who is like to God?” Such was the cry of the great Archangel when he smote the rebel Lucifer in the conflict of the heavenly hosts, and from that hour he has been known as “Michael,” the captain of the armies of God, the type of divine fortitude, the champion of every faithful soul in strife with the powers of evil…And since Christ’s coming the Church has ever venerated St. Michael as her special patron and protector.” May God continue to protect St. Michael the Archangel Church in Jacksonport and all who worship there.
St. Michael is the protector of the faithful. This is true today, but also true for some of the first settlers on the peninsula: the Potawatomi Indians. In the early 1600’s these Indians lived in the northern third of lower Michigan, but being threatened by the Ontario tribes the Potawatomi started to move and by 1665 most of the Forest Potawatomi tribe (numbering around three thousand) were living on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. Historians believe it was one of the largest Indian villages in the state. It extended from the south bank of what is now Hibbard’s Creek, which is located at the northern end of Jacksonport and approximately one-half mile along the Lake Michigan shore. Catholicism was introduced to these Native Americans by Jesuit missionaries who came from Quebec, Canada in 1665. Fathers Marquette and Allouez are thought to have spread the word of God among these peaceful hunters. Reports of their work with the Potawatomi in this area are recorded in the Jesuit records called “The Jesuit Relations.” As stated in the book, History of Door County, “Here the Jesuit Missionaries and French Empire builders labored more than one hundred years before Chicago received its first settlers.” As the years passed, legend has it that the Jesuit Fathers had established a Mission station among the Potawatomi naming it “St. Michael’s” and the surrounding locality was supposed to be known as “St. Michaelsville.”
When the dominion of the British and French came to an end in 1787, Wisconsin became part of the Northwest Territory; and in 1836 it was organized as the Wisconsin territory by Act of Congress. In the middle of the 1800’s the immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and Canada began coming to this area. Records state, “In 1867 three men in Madison planned the future of Jacksonport: Colonel C .L. Harris, John Reynolds, and Andrew Jackson of the Government Land Office in Menasha.” In honor of the last, they named the locality “Jacksonport.”
But the aforementioned mission name of “St. Michael’s” held true because the earliest records of an organized Catholic Congregation in Jacksonport go back to1874 when Father Rhode of Ahnapee (now Algoma) served this area. Father Rhode had six missions from Maplewood to Rowley’s Bay. Mass was celebrated in the Jacksonport homes of Victor LeClair, Joseph LaMere and Charles Reynolds. Victor LeClair was a commercial fisherman. Joe LaMere began as a commercial fisherman; eventually he acquired farming and timberlands. Later, he bought a steam barge called the “Addie Wade” for delivering his forest products. Charlie Reynolds had been a successful merchant in Green Bay. Once established in Jacksonport he maintained a large store and lumber mill.
One of the first recorded baptisms in 1874 at “St. Michael’s Mission” was that of John Reynolds, son of Thomas Reynolds and Johanna Foley. (Interesting fact: Later, John Reynolds’s son became a governor of Wisconsin.) The little congregation grew in the next ten years with the great lumber boom that spread from Jacksonport to much of the upper Door Peninsula. The Catholic families, almost twenty-five in all, here in the wilderness longed to have their own house of worship. The land for the church and cemetery was given by Charles Reynolds and his wife. The deed dated May 23, 1881 states it was sold for $1.00 to Rev. Krauttauer (this name was taken from the deed…apologies for spelling) and his Successor, Diocese of Green Bay.
The earliest record concerning St. Michael the Archangel’s construction is the actual bill of lading (shipping receipt) dated June 10th, 1880. This receipt reveals the cargo of building material, the ship it sailed on (Schoonover Pilgrim), and the person responsible for receiving the cargo (Victor LeClair). Other similar receipts reveal additional material received.
Records list the cost of church construction to be approximately $600.00. Each family pledged money towards construction in the amounts from $2.00 to $35.00. (It is also interesting to note another means of supporting a church was in the collection of pew rent… the listing charts showing which pews were purchased by each pioneer family are on record today.) The names of some of the original members were Victor LeClair, Tom and Charles Reynolds, Antone Londo (this is Father Matt Simonar’s great grandfather), Peter P. Parent, Le Mieux, Conlon, Gilbert, Frank Cardy, Michael McDermott, Exor DeJardine, and the LeMere, Butler and Campbell families. They all gave of their labor to build the church. The Advocate and the Green Bay Diocesan newspapers date the wooden church named St. Michael the Archangel with a completion date of 1882.
The earliest photo of the church probably dates to around 1900. There are wooden fence posts around the church, a few trees, a chimney at the middle of the roof, a bell tower with open window frames, an entrance to the church at the front of the bell tower, and three windows on the left side and four on the right side of the church.
The next known photo available dates to 1940. By that time an addition had been constructed to bring the left side of the church even-up front with the bell tower. As a result, a fourth window had been added to the left side and the church entrance shifted left to the middle-front. A detailed wrought-iron fence and gates are evident in this photo. The serving priest, using the right-hand gate entrance, kept his horse and buggy in a small shed.
The church has eight stained-glass windows installed in 1947 during Father Arthur Tardiff’s term of service. The windows costing $1,480 represent the following: Christ the King, Mary the Iron Tower, St. Joseph Patron of the Church, the Eucharist, St. Peter, Confirmation, Baptism, and St. Michael the Archangel.
It has been said that, “Antiques are things one generation buys, the next generation gets rid of, and the following generation buys again.” Fortunately none of the antiques at St. Michael’s have ever been sold and are still in use today. These include the monstrance, a chalice, the book holder, and candelabra candle holder. The fourteen Stations of the Way of the Cross, made of plaster of Paris, have not been dated. When the church’s interior was painted in the late 1940s, they were removed and repainted by the Nuns at Bay Settlement, the same that served Institute Catholics from 1896 through the early 1990s. A glass case encloses the various oils for baptism, confirmation, and the sacrament of the sick and below stands the baptismal font. The church has had a variety of statues of holy personages over the years. Currently there is St. Joseph the Worker, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Mary and the child Jesus, and the Infant of Prague. It is also comforting to know that the original statue of St. Michael the Archangel remains at guard.
In the passing of time more changes came to St. Michael the Archangel Church. Electric lights burn brighter than the kerosene lamps. A new electric organ put the old pump organ into retirement. During the 1960s wall insulation finally arrived along with a modern heating system. Prior to this the two wood burning stoves provided heat, but were never very effective for the entire church…according to Gary Orthober the church was “as cold as a corn crib in winter.” Gary’s wife, Marilyn, also commented that the trend of the 60s was “modernizing.” The communion rail was removed never to return. The modern wood-stained altar, wall paneling, and tile ceiling came to replace the ornate white faux marble altar and the old pressed tin ceiling and wall. The fact that rust/corrosion behind the tin helped that decision along. William Brungraber Jr. and his father, William Sr., were involved in a lot of the repairs of St. Michael Church including the major renovation of the mid 1960s.
Outside, the church’s appearance is that of the classic white country church – small, with belfry tower topped with a cross. The parishioners have kept its appearance the same for over fifty years. The large solid redwood cross near the left side of the church was built and dedicated in honor of Father Eugene Tremblay who served St. Michael for 18 years from 1969 to 1987. In keeping with the pioneer character the church to this day has no running water or plumbing. However, in 1993 a parish hall was built providing fully functioning bathrooms and a kitchen.
During 2010 and 2011 more renovations occurred at St. Michael the Archangel. The gathering area was enlarged by taking out a wall and the old confessional. It is amazing how much different that whole area feels in the entryway. The flooring has been replaced with a beautiful appropriate tile. The pews which are also as old as the church in one way or another have been repaired, stained and adapted to the needs of today. They are very good quality and should not be lost. The altar furniture was stained darker to show their importance. All the interior and exterior changes enhance the rich history of worshiping that continues at the Stella Maris site of St. Michael’s.
One cannot take a historical journey without addressing St. Michael Church’s “heart and soul” – its congregation – its individual parishioners. There are several families’ names that repeatedly show up over the years and represent substantial contribution of time and talent to this site. One of the longest surviving names is that of LeClair. Victor LeClair (1827-1888), in the 1880’s was one of the “founding fathers”, so to speak, of the parish. His name appears on the bill of lading describing the lumber material destined to become St. Michael Church. His is also the oldest grave in the parish cemetery. He is Joe LeClair Sr.’s grandfather. Interestingly, Joe’s father was born the year St. Michael’s was built (1882). Joe was a faithful parishioner all his life (a trustee for thirty of those years). Some of Joe’s documented memories are as follows. As a boy in the early 1930’s, he and a friend would get up early on Sunday’s to go to St. Michael to light the kerosene lamps of which there were four on each inside wall. Joe also made a few handfuls of cedar shavings the night before to start the wood fire in the church’s stove. Joe believes electricity did not arrive until the late 30’s. Joe was also chosen by Father Barrette to be an altar boy (he did not have the chance to volunteer). The Mass was in Latin when Joe was an altar boy and he had to know these Latin responses in order to correctly serve. One day he asked the priest, Father Barrette, OMI, if the Mass would ever be in English; the priest answered, “Never!” (Of course, this changed in the 1960’s.) Another boyhood memory Joe had of Father Barrette occurred when Father was really getting into his sermon and his false teeth practically flew out of his mouth but he caught them before they fell!
Another parishioner recalls one Sunday morning before Mass, Father Tremblay realized there was no wine; he sent Rueben Kiehnau to St. Mary of the Lake in Baileys Harbor to get some sacramental wine. Rueben told him it would take about forty minutes. Father replied, “That’s OK, I’ll give them a long sermon.” Father was still preaching when Rueben returned.
John Gagnon, a faithful steward of St. Michael’s for over 35 years, recalls this Sunday lector incident. “I was with my wife and five daughters in the “Reserved for Lector” front seat and my youngest, Nicole, was sleeping against my shoulder. It was time for the two readings, so with Nicole still sleeping against my shoulder, I got up with Nicole, completed the readings, and returned to my seat.” (Wish there was a picture of that angelic event to post here!)
When there were no altar boys available to serve and girls were not allowed beyond the communion rail. Vicki Progar, daughter of Frank Schneider, explained that her father had her sit in the front pew near the aisle to ring the chimes when the host and chalice were elevated by Father Beausoleil. This may have been the earliest example of greater participation in the liturgy by young women. Singing church hymns is a form of prayer enriched by organ music played with the talented hands of an organist: Marie Brungraber and Betty Gagnon were the organists during the 1950s, and then Marilynn Orthober primarily took over for the next forty years and still fills in once in a while today (2011) for Kathy Sedan.
Sally (Grovogel) Kiehnau stated her neighbor, Harry Brungraber, told her he believes Mass was said at the current Kiehnau home which dates back to the 1870’s and has been remodeled extensively.
Another memory is of Frank Schneider, a devoted steward at St. Michael, who died in 2003. He joined St. Michael in 1941, and for more years than one can remember, his would be the voice leading the Rosary, if one came to Mass early. Frank taught catechism and Catholic Youth Organization classes…he also offered to these students, after their religion lesson, free lessons in dancing polkas, waltzing and square dancing! Frank’s was a familiar face at the Dorchester Nursing Center where he would come to talk to residents, sometimes bring his grandchildren and on appropriate occasion, arrive as Santa Claus. He, like so many Stella Maris parishioners past and present, was a generous person, giving the best of gifts, the gift of himself to others.
St. Michael’s rich history also includes the dedicated priests who gave of themselves during the 1800’s beginning with records of Father Rhode in 1874-1876. Father Blume served St. Michael’s from the fall of 1876 to the latter part of 1884. Then Father Gregory Pellegrin ministered all of Jacksonport while also a pastor of St. Joseph’s Sturgeon Bay. In 1889 Father Bernard Hugenroth built a rectory at Ss. Peter and Paul in Institute and served all of Jacksonport. Father Francis Kroll became the pastor of Jacksonport, Institute, Baileys Harbor and Egg Harbor in 1894. Finishing out this historical century in 1899 Father Louis Vande Castle shepherded all the Northern Door County parishes. When one realizes that the roads in those days were mostly dirt trails and the mode of transportation was either horseback or buggy, you understand somewhat the zeal and the stamina of these early pioneer priests who fasted from midnight before celebrating Mass the following day at diverse hours. (As the writing of the Stella Maris Parish history continues, so will the history of the priests from the 1900’s to the present be discussed in more detail.)
This telling of St. Michael the Archangel Church is not complete because there are many more memories that could be shared and will be shared in the future. But the greatest memory is to know that we are all blessed by God who gave us a little white church in Jacksonport. St. Michael the Archangel’s wings are wrapped around us all whispering, “You are loved and blessed.”