Reading about St. Paul one can’t help but envision an active traveling man spreading the Good News wherever he went. He was converted from Judaism on the road to Damascus to preach that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Saint Paul’s message spread throughout the land reaching the hearts of thousands. And so it is fitting that St. Paul’s Church in Fish Creek was established to spread the Good News to hundreds of travelers to Door County every year.
Some of the first travelers and early settlers to Wisconsin during the latter 1600’s were of French descent. These early explorers and fur traders settled near the Green Bay area. Trading posts were built near waterways so it would be easier for the Native Americans to trade their furs for goods that the French brought back from France. The early French settlers were more interested in the fur trade than farming. As time marched on people who settled in Door County came here for many different reasons.
During the mid-1800’s, Fish Creek was settled mainly by Asa Thorp who built a dock and wood supplying business for passing schooners. Many of the settlers to the Fish Creek area made their living through the harvest of timber and fish. But by 1900, over-harvesting of these resources, combined with improved transportation – including a regular schedule of passenger steamers – led to the rise of the tourism industry. This made a big impact on the establishment of a Catholic Church in Fish Creek.
Prior to 1917 the Catholics of Fish Creek had to ride to Mass by horse and buggy either to Baileys Harbor or Egg Harbor where the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate shepherded the area. The Oblate Fathers have their Provincial House in Lowell, Massachusetts. One may wonder how priests from Massachusetts ended up in Door County; the following offers that answer. Bishop Stang of Fall River, Massachusetts, a classmate of Bishop Fox in Louvain came to Green Bay in 1904 to be a co-consecrator of Bishop Fox. Bishop Stang told Bishop Fox that there were Oblates in Lowell who could take on the missions in Door County that needed French speaking priests. Hence, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate were asked in 1906 to come to the Green Bay Diocese. Sources gave two alternate reasons for their being asked. One was because of the need for French-speaking pastors. The other was that they were originally asked to care for the Oneida Indians on reservation. In 1906 Fr. L.A. Nolin was established as Pastor of St. Mary’s in Baileys Harbor which included Sister Bay and later, of course, Egg Harbor and then Fish Creek.
Traveling a long distance for Mass to Baileys Harbor or Egg Harbor changed through the perseverance of the Barringer family. Having seven children, Jacob and Josephine experienced quite an undertaking in transporting their family to church, so in 1917 they along with other local families made a request for a Catholic church to be established in Fish Creek. Their needs were heard and that same year the Bishop of Green Bay approved the request.
The Green Bay Diocese Bishop Paul Peter Rhode chose the name for the Fish Creek mission parish to honor the apostle St. Paul; it also commemorates the bishop’s name, as well as, the first priest assigned to St. Paul’s, Father Gustav Paul Berneche. Since several of St. Paul’s parishioners were of French descent, French speaking Father Berneche of the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate was warmly welcomed.
On December 17, 1917 the first Mass was celebrated by Father Berneche in a room rented from Margaret Carmody for $2.00 a month. At this time Mrs. Carmody lived in the old Frank Seaquist house near the dock. Imagine the pride of Mrs. Carmody at having Mass in her home, and the scrubbing that must have preceded this great event. Clyde Duclon served the first Mass. His parents, the Joseph Duclons, lived in the upstairs apartment. The first entries in the parish records read: January 2, 1918 – altar linens bought from Charles LaRouche for $4.80; January 15, 1918 – kerosene lantern, $1.25; and the first funeral Mass for Alice Duclon. From 1917 through most of 1921, Masses were said, when roads permitted, in the room at the Seaquist house, but during the summer Masses moved outside to accommodate more worshippers. Modern roads were slow in coming to Door County, and during these years children still had to be taken to the neighboring parish for their catechism. Some had to walk as many as five miles!
By 1920, roads improved to the degree that more people came to visit Door County by car than by boat. It is interesting to note, however, that motorists were advised to come prepared because their trip to northern Door may require at least three spare tires!
As tourism rose in Door County, so did the need for more space to worship. In October, 1921, St. Paul Church and the Diocese of Green Bay purchased an old grade school building from the Gibraltar School District. The fifteen St. Paul parish families on record in 1922 were: Barringer, Beyer, Burr, Carmody, Coughlin, Churches, Duclon, Hoffner, J. Hogan, Th. Hogan, Wm. Hogan, LeClair, Pesch, Resler, and Schuyler. These families worked hard to remodel the school into a solemn place of worship. Father Berneche was pleased to have seven year old Dale Burr, eldest son of Georgia Burr, become the first altar boy in the little white church. Some of the happiest memories of the little white church were the weddings. The first and only double wedding was a crowded and joyous affair when Elaine Duquaine wed Alva H. Older and her sister, Beatrice, married Michael G. Colwell on August 27, 1955. This little church continued to spread the Good News until the early 1960’s. This school/church still stands today (only a few doors down from the current church) and presently houses the Gallery of Gold jewelry store owned by parishioners, Carl and Nancy Stubenvoll.
St. Paul the Apostle Church held about 120 people, but by 1950, even with four masses on Sunday mornings during the summer, there was not enough room inside for all the people. Some fifty or more worshipped while standing on the steps and the lawn. During the 1940’s, St. Paul’s present priest, Father Arthur J. Tardiff, O.M.I. (served St. Paul’s from 1944-1951), had already started a building fund. The energetic ladies of the church contributed their talents in bake sales, card parties, and other fund raising activities. Along with the generosity of visitors and parishioners (there were only a little over twenty St. Paul Parish families residing basically in Fish Creek and Ephraim), summer resident Mrs. Agnes Ryan’s substantial gift, and parishioners Mr. and Mrs. Harry Churches donation of land, the dream of a new church became a reality.
Sadly, Father Tardiff never saw the new church; he died in 1951. The actual building was accomplished by Father Laureat Savard, O.M.I. He served from 1951 until 1960 when he was transferred to Washington D. C. The building committee was formed of Joe Duclon, Elmer Duquaine and Bill Daubner. Parish trustees, Roy Kinsey and Fred Wesner, served as general advisors. Construction began in June 1957 at a cost of approximately $40,000. Although the building was not finished, the first Mass was said at the beginning of the tourist season on July 7, 1957. The first wedding in the unfinished church took place on September 21, 1957 when Georgianna Burr and Patrick Watters were married. But until the new church became insulated and heated, it was necessary that Mass be held in the little white church during the harsh winter season.
Once the entire construction of the new St. Paul the Apostle Church drew to completion, the formal dedication took place on August 20, 1961 at 2:00 PM. In the absence of Bishop Stanislaus V. Bona, Bishop of Green Bay, Monsignor Joseph Marx P.A., Vicar General presided. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament followed the dedication ceremony. Father Albert Beausoleil, O.M.I., was the current parish pastor who completed the interior decor with an artist’s eye for color and harmony knowing that it blended with all of Father Savard’s previously dedicated work.
Father Savard was truly inspirational to all who knew and worked with him. He supervised every detail in the building and was inspired to write the following prayer which appeared in the church dedication booklet.
“The Lord’s is the earth, and the fullness thereof.”
“O Lord, we have taken these elements of Thy creation: wood, mortar, and stone, and through
the work of our hands have fashioned them into a church which we now dedicate to the Glory
of Thy Name. May our worship always be in spirit and in truth, and may we find here the
inspiration and the strength to walk firmly in Thy paths all the days of our lives.”
During the church dedication parishioners paid a special tribute to Father Savard through the following words: The greatest of our parish debt is the most difficult to pay. It is to our Pastor. Seven years ago he came from Boston to shepherd our small, humble parish. He brought to us not only his Eastern accent, but a direct, thinking approach to our religious life. The growth of charity and the number of people at our communion rail has been in direct ratio to a growing building fund. “If you would know and be known, live in the country.” How true this is. Few men pass the scrutiny of country people and retain respect. Father Savard has not only won respect, but he stands as a constant example of a life lived in humility and charity. His selfless devotion to the details of constructing this beautiful church has been the deciding factor against a tiny parish carrying an intolerable debt. We are truly grateful, Father, and hope you will accept this loving tribute.
A time to note some of the specifics of this beautiful new church is in order. In 1961 St. Paul’s church dimensions stood at 75 feet long, 46 feet wide (front) and 57 feet wide (back). Architect Len Schober from the firm of Foeller, Schober and Berners of Green Bay designed the church to serve the summer tourists with an atmosphere that was simple, airy, and serene. The type of construction is Low V laminated wood arches, which lowers construction and maintenance costs and yet presents a wide open area for everyone to see the altar. Walls are framed with a veneer of stone, cut from a Door County quarry. Light wood pews and a brownish tan floor help to bring the outdoors in. There is no basement; a furnace room is in a wing in the sacristy area. The seating capacity grew to about 275 with place for maybe a hundred standing. It is definitely a tourist parish!
The tourist numbers continued to grow, and once again St. Paul Catholic Church found it hard to offer comfortable seating for all worshippers. In 1991, through the hard work of its parish families (numbering still less than forty) and generous tourist donations, the ground work for expansion was underway. The 1961 roof and floor needed replacement, the ceiling needed touching up, a relocation of the altar would be necessary, along with the desire to air condition the church, not to mention the hope of a small kitchen and a gathering spot for coffee and doughnuts. With the addition, seating space would allow for approximately four hundred people.
Under the direction of Father Paul B. Stoeckel, O.M.I., and trustees Harvey Malzahn and John Kellner, architect Richard Dannhausen was instructed to build an addition of “wings” to St. Paul Church. These wing additions could be closed off during the winter and opened during the summer to adjust to the ever-changing parish size. The building was completed in 1993 and the blessing occurred that year on November 6th with Bishop Robert J. Banks and Father Stoeckel as celebrants. Organist, Jeanne Chase and Fathers Ivan Smith, Richard Kleiber, and Gerry Kleba participated in the ceremony. The following words were lifted from the pamphlet created for the Blessing of St. Paul Catholic: St. Paul’s congregation started having Mass in their own church 71 years ago in 1922. Thirty-five years later a new church was built. The new church was not adequate by 1992…so a renovation and enlargement was necessary. The congregation has not grown that much but attendance at Mass during the months of June, July, and August and through the months of September and October has increased year by year. Where once the back pews were roped off, now the church has a sizeable congregation, consisting of people from all the Northern Door Parishes as well as visitors who come even during the winter months. The parishioners of St. Paul have fluctuated, as far as numbers go, very little in seventy years. That has made the parish to depend for help on our neighboring parishes and our summer guests for lectors, servers, Eucharistic ministers as well as organists and ushers during the whole year. Fish Creek has been a tourist town from its inception and our church is really meant to serve the many visitors who come to Fish Creek and Door County…One of our trustees is worried that the time is soon coming when even the enlarged building will not be able to handle the people and another addition will be needed. St. Paul’s has a long history of a few people providing for many. The many are grateful for this care and are not shy about saying how much they appreciate the beautiful church and beautiful liturgies. May this be just the beginning of a long and glorious life.
Today we are blessed with the gift of worshipping together at St. Paul the Apostle Church. The fiftieth dedication anniversary took place on August 20, 2011 at the 4:00 PM Mass with Father David Ruby presiding. During the summer months many visitors continue to be welcomed. And as St. Teresa of Avila is quoted to have said, “Comfort is one of the necessities when praying.” And, hopefully, all do find comfort in this house of worship where the Good News is always being spread. In conclusion, St. Paul the Apostle writes in Ephesians 4:3-6, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” The hopes and efforts of families of St. Paul the Apostle Church from 1917 and through today united in Stella Maris Catholic Parish continue to be learning to enjoy the way we members of Christ’s body complement one another.