Sister Bay is a respite for many who just want to get away from the hustle and bustle of their busy lives in the big city. Getting in touch with nature inevitably for many brings them closer to God. Similar was the desire of a girl named Rosalia who lived during the 12th century in Palermo, Sicily. No, she did not leave Palermo and travel to Sister Bay, but after some research one can see the connection in naming the Stella Maris Parish Catholic Church in Sister Bay “St. Rosalia.”
St. Rosalia was a holy hermit who left her world of royalty not out of selfishness but sacrifice. Legend says she was born in 1130 into a wealthy family in Palermo, Sicily (she was a descendant of Charlemagne and raised around the royal Sicilian court). She gave up her worldly pleasures to discover the pearl of great price which is a relationship with Jesus Christ. When she reached her teen years, several rich men wanted to marry this beautiful girl, but the Blessed Virgin appeared to her, alerting her that her soul was in danger. And at the tender age of 14, the girl left her father’s castle at night. She found two angels outside, waiting to escort her to the summit of a nearby mountain. Later, she moved to a cave atop Mount Pellegrino, devoting her life to God. Rosalia was probably a great mystery in the eyes of the world. After all, she could have married one of those rich men. She could have savored parties, dinners and dances. Instead, she lived as a hermit and died alone. Little is known of her life, except for the lines she wrote upon the cave wall: “I, Rosalia, daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Roses and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.”
We can imagine hours of prayer, days of fasting-and times when she longed for the sound of a human voice. But then the vow must have come back to her. She had promised to give up many pleasures for the best of reasons: love for Jesus Christ.
Thomas Merton, the 20th-century Catholic writer, lived in a hermitage for the last few years of his life. In “Follow the Ecstasy: The Hermitage Years of Thomas Merton,” there is a compelling quote about what drew him to live in seclusion at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky: “I can imagine no other joy than to have such a place to be at peace in, to love silence, to think and write, to listen to the wind and all the voices of the wood … to live in the shadow of the big cedar cross, to prepare for my death and my exodus to the heavenly country, to love my brothers and all people, and to pray for the whole world …” St. Rosalia also must have enjoyed the sounds of the wind and the voices of the wood. And she surely found great joy in prayer.
Her life on earth ended in 1160, and that would have been the end of her tale. But the Lord had more in store for her. In 1624, a plague swept through Palermo, and a hermit had a vision of a woman who instructed him to search for her remains. A group of monks, led by the hermit, did as the woman requested and found the cave on Mount Pellegrino where she had died. The plague ended shortly after, and Rosalia was credited with ending this suffering. She became the patron saint of Palermo, and her feast day is celebrated on September 4th.
Every year there is an elaborate celebration in Sicily to celebrate the discovery of St. Rosalia’s relics. It is ironic that there is much boisterous fanfare to honor a woman who lived so quietly. The festival, you see, features dancing in the streets, processions, feasting-and a night sky ablaze with fireworks. One can picture Saint Rosalia atop a celestial mountain, gazing with amusement at the festivities in her honor.
Hence, the connection is made between Palermo, Sicily and Sister Bay, Wisconsin. St. Rosalia found great joy in the quietness of prayer as do those who have worshipped and still do worship at St. Rosalia Church in Sister Bay. And just as the history of the beloved St. Rosalia arouses interest, so does the history of St. Rosalia Church.
The 1874 records show that Catholic worship services did indeed occur in Sister Bay. Mass was held once a month in the Pat Dimond homestead in Sister Bay with Father Bloom traveling all the way from Sturgeon Bay to officiate. Worshipping at the Dimond home continued for about five years, but in 1879 worship was moved to the Andre Roeser home. The Roeser homestead had fifteen rooms and was the center of much of the early Sister Bay village activity.
Mass continued at this location for the next twenty years. About every two weeks the small Catholic congregation in Sister Bay sat on wooden planks in an 18 by 30 foot upstairs room in the Roeser homestead. Father Hugenroth presided and led in the singing of many German hymns. The families that worshipped at the Roeser homestead were of primarily Bohemian and German descent. But it is interesting to note that so many different nationalities lived together harmoniously in Door County at this time: Germans, French, Norwegians, Swedes, Irish, Italians, etc. These European families found a better life here in America with its wilderness and opportunities.
Andre Roeser, a miller by trade, and his wife and Leone, found their way to Sister Bay in 1877 because he had heard there was a grist mill here. In 1883 they purchased the lumber mill, flour mill and well over a mile and a half of shoreline with adjoining acreage. After 1879 when the passenger and freight boats first began to stop at Sister Bay, so much of the social and work-a-day activities centered in and around his saw mill and dock it was often said that Andre Roeser knew everyone and everyone knew him. Leone Roeser was on constant call as one of the village midwives. Their missions of untold help and charity contributed greatly in the struggles of the early pioneer settlers of Sister Bay. The Roeser family gave to the village the land that is now known as the present Sister Bay Park.
Then on the 17th of April in 1909, Andre Roeser sold a two-third acre site for $100.00 to the Green Bay Diocese. “A tract of land in Township 31, beginning at a birch tree 12 inches in diameter and 46 rods distance from the quarter post on the south line of section 5” begins the deed. After the deed was signed by Father N. Hunold OMI (in 1906, the Mission Oblates of Mary Immaculate began serving the parishes of Northern Door County), and Mrs. Elda Roeser, for the congregation, St. Rosalia Church construction was underway. Henry Seiler, a Jacksonport carpenter, built the first church, including plastering and finishing touches, for $150. Even though this church held fewer than one-hundred parishioners, it was a vast improvement over the small rooms in the earlier private homes. St. Rosalia early records show family names of the Magnettes, Bundas, Jungwirths, Hugenroths, Roesers, Hammersmiths and Daubners; many of these families are still active in the Catholic community today.
Mary Jischke was the first to have been married in the church on September 10, 1910. They had to travel more than two hours by buggy over the rough road through the swamp to Baileys Harbor to make arrangements with the priest for the wedding, and flowers were brought from Manitowoc by stage to adorn the church. Mary did not leave town for her honeymoon. She recalled that her mother, who ran the Sister Bay general store and post office, was “so tired from all the cooking for the reception that she asked me to get the mail out the next morning.”
Along with marriages, growing families and residents, and an increase in the tourist industry, two more church additions were necessary. In 1930 the church renovation could seat about 125 persons, and the 1956 addition increased accommodations to 300 parishioners. Trustees acknowledged future expansion needs and included a 1956 purchase of four acres of land on Highway 42 just south of the first church. Indeed, their foresight proved accurate. After almost a century of service, and the growth of the Catholic community, a larger building was needed.
The prime reasons for building a larger church were to provide much needed classrooms for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes, a fellowship hall, kitchen, meeting rooms, and to accommodate a fast-growing congregation of residents and visitors. In the latter 1980’s a new St. Rosalia Church was planned to accommodate 500 persons during the summer months, it was designed to permit the side chapel and social hall annex to be closed off in winter thus creating a smaller central church with a 300 seating capacity. Jerome J. Kuskowski & Associates was the architect, and the general contractor for the new church was the John E. Gilson Company with most of the subcontracting in the hands of local businesses. Richard Burress served as chairman of the building committee assisted by church trustees Patrick Conlon and Robert Berns and parishioners Daniel Peterson, George Jischke, Jack Champeau, Joseph Jungwirth, Ann Flood and Ruth Stahl. Construction began on August 1, 1983.
The first mass in this beautiful new church was celebrated on June 27, 1984. Earlier, following the century’s old tradition of the grand processions held in Catholic countries on the Feast of Corpus Christi, Father Stoeckel and parishioners of the old St. Rosalia’s formed their own grand procession. Marching from the old, small wooden mission church, bringing first the Blessed Sacrament and tabernacle, holy water and incense, and a banner proclaiming “Come, Holy Spirit,” parishioners picked up everything they could carry, from chalices to chairs and brought them up hill from the old church to the new. A brief room-to -room blessing by Father Stoeckel followed and a new St. Rosalia’s was ready for use.
Door County field stone, rough-sawn board and batten cedar were used in the church’s exterior construction. The roof is concrete tile. This combination creates a study in contrasts and textures of the 11,000 square foot structure. All materials of this sacred building echo the natural beauty of Door County.
On entering the main church, the visitor’s eyes are drawn to an imposing wall of natural field stone backing the main altar; talented stone mason, Donald Anderson, laid this stone. Against the rough stone hangs a hand carved linden wood crucifix imported from abroad. According to Rev. Paul Stoeckel, O.M.I., pastor of the church in 1984, the crucifix is from the Alps area of Italy which is famous for its wood carving.
Red oak beams and oak planking form the high ceiling and red oak was used for the trim, cabinets and pews (kneelers were installed in 2011). Textured plastered walls reflect the delicate light of stained glass designed by the T. C. Esser Company. When observing the total effect of stone, glass, and wood, the artist who created the windows said, “This building is powerful.”
The painting of “Stella Maris,” Star of the Sea, by notable artist Frederic Poole, adorns the back wall of the church. It was a gift from Mrs. Florence Wilterding. Also, respectfully placed is a small painting of this church’s namesake, St. Rosalia.
A dedication Mass for this beautiful church took place on Sunday, September 9, 1984. Bishop Adam Maida, Monsignor John Schuh, St. Rosalia’s Rev. Paul Stoeckel, hundreds of parishioners, as well as the oldest and newest members in 1984 Mary Jischke, 96, (Mary’s wedding was discussed earlier in this history) and Kolina Sully, 6 1/2 months, were all present for the celebration. All in attendance gave thanks to the Lord for His guidance and answers to prayers in building this church.
Since 1984 only a few changes have taken place at St. Rosalia’s. In 1996 the parish purchased the Wagner property and added a second parking lot, and in 1997 an addition was built onto the church, thus enlarging the social hall and kitchen area. Change is inevitable, but it is soothing to know that some things never really change. One of these being the dedication and devotion of the parishioners to maintain St. Rosalia’s as a welcoming respite for worship and prayer. Sometimes we need to go into our own caves, as St. Rosalia did, and step back from the noise and activity of our busy lives and listen humbly and quietly for God’s guidance. God is often found whispering gently in the quietness of a humbled heart.