Ecumenism is the word that comes to mind when the Washington Island Catholic Community is regarded. As Christians we must respond to those in need. There is no Catholic church building on Washington Island, but this did not stop the fifty plus parishioners from finding a house of worship. Their Lutheran friends welcomed them to worship at their church. The Mass must be celebrated. The greatest sacrifice we can experience is through the Eucharist. Through the Eucharist we become strengthened in our faith. We continuously strive for ecumenism…for Christian unity…and that is what all the Stella Maris sites are about.
Religious life on Washington Island dates back to the 1600’s. The Washington Island Historical Archive Committee notes that early explorers, such as Jean Nicolet in 1635, came to this area of Northeastern Wisconsin followed by traders and missionaries. Prior to 1850 these islands provided a perfect home for the Pottawatomie Indians since there was ideal protection against all enemies. Records show that Indians lived here as late as 1860.
The Island did not receive its name until 1816. The Federal Government sent three ships of sailors to Green Bay to prevent the English from inciting the Indians against American colonists. One of these vessels, the “Washington”, became separated from the others on the second night out and put into the nearest harbor. It waited there several days for the other boats. During those days, the men rambled over the Island, and in honor of their vessel gave the name “Washington” to both the island and the harbor that had sheltered them.
The first Icelanders who came to Washington Island in 1870 were fisherman. They wrote to their friends in Iceland and encouraged them to come too. They came and established the second oldest Icelandic settlement in America. Early settlers were primarily fishermen. Because of its cool summers, beautiful scenery and good fishing, the Island has always attracted tourists which is now the main industry. Many of these Catholic tourists choose to worship with the locals.
There is documented history of a Catholic community on Washington Island since at least mid-1800. In 1889, 13 people were baptized by Father Bernard Hugenroth at the house of John Furlong in Washington Harbor and it was written at the time that it was the first time a priest had been to the Island in 11 years. (It was also written that Fr. Hugenroth "proposes to make his calls a little more frequent after this.") During the 1940’s, Catholic Island residents worked toward having Mass said on a weekly basis during the summer months and by the 1970’s, a priest was able to come to the Island in the winter months to say Mass.
Over the years, Mass has been celebrated in various locations: during the summer months at the American Legion Hall, the Island Community House (formerly the John Gislason store at Gislason Beach) and many private homes. From 1965 to 1985, Mass was celebrated at St. Michael’s Chapel (previously the Koyen Store and at one time, the Schoolhouse Beach School) on Jackson Harbor Road. As the Catholic population increased and needs changed, the congregation moved to Trinity Lutheran Church while continuing to meet in private homes during the winter months. That tradition continued until 2000; Trinity Lutheran Church now graciously shares their facilities year round with the Stella Maris - Washington Island community.
As the priest’s schedule (and the ferry schedule) allows, Mass is celebrated weekly. There was a period of time during the winter months when a priest was not available to come on a Sunday and Mass was celebrated midweek. Beginning in the early 1990’s when no priest was able to come to the Island, Liturgy of the Word with Communion was celebrated by a Lay Presider. While Bishop Banks led the Green Bay Diocese and with the understanding of the Island’s unique differences and difficulties, Washington Island was granted permission to keep a Reservation Tabernacle with consecrated hosts in a private home.
As part of Stella Maris Parish, Washington Island has gathered much from being a member of a larger body. The Island has full representation on both Finance and Pastoral Councils. These positions have given us a voice in advising the Pastor of Stella Maris and assist others in understanding our needs both on the adult and youth religious education areas. We are able to obtain prayer guides, educational material and other assists to continuing faith development.
Adult education is ongoing with bible and book studies. Many of our members have attended CRHP weekends as well as being team leaders.
The Island Catholic community has an active Faith Formation program for youth. We work with educating and preparing our youth for First Communion and Confirmation as well as hold weekly Faith Formation classes for all ages. Our youth are involved as cantors, greeters and servers. One of our youth attended the World Youth Conference in Spain in 2011.
Washington Island worship is unique in many ways. This uniqueness is evident in the following parishioners’ anecdotes.
“Until recently, during the winter months of January, February and March there was only one boat trip per day to and from the Island. What this meant is that any priest who came to the Island automatically needed to spend the night. With the thickness of the ice in years past and the size of the C. G. Richter, the normal thirty minute trip could last 1-2 hours. Scheduling Mass was difficult and there was an understanding among the residents and visitors in the winter that Mass would begin shortly after the boat arrived and not a minute sooner. The beauty of this set of circumstances is that it allowed the hosting families for the priest the opportunity to have private time to discuss any matters of faith, life or interests with the pastor of our faith community.”
“Periodically a visiting priest would contact our pastor and volunteer to come to the Island and say Mass on Sunday. This gave our community a chance to show the Island to the visitor and let them see first-hand the strength of this community’s faith and the beauty of the surrounding countryside. One particular priest as he began Mass indicated that he had never said Mass on an Island and that he had NEVER before said Mass in a Lutheran church.”
“One visiting priest that came to the Island some years ago was on retreat in preparation for accepting the position of Associate Bishop out of state. He and a fellow priest celebrated with us and after Mass freely talked with people about a variety of topics. The spirit of this man was one of the strongest I had ever encountered. The feeling of his presence and peaceful spirit was so strong that it lingered around one ten minutes after he had left the church. He left to continue his retreat journey but his memory remained behind. A few years later while watching the news, the commentator spoke about the new Archbishop of Milwaukee as a film segment was being shown. The new Archbishop was unmistakably the same man who has said Mass here on the Island, Timothy Dolan.” (Timothy Dolan is presently the Archbishop of New York. His strong faith presence among the people of New York was revealed in a recent “60 Minutes” segment.)
Stella Maris Parish – Washington Island Catholic community has evolved from a summer-only congregation to a close-knit and active year-round community of all ages. The Island is a vibrant ecumenical faith community welcoming all to worship.