The Mother Church of Monroe County Wisconsin, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish was established with the arrival of the first settlers at Saint Mary's Ridge in 1856. The first Catholic church in the county was built at Saint Mary's Ridge two years later, in 1858. A second, larger church was built in 1869 as the parish had grown to nearly 100 families. By 1897, however, that church became too small for the ever-growing parish family.
The faithful of that time were determined to build a church that would adequately express their devotion to the Lord. The ornately carved altars, breathtaking stained-glass windows and many of the statues that can be seen today were original to the church 107 years ago.
2006 brought the 150-year celebration of the parish, a wonderful achievement, and a commemorative book was produced. 2011 brought a complete new painting of the interior of the church. In 2012, our school building, already 150 years old, and as the Sparta Herald proclaimed, “the oldest school in the La Crosse Diocese”, was demolished. The parish saw fit to salvage the maple flooring from the building, and that was used to redo the floor around the sanctuary, in 2013. Several families with ancestors listed in memoriam on the windows, have presented monies to have the windows re-leaded and reworked. This is a work in progress. In 2014 the original organ, built by the Shaefer Organ Co. was rebuilt and restored, as well as much of the choir loft. This work, on the organ, was done under the direction of David Grandall and David Engen, of the Twin Cities area.
It was in the year 1856 when in Stommeln near Cologne on the Rhine several families met and consulted about the trip to the promised land, America. They embarked and traveled toward the promised land. When they saw the new land from a distance, they yelled "hurrah, new land! What I am not, I can still become!" And what they became, will be shown later. When they arrived in New York, their next goal of travel was to LaCrosse, Wisconsin. At the time it was a difficult trip. The train was new at the time, and the cars were immigrant-cars, which were somewhat better than today's cattle cars. The train transported all successfully until Prairie du Chien; the rest of the trip they had to complete on the steamship. At that time LaCrosse had no train.
After arriving in Lacrosse, these new immigrants bought the necessary things and traveled further on ox-wagons in an easterly direction from Lacrosse, in order to find a new homeland. There were only two houses at that time on St. Joseph's Ridge. Farther on they came past still two more human dwellings, which were the only ones on the 30 mile long stretch between St. Joseph's and St. Mary's. On St. Mary's all was bush and nothing more than bush, that is, brushwood. Providence must have led this small flock, because there was better land enough to have than St. Mary's had, but on St. Mary's they stopped and here they settled.
It was toward evening when they arrived. Immediately a fire was lit and supper was scantily prepared. After supper each one looked for a place under a tree for night quarters, in order to rest from the exertions of the trip.
On the following morning each chose a piece of land to build a house on it. These houses were not real log houses. Because only underbrush was to be found, the light small trees also served as straight poles, which supported a roof, which could offer only poor protection against fall and winter. The straight poles were bound with twigs and plastered with clay. Winter stood before the door.
A suggestion was made by some, to name the place New Stommeln after the old homeland, but another suggestion was: the place must be called a kind of log house, because we all built that sort of house.
The winter was very cold. The snow lay nearly three feet high; that was a splendid beginning in the new land -- America.
In spring 6 or 7 more families arrived from our region in Germany. They also had read the nice letters, that in America the roasted pigeons only flew in the mouths of the people, as some of them had written to Germany. How these must have wondered, when they arrived here. Some would have returned back, if they would have had enough money. But all were poor people.
This Cemetary Group stands today in our cemetary, in the same spot as the cross did that the pioneers erected in 1857. Built in 1906, it was donated by Mrs. Louis Schotten. The German inscription translates to: "In pious memory of St. Mary's pioneers."
The new arrivals chose their piece of land, made it arable and built their houses. They sowed buckwheat, had a good harvest, which did not do for them, but had made a big mistake.
Clothing and shoes did not hold out very long. First the shoes wore out. But here Providence had also provided; because there was a man among us, who was a wooden shoemaker in Germany. For luck he had brought his tools along. For 25 cents he made us a pair of wooden shoes. He received many customers, and in a short time the entire community went in wooden shoes. That was nice clapper music.
But how was it with the foodstuffs from which we lived at this time? Whoever had buckwheat made buckwheat pancakes, whoever had no buckwheat had to be satisfied with cornbread. But this was not the cornmeal that we know today, but a simple bread, that consisted of cornmeal and water with some salt. One had nothing else. There was no fat and butter and meat only then, when one had luck on the hunt. The wild game was too shy and for the most part gunpowder and lead were lacking. The oak tree provided coffee. The oaks were dried and ground. One could find enough in the brush. The oak coffee was good and we remained healthy and cheerful thereby. Some ate and drank better as long as the money reached, but afterwards were the poorest. It is hardly believable how an old man of 80 years, who could live well in Germany and was used to his tobacco, that he could buy no more tobacco and minced old lumber and leaves, that was his tobacco. It is hardly believable, but it is fact. But had the wishes of some old people been realized, so would America have long ago disappeared from the earth.
The following year -- 1860 was a good year, for those, who skillfully broke land and had sown wheat. The wheat was so good, that the harvest brought up to 40 and 50 bushels an acre. From then on there was good bread. Then the war began. For many it was bad, for many good. Those who had help and did not need to draw into war, could diligently work onwards. During the time of the war the harvests were rather good and the wheat brought up to $2.50 a bushel. But it was hard for those, who had to take part in the war. Generally there were people, who could keep little help at home. We prayed much for the soldiers and helped their families faithfully. Almost all returned.
Now I will go back again to the year 1857. After the cross was put up, a meeting was held, in order to advise how it would be best to build a church. It was decided, to get the logs here in winter, and to build the church in the next summer. After the crop was sown in spring, the entire community went on the work; the logs were coated and stones for the foundation were gotten. It went nicely and smoothly ahead. After a month the church was finished. Now we could hold our devotions under cover. It was further deliberated: Now we must see, if can get a priest from time to time. A written petition was addressed to the bishop, to send a priest at least now and then. His answer was that he would do everything , to fulfill our wishes. It took awhile until we received a letter from LaCrosse, that a priest would come to Sparta to visit us, and we should pick him up there. The time was measured shortly. The little church was still empty. Neither altar nor Communion rail were there. The entire community came together, in order to build an altar in a hurry and to prepare a Communion rail. Hardly was this finished on the following day, and a priest was already here. What a day of joy that was! The parish gathered before the church for a reception. The priest blessed the gathered parish and was then led into the church where he held a friendly address, and dismissed the parish. But where was the priest to sleep? The women knew, they finally accomplished it, to prepare a proper bed. It is surprising , because this had its difficulties, since in the three years of our being here real intimate little guests, like lice, bugs, and fleas in great numbers appeared, to which also at last the scabies joined, today an almost unknown skin ailment. They had given us much to do. The following day was Sunday. All went to Holy Confession and Communion. After the Holy Mass the priest said, he would soon go on, because he had many missions to administer. After breakfast he took leave until seeing us again. It took two months until a priest came again.
Meanwhile many children had become old enough to receive Holy Communion. The children had no training, but a man from the parish instructed them in all the most necessary things. When a priest came again -- it was another one this time -- they asked him, if the children couldn't receive Holy Communion; because they were already instructed so far. Without further instruction and examination he did not want to allow it. But at the beginning it was a disappointment. The priest sat opposite us and asked about Jesus Christ, the Apostles, whether the Apostles weren't bishops. We had heard nothing about all this, but, nevertheless, we answered, because the teacher stood behind the priest and every time after he winked, we answered yes or no. The priest did not trust the affair, soon he turned his chair so to the side, that he could have the teacher in his eye at the same time. Now there was no more answer. Then he turned his chair around some more and saw the teacher and those standing by him for a minute. Then the teacher stepped forward and said: "The questions, that you put to the children I can answer, because I had gone to school in Germany for over 14 years; but these children have not yet seen a school and therefore they are to be pardoned.. Please ask about confession and communion, if then the children can not answer, I will be silent." So he gave the priest the catechism. Each question was now answered. He took the children to Holy Communion.
We had confusion about school for along time. There were always two parties, the one wanted a Catholic, the other a public district school, and because we had no regular priest, school was much neglected.
For a long time we had a priest monthly. He came usually on Wednesday and heard confessions. On the day thereafter we had Sunday, because he read a quiet Mass on Friday and drove back. His compensation was ten dollars for a visit. What a difference then and today! The parish had also obtained a patroness, it was the Holy Mother of God, Mary.
Here is the story of a sick call. When a member of the parish was very sick, two from the relationship went to Sparta. From there they wanted to go to LaCrosse to get a priest. In Sparta they found out that the bishop was in LaCrosse and would be coming with the next train to Sparta. When the bishop arrived, they brought their request and he said to the priest who was with him: You must go there." The men knew the priest already. They said to him, he may wish to wait in the hotel. They went to get a wagon, but had not said this to the priest. When they could not get one immediately, the waiting became to long for the priest. He went from there on foot to Leon, where there was a mill. Here he asked, if perhaps someone from St. Mary's was there. There was one there. When he was finished, the priest sat on the loaded wagon. There was no talk of a wagon seat yet, nor about horses. They went on the on - wagon to St. Mary's and that was ten miles. The man brought the priest to his house, where the wife prepared him a meal. It was no fine meal, but it tasted. Then he had to go another mile and a half on foot, where the sick one was. His suitcase was heavy, because at that time the priest had to bring along everything, that was necessary for Mass. The man sent a boy along to carry the suitcase; but he was happy, when the trip was over.
In the year 1861 the Right Reverend Bishop Johann Martin Henni visited us. He consoled us, we should just continue, it would be better. At the end he said: "You have chosen a powerful patroness, who will not abandon you." And she has never abandoned us. In 1866 we received a steady priest and then it became better.
The time of war was hard. One year we had a bad harvest. The wheat brought a lot of straw but little grain in the heads. Whoever had sowed buckwheat could help himself. English people also settled in the valleys. They were ahead of us in everything. They planted corn, that turned out well. But they also had better land and worked for all kinds of foodstuffs as a recompense. Some of us became rebellious and thought that all work could help nothing, because they would indeed die of hunger. However, they were mistaken.
After the war it became significantly better. What we had to sell was expensive; so the people were put in a better condition. In the year 1867 several fathers of families met and planned a present for the parish. It was to be two bells. At that time that was a big deed; because everything was very expensive. Two bells were ordered. One gave the small one, which weighed 500 pounds and cost over 200 dollars, and two others the big one, which weighed over 800 pounds and cost more than 300 dollars. It took a long time, until one heard again about the bells. All at once a letter came from Sparta: "The bells are here, you can pick them up." That was three days before Christmas. The news ran like a fire through the parish. It was decided to get them immediately and put them up yet before Christmas. On the day before Christmas the entire parish came together. A bell stand had to be built, because the church had no steeple, and in the evening at nine o'clock the bells were hanging in their place. Was that a joy! Each one wanted to pull on the rope. Many had tears in their eyes, because for eleven years they had heard no pealing of bells. One family living near church offered to ring the bells gratuitously and they did it gladly for a long time.
The parish included almost all of Monroe County. The first church soon became too small. A new one had to be built. When this was decided, many wanted to withdraw and build themselves a church. That caused much confusion. The bishop of LaCrosse had to come to make an end to this confusion. The bishop said, a part of the parish makes two parts too weak, that it becomes impossible to support the priest. They all went to work together, until the entire parish is more settled. Then something could happen, but not earlier. Thereupon the new church was built. Because so many new ones settled in our parish after the war on account of the church, the church became too small again after five or six years. Pine Hollow obtained the permission to build a church with the condition, that they would be cared for by our priest. They had early Mass then and we the High Mass. That went well for many long years. Finally Ridgeville built its own church. That was right. Now our church was big enough for years.
When we got a steady priest, he urged that the school should be a real church school, that would be managed by Sisters. Later we again had a man as teacher, who taught us so dogmatically that we were happy to call the Sisters back again. However believed, that all this took place without capers or skirmishes, is mistaken; because we had more than enough of that. But that belongs to human life and strew sand on it, because all have received their compensation.
The German Article was written by Peter Hemmersbach, Sr.