St. Alexander Parish History
Compiled by J. Marshall Buehler
Over 150 years ago, missionaries stopped periodically at Frenchtown, as Port Edwards was then known, on their way up and down the Wisconsin River. Prior to a church in Port Edwards, Father Joseph Feldman of Sacred Heart Church in Nekoosa said mass in the community chapel in Port Edwards. This practice was discontinued after the completion of the interurban street car between Wisconsin Rapids and Nekoosa in 1910.
For the next 21 years the "Porters" were part of the Nekoosa parish. However, with the abandonment of interurban service in 1930, transportation became a problem for some. Thus in 1941 there developed a strong interest in forming a church in Port Edwards.
A meeting was held on March 11, 1941 in the recreation room of John Edwards High School. Its purpose was to vote on the question of whether or not to request the Bishop to establish a parish in the community.
Cleve Akey acted as chairman of the meeting which was attended by some 60 adults. It was announced that there were 138 adult Catholics in Port Edwards and that 129 of them had expressed a desire to have their own parish and had reaffirmed their decision by making financial support pledges.
An architect's report, presented at the meeting, stated that a church could be built for about $20,000. With that good news a committee was selected whose purpose it was to go to La Crosse to petition the Bishop for establishment of a Catholic parish in Port Edwards.
After a preliminary meeting with the Bishop, they were called back again on June 16, 1941, and during the fifteen minute audience with the Bishop, he introduced the delegation to Father Thomas E. Mullen. He told them to "Take him along, but keep him out of the paper machines." Father Mullen was to serve as the first pastor of the church. The Bishop's other advice was, "Work had and don't solicit funds in Nekoosa".
The pleased group returned to Port Edwards and on June 20, 1941, Father Mullen met with the committee to formulate plans for celebrating Sunday and daily mass. Sunday services would be held in the high school community room. Daily mass would be said in the residence of Mrs. M. Mollen which would serve as the residence for Father Mullen. The first Sunday mass was said on June 29, 1941. Two portable altars were constructed, as well as a collapsible confessional and communion railing.
On June 27, 1941, a combination reception and parish meeting was held and Father Mullen was introduced to the congregation. Various names were suggested for the new church and included St. Thomas, Holy Cross, and St. Margaret Mary. However, the bishop had the last say in choosing a name and on July 9, 1941 he officially named the church St. Alexander in honor of Alexander J. McGavick, Bishop of La Crosse.
St. Alexander's first project was a field mass and picnic held on September 7, 1941. The pontifical high mass, held at the picnic site, was offered by Most Rev. William Griffin, Auxiliary Bishop of La Crosse. The Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus served as Honor Guard for the solemn occasion. The mass was celebrated beneath a tent and attracted 2500 people. Following the mass, dinner was served to a thousand guests at prices of 50 cents for adults and half price for children. Over 8000 square feet of picnic ground was under canvas which covered kitchen area, dining area, plus several concession stands.
The site of the picnic was in a grassy field on Edwards Avenue; the location now being occupied by the Alliant Power Company garage. The dirt street was given a light treament of oil a few days before the event, thereby settling the dust. Nekoosa Edwards Light and Power Company provided electrical service and water was secured via a fire hose. Food was prepared at the Port Edwards Hotel and the hams were baked at a Wisconsin Rapids bakery. August Neuberger and his German band provided music throughout the day.
In planning this first picnic event, the committee in charge debated as to whether they should cover the event with rain insurance. In view of the high premium cost, it was decided not to take out the policy. Promptly at 4:32 p.m. rain began to fall and drove away the public, so that by 8:00 p.m., the picnic grounds were deserted except for a night watchman, a few workers and the picnic committee. All sat around a coffee pot in the kitchen tent eating left over apple pie, drinking warm coffee, and wondering why they had not appied for the rain insurance.
Five months after its organization, Saint Alexander's began building their new edifice. The estimated cost of the English Tudor style building was set at $35,000. The exterior was to be of native quartzite rock with Indian limestone trim. the capacity of the church would be 378. Actual cost of the finished project was $47,000. Father Mullen turned the first shovel of dirt, thereby initiating the building project on Novemver 17, 1941; three weeks before the entereing of World War Two by the United States.
Five lots in the northern portion of the village were donated to the parish by Nekoosa Edwards Paper Company. Only three months after the start of construction, the cornerstone was laid on February 22, 1942, Rgt. Rev. Msg. O'Shaughenessy of Wausau performing the honors of sealing the cornerstone.
On April 28, 1942, during the construction of the church, the cut stone cross atop the front of the church was struck by lightning. Several stones were loosened and damage amounted to about $250.00 But this in no way dampened the spirit of the parishioners.
One June 28, 1942, a year after the formation of the congregation, and only seven months after the start of construction, the dedication of the new church was held. The building was dedicated by Bishop Griffin and the sermon was delivered by Rgt. Rev. Msg. Dowd of Eau Claire. The first mass had been celebrated in the new church on the previous day, Saturday, June 27th. Following the dedication formalities, a dinner was served in the new hall in the lower level of the church.
After sheltering their pastor in the home of Mrs. Mollen for four years, the members began construction of a rectory, adjacent to the church. The home was completed on Oct. 19, 1947. Post was shortages of materials were one of the reasons for the lengthened building period. The inflationary cost of the house was $41,000.00, almost equal to the cost of the church!
A choir was organized before there was a church to rehearse in or an organ to use for accompaniment. Rehearsals were held in homes until such time as the church building and organ were available. Mr. August Neuberger served as the first choir director.
Father Mullen remained as pastor until February of 1951 when he was replaced by Father Albert Roemer. The hand carved stations of the cross were installed under Father Roemer's direction. Other pastor who have served the parish and left their mark on it were Father Joseph Gaffney, Father O'Connell, and Father Joseph Ferron. Stained glass windows were installed under Father Ferrons' pastorship. Father Dominic Eichman came next and had installed electronic bells. These were replaced by a more sophisticated system of carillons in 1989.
Next followed Father John Brey who undertook a remodeling of the church basement at a cost of $25,000.00. Father Bernard Duffey followed who in turn was replaced by Father Tom Mannion. In 1965, under Father Tom Manion's pastorship a need was seen for remodeling the church proper to make it liturgically correct for the new mass liturgy.
Father Mannion's service would be followed by a second term of Father Brey. He was responsible for following through on the $45,000.00 remodeling project started by Father Mannion. The newly remodeled church was rededicated by Bishop Freking on February 8, 1970.
Father Brey was replaced in 1976 by Father Robert Hagenbarth, who left several marks on St. Alexander. However, his greatest endeavor was the building of an education building at a cost of $132,000.00 The building was completed and occupied in January of 1980. Father Hagenbarth also personally spearheaded an extensive grounds beautification program. Old timers might recall the days when the property now occupied by St. Alexander's was a mosquito breeding swamp.
Father Rex Zimmerman served as the next pastor, filling the position until 1995. But then, because of a shortage of priests, Father John Swing of Sacred Heart Parish in Nekoosa was appointed pastor of Saint Alexander's.
Knowing the spiritual importance of pastoral presence, Sister Catherine Kaiser, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, whose mother house is in La Crosse, was appointed Administrator of St. Alexander parish, a position she currently fulfulls.
Other priests who served us as associates or helpers were: Father Velutis, Father Meinen, Father Doyle, Father Langer and Father Landy. Most of these clergy were instructors as Assumption High School.
Vocations to the religious life include: Sister Thomisella, O.S. B. (the former Doris Steinfedt); Sister Mary Clarice, S.D. S. (the former Alice Steinfeldt); and Sister Mary Dominic, O.P. (the former Mary Bruener). Two young men from our parish have entered the religious life. Brother Joe Bruener serves as a missionary in the Maryknoll order and Father Greg Kalscheuer is a priest in the Society of Jesus order. As well, currently there are two men from the parish in seminary: David Bruener and Paul Hoffman.
Sister C. Kaiser, known to her congregation as Sister Catherine, in her three years of tenure, has revitalized the members of the church. By activating and working with the church councils she has instilled fresh blood into the life of the parish.
For example, the Pastoral Council has developed a parish mission statement, organized a 60th anniversary celebration, organized an annual fun picnic, continued to support our Native American mission in New Mexico, welcomed new families and got them involved in parish activities, promoted liturgical music by hiring a music director, took an active role in the Wisconsin Rapids deanery an promoted religious education by hiring a youth deanery minister and working with the Wisconsin Rapids Area Catholic School (WRACS) system.
She personally paraticipated in the preparatory commission in the first diocesan synod.
Through her guidance, the parish finance council has installed a new church sound system twice, repainted and recarpeted the rectory, established an annual work night for the church grounds, moved the church budget and bookkeeping to computers, purchased a clavinova for the choir, installed new air conditioning and heating boiler units, repaired the roof of the garage, conducted successfull Bishops Annual Appeals and We Belong to Christ Campaign fundraisers, and organized volunteer groups to count weekly income as requested in the Diocesan norms.
A Catholic Education Committee began a children's Liturgy of the Word each Sunday morning; began a video library; promoted the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA); started an adult enrichment program by offering tours to the cathedral in La Crosse and to Holy Hill; brought special speakers into church for parish missions and Walk & Talk Your Faith Series, and directs the Religious Formation Program for the youth of the parish in grades 1 - 12.
A Social Justice committee is responsible for organizing a jail ministry program, organized a Christmas gift or donation program for St. Patrick's mission, supported and encouraged a volunteer's for Meals on Wheels program and the Food Pantry collections. In addition, every year they provide hundreds with a meal through the Neighborhood Table project, support families at time of loss of life by organizing funeral dinners and helping youth to sponsor the lenten Soup and Sustenance suppers.
Another committee that has contributed to the well being of the parish is the Family Life Committee. They are the mass greeters. They have sponsored pizza parties for mass servers, promoted a past MOM's group, sponsored an annual Mardi Gras party, and served coffee and donuts after Sunday mass during lent. In recent years they have coordinated the deanery Couples Night event and recently have changed that to a gathering for anyone who would be interested in an evening of shared faith formation with guest speakers and fancy desserts!
A Sacred Worship committee puts together a annual memorial service for parishioners who passed away during the year, instigated ecumenical prayer service with the other three churches of the village, and encouraged more ministry with adults and youth to come forth for leadership roles in the vaious ministries for services. Each year this committee plans a stirring Triduum and Easter service that has packed the church with Father Campion Baer O. F. M. as our guest pastor.
The Parish Counci of Catholic Women is affiliated with the Deanery and the Diocesan Council of Cathoic Women. The group has had past successful Christmas cookie sales and other fund raisers to do great things for the parish. They had worked with the HIV ministry, helped families experiencing disasters, put on parish social function, offered Assumption High School scholarships, supported shelter homes, helped support St. Patrick's mission, the Family Center, and Beth-Birei Maternity Home. In addition the PCCW works diligently to raise funds for much needed equipment for parish functions like their recent donation of new tables and chair for the parish social hall.
We have accomplished a lot over our 60+ years of existence. Today, 200 envelope holders, representing about 550 people, look with pride on that 'old swamp hole' which, with the help ouf our administrators, parishioners and benefactors have metamorphosed into Saint Alexander's. We thank God for His generosity toward us!