One of the Oldest Parishes in the Archdioceses of Milwaukee
Catholics from European countries came to the Burlington area in the early 1800's and sought to continue to grow their faith. Before a parish was established, missionary priests travelling through Burlington offered Mass in the homes of area Catholics. The earliest known Mass was celebrated in 1838 in the house of Mr. Nimms by Fr. Thomas Morrissey, a missionary who served in this area for twenty-three years. In 1842, the people of the this area donated $60 to buy a horse for another missionary, Fr. Martin Kundig, to help ensure that during his travels Mass would be offered in the Burlington Area.
By the year 1844, the parish under the name of St. Sebastian was formed and plans for the first church building took place. The land for this church was purchased from Mr. E. Perkins for $25 in early 1847. Thanks to the hard work of many parish members the total cost to construct the new stone church was $578.84. This is amazing considering they purchased land and a small building in December 1845, from Squire Lewis Royce to add to the parish campus for $600. This first church, St. Sebastian, was built on the site, which is now the State Street parking lot. The building is credited as being the first masonry building in all of Racine County. St. Sebastian's was consecrated by Bishop Henni on November 9, 1845. This was the first in a long series of building projects for the parish. The parish started with a number of temporary pastors, though Father Michael Wisbauer is credited as being the first resident pastor of our parish in 1847.
The parish quickly outgrew the first church and in 1854 the cornerstone was laid in the "new stone church." This Gothic Revival church was designed by Victor Schulte, who was one of Wisconsin's first architects, and he also designed many of the original buildings for the St Francis Seminary. On December 8, 1859, Bishop Henni consecrated the stone church under the title of the Immaculate Conception, which was the choice of the United States Bishops as the Patroness of the country. Despite the steeple being removed in 1893, it still remains one of the best preserved cobblestone buildings in the nation. Many of the original diamond shaped windows can be seen, which is extremely rare for a building of this age.
St Mary parish grade school began in 1860 four days after the arrival of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. 110 students are shown to have attended school that first year. Through the next approximately 120 years the parish and schools were faithfully served by Notre Dame and Franciscan (OSF) Sisters. In total, there were over 350 sisters that served our parish. The school was started in the first church (St Sebastian) just four days after the sisters arrived. The school later moved to the old stone church, then to the building where Catholic Central now resides, and eventually to grade school's existing building in 1955. Since then, the old stone church, and old convent have been used as classroom space when needed for the grade school and high school. Currently, the Annex houses four classrooms for the grade school, and the convent is home to the parish preschool which was started in 2001.
In 1890, work began on the current church building thanks to urging from Father Jacobs. He believed in the project so much that he personally purchased the land for $500 from the School Sisters. The new church, and its 186 foot tall tower, were dedicated on December 10, 1891. In the years to follow, it was noted that Fr. Jacob purchased and donated many other things for the church, including the existing stations hanging on our church walls. He and his cousin also donated a new main altar and organ in 1904. Fr. Jacob was a very business orientated pastor. As noted in the history of St Mary Parish, Fr. Jacob not only was pastor, he ran a shoe store and served as Director of the Bank of Burlington.
On August 9, 1892, Immaculate Conception (St Mary) Parish celebrated the first mass for The Reverend Phillip Klein, who became our first parish member to be ordained a priest. This started a tradition of many young and women from our parish entering the religious orders. Fr. Klein was later made a Domestic Prelate by Pope Pius XII, in July 1954.
In 1920, the parish bought back its first church, which had been sold to the St. Eustachius Benevolent Society. It then became the first home to a Catholic two-year commercial business high school in 1924, thanks to the efforts of Father Van Treeck. After five years, the school expanded to a four year program. By 1926, St Mary High School (later to be called Catholic Central High School) moved into its new building on the south end of the campus, which it shared with the grade school. Catholic Central High School now functions separately from the parish and is sponsored by many parishes in the area.
Also in 1926, St Therese Chapel in Powers Lake was built for summer services. At first, this chapel was administered to by St. Alphonsus in New Munster, though soon afterwards it fell under the care of our parish for many years. (This chapel was closed in 2009 due to the shortage of priests.)
The current rectory offices were completed in 1976 and added much needed office and meeting space. Many of the recent projects have been done by Catholic Central and include: the addition of the big gym, the remodeling of Topper Hall (the original gym which is now a Theater), the addition of the MAC and most recently the addtion of the practice gym and addtional classrooms.On the morning of July 24, 1977, a fire destroyed most of the church. Thanks to the dedicated effort of many parishioners serving on a variety of committees, the church was rebuilt . It was rededicated on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1979. At this time, the Good Shepherd Chapel was added to the south side of the church.Since 1980 there have not been any significant building projects to the church or grade school, though the campus is continually being maintained and updated.
The history of our parish would not be complete without noting that in the nearly 175 years in existence, our parish is proud to say that more than 20 of its members went on to become priests, 2 became brothers, and more than 20 became sisters. Immaculate Conception Parish is very proud of its history and looks forward to the history it's parish members will work together to create in the years to come.
Saturday, December 8th, 2018 at the 4:30 PM Mass we celebrated our 180th anniversary. In celebration of our 180th anniversary we are sharing St. Mary Fun Facts.
9/22-9/23: Question: When was the first Catholic mass, on record celebrated in Burlington? Answer: The first Catholic mass was celebrated in 1838. Mass was celebrated by a traveling priest, Fr. Thomas Morissy. Mass may have been celebrated in a sauerkraut plant that stood near the Fox River or Mr. Nimm’s lodging house. Another traveling priest was Fr. Martin Kundic. The local families raised $60 to buy a horse to assure the priest return to Burlington. The horses name was Prince.
9/29-9/30: Question: What building on our parish campus was built by local families in 1859? Answer: The stone church annex was built in 1859 by the families of our parish. The stones were dug from the family’s farm fields during the week and hauled in by a wagon on Sunday. They celebrated mass and then worked on the church for the remainder of the day. A ramp was built to raise the rocks at each level. Rumor has it that the ramp eventually extended to Schemmer Street in order to get the rocks to the highest level. This building still is the oldest gothic stone structure in the Midwest.
10/6-10/7: Question: How many pastors have we had at St. Mary’s? Answer: The Answer is 10. 1. Father Wisbauer was our first resident pastor and is our record holder with 42 years of service to our community. He was assigned to our parish in 1847. Next was 2.Father Jacobs who served for 22 years. He was called a financial wizard, and while our pastor, was also the director of the bank of Burlington and ran a shoe store. 3.Father Bertram served for 2 year; he died from complications of an appendicitis. 4.Father VanTreek served for 20 years. He put in the church basement and we still use today and built Catholic Central, which was the first Catholic High School in the Arch Diocese of Milwaukee. 5. Monsignor Kersting served for 17 years and served through the depression. Despite economic challenges, he is credited with developing the high school as measured by the increased enrollment and improved facilities. 6. Monsignor Heim served for 27 years and is credited with building the current grade school. 7. Father Gosma served for 13 years, and then we had 8. Father Reith, 9.Father Theilen and10. Father Jim Volkert. In addition to these devout men, the School Sisters of Notre Dame served our school communities for nearly 120 years. Father Wisbauer commissioned their help in 1860.
10/13-10/14: Question: How tall is our steeple? Answer: The Answer is St. Mary's steeple is 186 feet high. You may also be interested to know the length of our church aisle is 100 feet, and there are 20 pews on each side of the main aisle. Our church can hold 600 people. When St. Mary's celebrated its 50th anniversary they had already built 3 churches, 3 rectories, opened 2 different schools, and built 2 convents plus an addition.
10/20-10/21: Question: In the year 1859, the Bishop of the Milwaukee archdiocese changed the name of our parish to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What was the first name of our parish? Answer: St. Sebastian was the name given to the first church dedicated in 1847. Around this same time, in 1846, the United States Bishops chose the Immaculate Conception as the Patroness of our country. With the directive of Milwaukee Bishop Henni, our parish’s name was changed at the dedication of the parish’s second church building in 1859. We honor the memory of our beginnings as St. Sebastian Parish by giving the same name to the church basement meeting room adjacent to the main room in Heim Hall.
10/27-10/28: Question: What is the name of our parish cemetery? And what year was it established? Answer: “God’s Acres” was established in 1846. The first traveling priest, Fr. Thomas Morissy is buried in our cemetery. He is credited with celebrating the first mass in Burlington. The brick chapel in the cemetery is over 126 years old. It was constructed over the burial site of our first pastor, Fr. Michael Wisbauer. This was conceived as a means of honoring his more than 40 years of service. Time and Talent was evident through the donation of parishioner, John Rausch, in the 1930s. He was the grandfather of our current parish secretary, Dianne Smetana. It was once during a time that he found himself without a job, that he lovingly built the ornate and substantial stone and iron-work fence that encloses the front of the cemetery on W. State St. No history is complete without acknowledging the labors of love performed by the caretakers and sextons of our holy grounds.
11/3-11/4/2018: Question: What happened on July 24, 1977 at 4:20 AM? Answer: A devastating fire, destroying the roof and steeple. The damage was tremendous leaving charred debris throughout the sanctuary. The bells fell from the tower and plunged through the church floor. This was a Sunday morning and mass was said in the old gym that very morning. When completed more than two years later, the $2.6 million reconstruction – including a $2.3 million insurance settlement- was greeted with a glorious rededication ceremony. According to accounts of the fire, officials were unable to determine a definitive cause.
11/10-11/11/2018: Question: What furnishings were reused in our current church from the 1854 fieldstone church? Answer: Our current church was first completed in late 1891. The main altar was refinished and moved from the fieldstone church. It was used for 13 years. It was replaced by the ornate altar we use today. The new altar was purchased and installed in 1904. Straight-backed pews lined the interior side wall of the new church. These were repurposed from the fieldstone church. These pews remained in use until the interior of the church was redecorated and restored following the fire of 1977.
11/17-11/18/2018: Question: How many sons and daughters from St. Mary’s parish community have chosen to carry on God’s work in a religious vocation? Answer: 19 parish sons have become priests, 2 parish sons became brothers in religious orders, and 36 parish daughters entered religious life as Sisters in service to schools, hospitals, elder care, and as leaders within their orders. Most recently, 1 parish son was ordained a Deacon and presently serves our tri-parish community. The first parish son to be ordained a priest was Monsignor Philip Klein. He was ordained in July 1892 and celebrated his first mass at our current church on August 9, 1892. He lived to be 95 years old and celebrated his 70th anniversary as a priest in his early 90s. After a dozen years or so, as an associate in various parishes, he was named the pastor of Sacred Heart parish in St. Francis. He served in that assignment for 52 years before his retirement at 86. Our most current parish son that became a priest is Nathan Reesman. He was ordained in May 2006. He is currently serving as pastor in West Bend, WI for two church communities – St. Francis Cabrini and Immaculate Conception parishes. Anton Nickolai, a parish son, was recently ordained through the sacrament of Holy Orders on Saturday, September 8, 2018 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee to the Permanent Diaconate. The parish celebrated here with a Mass of Thanksgiving on Sunday, September 9, 2018. St. Mary’s Parish has been blessed with the sacrifices from many in service to God’s needs, ever present in the recent example of Deacon Nickolai and all those who served before him. May they inspire us on a daily basis.
11/24-11/25/2018: Question: A woman is featured in one of the stained glass windows on the choir side of the church. Who is she? Answer: She is Saint Cecilia, the patroness of musicians. Her feast day is celebrated on November 22. One of the reasons she was named a saint was because she distributed her possessions to the poor, which enraged the prefect Almachius, who ordered her to be burned. When the flames did not harm her, she was beheaded. Our parish choir has history as far back as 1842, with its first choir director hired in 1848 by Father Wisbauer. His name was Professor Dietrich.
12/1-12/2/2018: Who is the oldest and youngest members of St. Mary? Answer: Anne Richter is the oldest member of St. Mary. She is 105 years old. Romona Wille is the second oldest member, she is 98 years old. These ladies have grown up through the years with this parish, partaking in all the sacraments and celebrations with their families. Their love and faith of our parish is a true testimonial to us all! The youngest member of our parish is Isaac Kerkman, the son of Chantry and Doug Kerkman.With his family to guide him we hope he’ll learn to live his faith and love ST. Mary.
-St. Mary 180th Anniversary Committee
* This history is the accumulation of information from the parish archives, the Burlington Historical Society, St Mary of the Immaculate Conception 100th Anniversary booklet (1944) written by Father Roman A. Bernert, SJ, and St Mary's Community of Faith (1980) by Reverends Richard R. Dolezal, and Thomas G. Fait.