St. Patrick's Church—An Irish Blessing

St. Patrick Church's patron saint
A parade of priests and parishioners chose the patron saint of Ireland—Patrick—as the patron of their parish in Erin Prairie, Wisconsin, almost 160 years ago. My ancestors and their descendants have been at worship at St. Patrick’s Church there since then. They left this place with a firm foundation of faith, which they took into the world with them. They returned to this place, time and again, to mourn and bury their dead, to welcome new members of the family at baptisms, to celebrate new love at marriages and honor old love with celebratory Masses to recognize the longevity of those marriages.

The Irish heritage of Erin Prairie and St. Patrick’s has its roots in the early 1850s’ emigration of about 20 families who left behind the potato famine and political turmoil of mid-century Ireland. In their quest to find a bit of the “auld sod” in America, these pioneers ventured westward until they came upon the fertile soil, woods, and streams of the rolling prairie they would come to call Erin, a township officially organized in western Wisconsin in 1853.

Coloring this period are stories of Indian raids, barn-raising bees, and prolonged Irish wakes characterized by ample supplies of food and whiskey, keeners to chant when mourners got quiet, and pipe-smoking prayer ceremonies. One source told about parishioners walking up to fifteen miles carrying their shoes. Careful not to wear out or ruin their shoes in the mud, folks didn’t step into them until they reached the church steps.

My first-known ancestor in Erin Prairie was my great-great-grandfather, Patrick Lavelle, who received a land grant for property in 1855, which remains in our family to this day. Patrick married his wife, Bridget Pierce, at St. James Church in Hudson, Wisconsin—the county seat—in January 1860.

Little is known about Erin Prairie as a parish before 1857. In the fall of that year, Father J. J. McGee was stationed in Hudson, Wisconsin, and said the first mass in Erin. To show their gratitude to God, the people immediately began erecting a little log church. But since Father McGee’s tenure in Hudson was short-lived, the church was never completed. The people of Erin Prairie were again without divine services.

Reverend Napolean Mignault
In the fall of 1858, Reverend Napoleon Mignault was sent to Hudson, becoming the second Catholic pastor at the county seat. From there, he attended Erin once a month, saying mass at the homes of parishioners. With the prospect of having a priest visit them regularly, the people of Erin Prairie rededicated themselves to build a church there. The log church they began building in 1857 remained abandoned because it would be too small to accommodate the large number of families settling in the rapidly-developing county. They decided to erect a more massive structure, but the decisions about what location would be most convenient for the greatest number of people delayed their project.

That’s why Patrick and Bridget married in St. James Church in Hudson. It wasn’t until a few months after their marriage in 1860, when John Meath, a local Erin farmer, donated two acres of land where a frame church was erected on the current site of St. Patrick’s Church. During the summer of 1862, Father Mignault left Hudson, and Erin Prairie was again without pastoral services, except for an occasional visit made by Father Coffee from Hastings, Minnesota. In late 1862 the Reverends Nicholas and James Stehle were sent to Hudson to fill the religious void left by Father Mignault. Again, Erin was attended to from Hudson, until February 1864, when the first resident priest, the Reverend John Conroy, came to minister to the members of the Erin congregation.

In addition to Erin, Father Conroy served five other communities from St. Patrick’s Church—New Richmond, Cylon, Stanton, Wilson, and Hammond. Those were days when people willingly traveled long distances to get what they needed. The sturdy pioneers thought nothing of it, prizing their rare and somewhat limited religious privileges.

Shortly after his arrival in Erin, Father Conroy began erecting a new parsonage. In the spring of 1866, Phillip Brady, a local contractor and joiner* started work on the new church, a forty-four by eighty-foot structure that would reach a height of twenty-four feet. In February1867, a fire destroyed the almost-completed building. Only the plastering remained unfinished.

In May 2007, just over 140 years after that building was annihilated, Dora Marie Rohl and Barbara Rohl, sisters from Hudson, Wisconsin, donated $200 to the St. Patrick’s Building Fund in memory of Philip S. Brady. Even though parishioners were never able to use that church, the women wanted to honor Brady’s role in building it.

Their donation came with personal information about Mr. Brady. A native of Ireland, he was married to Margaret Runions, their great-grandmother, during the church’s construction. The family history noted Mr. Brady had walked to Hudson to complete papers, and when he returned to Erin, he found the church had been struck by lightning. They said the devastation he experienced caused his health to decline.

Although a discouraging event for all, the residents of Erin continued their quest for a new church with steadfast faith. They faced this calamity head-on, beginning work on the new church almost immediately, thanks to S. A. Jewett’s generous donation of $500 worth of lumber. At that time, Jewett had his own lumber business in the neighboring community of Jewett Mills. 

The altar of the 1869 St. Patrick's Church
However, the quick start to build the church had a slow finish. It’s unclear what tempered its progress. The carpenter was Patrick Phillips, who had migrated to Erin in 1865 from Sligo, Ireland when he was 37 years old. During the construction of this new church, St. Patrick’s, which had been part of the Diocese of Milwaukee, joined the newly-formed Diocese of LaCrosse. That was 1868. 

Patrick Phillips
In October of that same year, Phillip Brady died just months short of seeing the church completed in 1869. His family believed the destruction of the church he built destroyed him. Unfortunately, Father Conroy enjoyed less than half a year in the newly-erected church built by Patrick Phillips. 

In May 1860, he was transferred to another parish. Reverend H. Quigley, D.D., arrived to replace him in September, remaining until July 1872.

Reverend P. J. Lavin came to St. Patrick’s in October 1872 to replace Quigley. During his seven years in charge of the parish, Father Lavin left a lasting impression on the people with his eloquent sermons. After being sent to another church in January 1880, his duties were assumed by Reverend M. Connolly. Shortly after that, the Reverend Daniel Reddin, freshly ordained, succeeded Connolly. He would spend most of the rest of his life as pastor at St. Patrick’s

By 1884 the Erin church had become too small for its large congregation. Cylon, a distant portion of the congregation, wanted more convenient services. They resolved to build a church there, which would continue to be part of St. Patrick’s, but designated as a mission parish.

Father Daniel Reddin
Father Reddin began organizing, and within six months, a beautiful structure—thirty-six by seventy feet—known as Holy Rosary Church, was ready to use. The Cylon church cost thirty-five hundred dollars. Although the attending congregation numbered only twenty-five families, the people were earnest. In less than two years after completing the building, the entire amount of the construction cost was paid in full.

In 1898 Father Reddin built a substantial parish house near St. Patrick’s Church. In 1903, Father Patrick Lee became Father Reddin’s assistant. On October 31, 1904, The Reverend Patrick A. Walsh came to St. Patrick’s, succeeding Father Lee as Father Reddin’s assistant. Shortly after that, due to failing health, Father Reddin resigned. The bishop appointed Father Campbell and then Father Hermann to succeed Father Reddin, but both died before taking charge.

Father Patrick Walsh
In January 1905, Bishop Schwebach appointed Father Walsh pastor of St. Patrick’s parish. He energetically and capably continued the work of his predecessor. Around this time, St. Patrick’s, along with other churches in St. Croix County, transferred from the Diocese of LaCrosse to the newly-created Diocese of Superior, where they remain today.

Father Walsh’s industry and persistence, coupled with the cooperation of members of the parish, led to erecting a beautiful, new church, said to be the most beautiful country church in the Diocese of Superior.

The work started in 1913 with the support of about 250 families from Erin and Emerald. The 1869 structure was moved across the road and used as a parish hall until it blew down in a 1938 windstorm.

In 1913, the congregation built its fourth place of worship since its founding in 1857

The new house of worship in Erin Prairie was dedicated June 16, 1914, with solemn and impressive ceremonies. The Rt. Reverend Joseph M Koudelka, D.D., Bishop of Superior, officiated. The building cost twenty-five thousand dollars, not including the pews and interior furnishings. That amounted to an additional six-thousand dollars, mostly donated by parish societies and individuals.

The 105-foot by 44-foot Spanish-mission style church was built with dark red colonial brick in Flemish bond with raked joints.** Its 25-foot deep sanctuary proper was 21½-feet wide. The sacristy measured twenty-two feet by sixteen feet, three inches. The plastering had a carpet float finish***, and the entire ceiling was beamed. Beneath the whole church was a nine-foot-high basement with a cement floor, partitioned off into a dining hall, a serving room, a kitchen, and pantry.

The pilasters, tower, both front and rear walls, arches over the entrance, and tops of chimneys were capped with blue Bedford stone, which complemented the brick to make a handsome finish. The interior English-mission style finish included a maple floor and red oak woodwork. The three altars and communion rail were pure white with gold trim. The high altar weighed 2,800 pounds, and the communion rail was capped with a ten-inch marble slab.

With the support of the parishioners, Father Walsh purchased an additional ten acres of land. Then he graded and beautified the church property with landscaping and an ornamental fence.

In those days, pews were assigned to each family. It was considered improper to sit in an unassigned seat unless invited to do so. Similar etiquette was practiced in the buggy parking lot. Each family was assigned a post to tie their horse or team, and tempers were known to flare if the status quo was breached.

The fall bazaar was the social event of the year and served as an annual homecoming event for former parishioners. It included a chicken dinner with all the trimmings, a fishpond, and “Who has the lucky number?” wheel. The chance to win money at this game was a big attraction for many erstwhile gamblers. Unfortunately, the parish “boom” saw its end in the next few years.

The dismal drought of the 1930s, coupled with the Depression, had its impact on the parish. Area banks closed, and farmers were faced with foreclosures. People began to move to the cities.

The debt for the church had not been retired. Few families could afford to make payments, but they managed to keep up the interest payments despite the hard times. There was no excess for maintenance, however, and the church fell into disrepair.

Fr. P.J. Walsh built St. Patrick's Grotto with love & labor

Father Walsh had great devotion for the Blessed Mother and built an outdoor shrine to honor her on the east side of the church. This was significant, symbolizing a new beginning, likely something many in the parish needed so desperately at this time. With the help of young men in the parish, he worked long, hard hours using dolomite—a coral-like rock he had found in the Spring Valley, Wisconsin area.

Placing it on the east side of the church was significant, symbolizing a new beginning, likely something many in the parish needed so desperately at this time.

Father Walsh had great devotion for the Blessed Mother and saw this outdoor shrine as a way to honor her. With the help of young men in the parish, he worked long, hard hours using dolomite—a coral-like rock he had found in the Spring Valley, Wisconsin area.

Pennies from children purchased this Blessed Virgin statue

While the Grotto was being built, children of St. Patrick’s saved their pennies and donated them each Sunday. Pennies grew into dollars, and soon there were enough to buy the statue of Blessed Virgin Mary.

Vines covered the inside and outside of the Grotto, and a pool was built to the south of it. Urns and beds of colorful plants surrounded the Grotto and pool.

After it was finished, parishioners would stop there before and after Mass each Sunday. They might have prayed and enjoyed the fish in the pool, as well as the abundant flowers surrounding the Grotto. Often parishioners would gather around it, kneeling with Father Walsh, saying the Rosary and reciting the Litany of the Blessed Mother.

In October 1938, Father Walsh was called upon to serve the Spooner parish, where he passed away two years later after a struggle with throat cancer. He was brought back to St. Patrick’s and buried next to Father Reddin in the St. Patrick’s cemetery.

When Father Walsh left St. Patrick’s, it was the first time since 1864 the parish was without a resident priest. It became a mission church under the care of Father Daniel Slattery, who was also in charge of St. Bridget’s in Stanton and Holy Rosary in Cylon. The St. Patrick’s congregation had to make do with a visiting priest on alternating weekends.

In July 1940, when Father Slattery was forced to retire due to poor health, the Reverend James Griffin was appointed to St. Patrick’s. He was also tapped to serve Holy Rosary in Cylon and St. Bridget’s in Stanton.

Burned ruins of St. Patrick's church, 1945
During 1945 Father Griffin and the parishioners were dealt another blow—the church was destroyed by fire. A newspaper article noted: Artistic as the ruins of an old monastery is the picture taken by Dick Howard of New Richmond of the walls, tower, and belfry of St. Patrick's Church of Erin, all that is left standing of the beautiful edifice after the disastrous fire of December 16. Not a stick of charred timber is left to support the masonry. The photograph is truly a piece of art, but, Oh, the heartache that lies behind it

With World War II in full force, there was a shortage of building materials. Still, a new generation of parishioners joined forces in rebuilding the church immediately to keep the parish together. During its construction, Father James Griffin held Masses in the parish house.

The new building, which stands today, was built in 1946. The architect for the church was E. J. Donohue from 660 Gilfillan Block in St. Paul, Minnesota. When the cornerstone was laid, the following items were sealed inside it: 
  • a short history of the parish
  • a list of priests who served the parish
  • the pope and bishop's names
  • photograph of the former church
  • names of parishioners
  • copies of the current issues of The Leader and the News
  • four medals
  • ten 1946 pennies
  • six 1946 dimes
  • ten 1946 nickels
  • one penny from the former cornerstone
  •  one 50-cent piece from the former cornerstone 

This fifth—and, so far, final—St. Patrick's Church was dedicated on May 12, 1947 by The Most Reverend Albert Gregory Meyer, Bishop of Superior. 

This church on the hill has served St. Patrick's long-standing congregation since 1946

In 1953 The Reverend Philip Krembs replaced Father Griffin, who moved to Minocqua, Wisconsin. During Father Krembs’ five-year stay, the parish celebrated its centennial. The Reverend Walter Torkildson, who is remembered for his skill in money management and reducing the parish debt considerably, succeeded Father Krembs in 1958.

The “silver-tongued orator, Reverend George Gleason, arrived in June 1961. During this period, the Holy Rosary parish in Cylon merged with St. Patrick’s. When Father Gleason attended the University of Minnesota in 1965, the Reverend Peter Maak attended to St. Patrick’s and served the Carmelite Nuns in Hudson.

The Reverend John Tomre became pastor in 1965 and made Erin his home until October 1978. After that, Erin became a mission church of the Immaculate Conception parish in New Richmond, under Reverend Daniel Dahlberg and Assistant Reverend Brian DuBois.

Deacon Jerry Harris came to help with the parish work and was ordained in March 1979. He remained with St. Patrick’s until June 1979. Deacon David Lusson came in July that year to help Father Dahlberg serve the needs of both parishes. The transition was made with the cooperation and support of both churches.

During 1981, Father Vincent Lynch assisted Father Dahlberg at St. Patrick’s. Father Dahlberg was often a dinner guest at my parents’ home in Erin. I had young children at the time he ministered to St. Patrick’s. One day our visit coincided with a visit from Father Dan, as he liked to be called. We all gathered around the table for lunch. After we finished, Father left for an appointment, and my daughter asked, “Does Grandma always have God come for lunch?”

Father Lynch, who was assisting Father Dan at that time, was a particularly popular priest. The Irish would call him a “darling man.” He was young, handsome, and charming. One day he stopped in to have coffee with Mom at her invitation. I happened to be visiting at the time, as well. He had barely made it through his first cup of coffee when Mom asked, “Why would a man as good looking as you go into the priesthood and stay single for the rest of your life?” He smiled, put down his cup of coffee, and said, “Well, why not? After all, ugly people get married, don’t they?” Father James Gutzler of Holy Family Hospital also assisted during this period. Sister Martha Kormendy was CCD Coordinator for both parishes. 

In June 1984, Father Charles Murphy and Father James Tobolski were assigned to serve both Immaculate Conception in New Richmond and St. Patrick’s. Later in 1984, Father Tobolski transferred to Superior, Wisconsin, and was replaced by Father Martin Gibbons. Father Murphy initiated many remodeling projects, interior painting, and landscaping around St. Patrick’s.

Father Dennis Mullen came to St. Patrick’s in June 1988. At that time, responsibility for serving the needs of St. Patrick’s was transferred from Immaculate Conception in New Richmond to Immaculate Conception in Hammond. It was Father Dennis’ goal to make parishioners feel at home at either church. He coordinated many joint parish events, including a pig roast and a chili feed, and invited members of both parishes to be there. Father Mullen also improved the landscaping at the cemetery and planting blue spruce and pines around the parking lot. He encouraged the congregation to remove the parish house due to its run-down condition. A parking lot now stands in its place. Father Mullen also guided the parish through its two-year RENEW program and began the deaconship instructions for Larry Hennemann and Joe Paron.

In June 1992, Father James Kraker came to Immaculate Conception and St. Patrick’s. On November 21, 1992, Larry Hennemann and Joe Paron were ordained as deacons. Deacon Larry Hennemann was transferred to River Falls. Deacon Joe Paron aided Father Jim at Mass, as well as with other duties, including instructions of new catechumens.
In 1998, Father Charles Murphy was appointed as assistant to Father Kraker with the assistance of Father Leonard Fraher, helping with masses in Erin. On June 30, 1999, Father Murphy left for an undetermined sabbatical, and Father Kraker also went on a sabbatical leave due to health problems. Father Murphy eventually left the priesthood and married.

Father James Brinkman
On July 1, 1999, St. Patrick’s once again became a mission of Immaculate Conception—New Richmond. Father Allan Bradley assisted by Father Leonard Fraher and Deacon Hugh Mayer led the parishioners of the little, but mighty church into the millennium. In 2000 A.D., St. Patrick’s Church marked its 143rd year since its beginning.

Deacon Hugh “Doc” Mayer passed away on July 27, 2004, and was greatly missed. Deacon Michael Germain took over as Deacon Mayer’s replacement. In September 2004, Father Bradley left due to health reasons and was replaced by Father James Brinkman, a New Richmond native, in November of that year. Father Brinkman served the Erin church community for the next 11 years, retiring in June 2015. 

Father John Anderson
His replacement was Father John Anderson, also a New Richmond native, who became pastor of Immaculate Conception Church there and serves St. Patrick’s as a mission church. Father John’s roots run deep at St. Patrick’s in Erin Prairie. He and I share a great-grandfather—James Donahue—who married Nell Clennan in 1886 at the church. The couple went on to raise their seven children in the parish. John and I are second cousins as a result of that union. He continues to serve St. Patrick’s in Erin today, along with Deacons Michael Germain and Mel Riel. 
Though Irish families are a minority now, the Irish tradition of St. Patrick’s Parish in Erin Prairie lives on as several descendants of the original settlers still make this their home.

There’s a beautiful Irish phrase from West Kerry mo sheasamh ort lá na choise tinne (ma yasa verlo hosha tinna) that translates to you are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore. St. Patrick’s was that for its earliest parishioners, who walked barefoot to church and literally had sore feet. Metaphorically, it continued to be where all its parishioners stood, and still stand, with the sore feet caused by life’s ups and downs, that needed, and still need, soothing.

**Raked joints leave edges of the brick exposed.
***A float is a rectangular trowel-like tool used for smoothing wet plaster onto walls. A carpet float had a piece of carpet attached to it that would create the wall’s finished texture.


This history of St. Patrick’s Parish is based on input by many of the parishioners and former parishioners—Father Philip Krembs, Agnes Ring, Catherine “Kate” Ring, Eileen Henry, Mary Ross, Edna “Edie” Donahue and many others who furnished books, documents and pictures of “who we used to be”-----

(The above history was gathered from seven existing histories written by parishioners of the past.)

Researched and updated by Don Maloney 2007 A.D.

Updated by Mary Maloney Miller 2019 A.D.


Popular Posts