St. Patrick's Church—An Irish Blessing
|St. Patrick Church's patron saint|
This era’s stories include 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 today. 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. The people immediately erected a log church to show their gratitude to God. 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|
That’s why Patrick and Bridget married at St. James Church in Hudson. It wasn’t until a few months after their marriage in 1860 that John Meath, a local Erin farmer, donated two acres of land to erect a frame church 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 Reverend 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.
Father Conroy began erecting a new parsonage shortly after his arrival in Erin. 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 February 1867, a fire destroyed the almost completed building. Only the plastering remained unfinished.
In May 2007, just over 140 years after the fire annihilated that building, 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 could never 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 married 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 lightning had struck the church. They said the devastation he experienced caused his health to decline.
|The altar of the 1869 St. Patrick's Church|
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, Reverend M. Connolly assumed Father Lavin’s duties. 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|
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 Father Hermann to succeed Father Reddin, but both died before taking charge.
|Father Patrick Walsh|
Father Walsh’s industry and persistence, coupled with the cooperation of parish members, 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. After moving the 1869 structure across the road, the church used it 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 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 a ceiling entirely beamed. Beneath the whole church was a nine-foot-high basement with a cement floor, partitioned into a dining hall, a serving room, a kitchen, and a pantry.
Blue Bedfore stone capped the pilasters, tower, front and rear walls, arches over the entrance, and tops of chimneys, 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 a ten-inch marble slab capped the communion rail.
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, each family had assigned pews. To sit in an unassigned seat unless invited to do so required an invitation. Similar etiquette extended to the buggy parking lot. Each family was assigned a post to tie their horse or team, and tempers flared if a breach of the status quo occurred.
The fall bazaar was the year’s social event and was an annual homecoming event for former parishioners. It included a chicken dinner with all the trimmings, a fishpond, and a “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” ended in the next few years.
The dismal drought of the 1930s, coupled with the Depression, impacted the parish. Area banks closed, and many farmers faced 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. However, there was no excess for maintenance, and the church fell into disrepair.
|Fr. P.J. Walsh built St. Patrick's Grotto with love & labor|
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.
|Pennies from children purchased this Blessed Virgin statue|
During the construction of the Grotto, 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 the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Vines covered the inside and outside of the Grotto. Urns and beds of colorful plants surrounded the Grotto, and the pool built to the south.
After its completion, parishioners would stop by the Grotto before and after Mass each Sunday. They likely prayed and enjoyed the fish in the pool and the abundant flowers surrounding it. Often parishioners gathered around it, kneeling with Father Walsh, saying the Rosary, and reciting the Litany of the Blessed Mother.
In October 1938, Father Walsh left for a Spooner, Wisconsin parish that had called him to serve there. Two years later, he passed away 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. Holy Rosary in Cylon and St. Bridget’s in Stanton also tapped him to serve.
|Burned ruins of St. Patrick's church, 1945|
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 builders laid the cornerstone, the following items were sealed inside it:
- a short history of the parish
- a list of priests who served the parish
- the pope's 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
The Most Reverend Albert Gregory Meyer,
Bishop of Superior dedicated this fifth—and, so far, final—St. Patrick's
Church May 12, 1947.
|This church on the hill has served St. Patrick's long-standing congregation since 1946|
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 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 of that year to help Father Dahlberg serve the needs of both parishes. There was a smooth transition with the cooperation and support of both churches.
In 1981, Father Vincent Lynch assisted Father Dahlberg at St. Patrick's. Father Dahlberg was often a dinner guest at my parent's 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. 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 assisted Father Dan then, was a 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 the CCD Coordinator for both parishes.
In June 1984, Father Charles Murphy and Father James Tobolski were assigned to serve Immaculate Conception in New Richmond and St. Patrick's. Later in 1984, Father Tobolski transferred to Superior, Wisconsin, and Father Martin Gibbons replaced him. 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. Father Dennis aimed 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 planted 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 became deacons. Deacon Larry Hennemann transferred to River Falls. Deacon Joe Paron aided Father Jim at Mass, as well as with other duties, including instructions for new catechumens.
In 1998, Father Charles Murphy was appointed as Father Kraker's assistant with Father Leonard Fraher's assistance, helping with masses in Erin. On June 30, 1999, Father Murphy left for an undetermined sabbatical, and Father Kraker also took a sabbatical leave due to health problems. Father Murphy eventually left the priesthood and married.
|Father James Brinkman|
Church members greatly missed Deacon Hugh “Doc” Mayer after he passed away on July 27, 2004. Deacon Michael Germain took over as Deacon Mayer’s replacement. In September 2004, Father Bradley left due to health reasons. He 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.
A beautiful Irish phrase from West Kerry, “mo sheasamh ort lá na choise tinne” (ma yasa verlo hosha tinna), translates to “you are 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.