History of St Francis Xavier
According to the 1840 Catholic Almanac for the Diocese of Detroit, St. Francis Xavier has been a Community of faith since 1838. We are older than the Milwaukee Archdiocese and the state of Wisconsin!
The Year was 1838
Pope Gregory the 16th was the successor of St. Peter, Martin Van Buren was president of the 26 United States, Wisconsin was a territory, and was under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Detroit. It was in that year that a young Irish priest by the name of Father Patrick O’Kelly came to the area known at the time as Salem (which is present day Brighton) to celebrate the first Catholic Mass.
Catholics from Ireland, Germany, Amsterdam and Luxemburg would gather in the home of Mr. Michael Ward (today the home of Steve & MaryAnn Decatur, which is across the road from the Brightonwood Apple Orchard) and the home of Mr. Patrick McGuire (now the home of Jerry & Linda Helmert) to worship our Lord and receive Holy Communion. This was the beginning of the faith community of St. Francis Xavier
Three priests visited periodically: Father Kundig, Father Morrissey and Father Moran. It was Fr. Kundig who spearheaded the building of the first log cabin church under the patronage of St. Patrick in 1843.
In 1847, Fr. Michael Wisbauer arrived in Burlington to begin his pastorate at what was then St. Sebastian Parish – today know as Immaculate Conception (St. Mary’s). Fr. Wisbauer received instructions from the Bishop of Detroit to have services offered at the Irish congregation at Brighton. It was one year later in October of 1848 that Brighton received its own resident pastor in the person of Fr. Francis Xavier Etchmann. It wasn’t long after that when Fr. Etchmann encouraged his congregation to assist him in building a new church. He went collecting from every farmer’s cabin in the parish. He was able to come up with $650 in contributions. His people were very poor and the collection proved as ample as he could expect. In a letter to the Ludwig missionaries in Munich, dated April 4, 1849, Fr. Etchmann wrote this: “For myself I shall willingly live poorly and be satisfied, but otherwise I am distressed and hurt over my church, my poor St. Patrick’s Chapel. When I arrived here and saw it for the first time, it struck me in every limb with fright and dread, and now after a half a year, though the sight of it has become more habituated, I am obliged to sigh whenever I read Mass therein or conduct divine services. It is a log church with a roof and walls which are bound together with mud and clay. It appears uninviting and to me it is the ugliest one in Wisconsin that houses the most Holy Lord. I found not a thread of vestments in it, and if any had been there, no nail to hang them on. All was bare, deserted and empty.” Fr. Etchmann’s dream became a reality in the autumn of 1849. It served the congregation for 34 years.
Under the guidance of Fr. Michael Bitter, the parish built its first school in 1857. It was one of the first Catholic schools in Wisconsin and the oldest rural Catholic school in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. By 1878, the school had grown too small and the parish, under the leadership of Fr. Leonard Blum, approved the building of a new school and dwelling for the sisters. The project was completed in the fall of 1878, at a cost of $2,519.95. The new school and convent were considered to be one of the finest and best equipped schools in the Archdiocese. Parents paid 50 cents a month for children under 9 years of age and $4.00 annually for each child between the ages of 9 and 12.
Disaster struck on May 18, 1883, when a cyclone destroyed the church. Once again, the task fell to Fr. Etchmann to build a new church. Even though eh had left in 1851, he was reassigned in 1881, to begin his second term as pastor. He and his parishioners decided to build another church on May 24. The cornerstone was laid on August 19, 1883. A disagreement developed between the Irish and Germans over whether the name should remain St. Patrick. The Germans wanted it called St. Boniface. (Already, prior to this, in parish meeting minutes, it had been recorded as both St. Patrick and St. Boniface Church.) The argument was settled by deciding to name it after Fr. Etchmann – St. Francis Xavier. Hence the three windows above the Altar have St. Francis in the center with St. Patrick and St. Boniface on either side. All three windows were brought to Brighton from Tyrol, Austria for a total cost of $800.
In the later part of the 1890’s, a new parsonage was built at a cost of $2,603.60. The old parsonage stood across the road from the new one and was sold to Peter Stahl in 1899, for $217.50.
A memorial hall honoring Mr. Martin Hahn, the only parishioner to die on the battlefields of France during World War I was built by the Town of Brighton on the parish grounds as the town didn’t have land available. The parish was given use of it.
By the 1960’s, the parish school was again too small, which forced classes to be held in the Martin Hahn Memorial Hall. Fr. Uhen laid the groundwork for building the new school and convent. Ground was broken on March 6, 1966 and the buildings were completed in September at a cost of $185,000.00. Classes were first held in the new school on September 12. In 1983, under the pastorate of Fr. Lawrence Waleske, the debt was liquidated on these buildings.
During the 1993-1994 school year, talk of collaboration between St. Francis and St. John in Paris began. Collaboration efforts became consolidation plans and in December of 1995 both schools became consolidated under the direction of Sr. Kathryn Dean Strandell as Principal. The new school was named Providence Catholic School with St. Francis as the west campus and St. John the east campus.
In the 1989 and 1991 period, parishes were asked to come up with some recommendations for the future, in light of the priest shortages. In 1997, the Archdiocese recommended that St. Francis and St. John be served by one priest with additional help from a pastoral associate by June of 1999.
On June 17, 1997, Fr. Jim Volkert arrived as our new pastor, and shortly after the former convent building became the new Parish Center. In November of 1998, a new and bigger parking lot was completed featuring new lighting, and a statue of our patron, St. Francis Xavier.
On December 6, 1998, St. Francis began a year long celebration of our 160th anniversary. Following the celebration of the Eucharist, a blessing and dedication of the parking lot sign and statue took place.
In honor of the early Irish roots of the parish, an Irish fest was held on March 20, 1999.
A new Marion Shrine between the school and parish center was blessed and dedicated on August 15 to coincide with the date of the laying of the original cornerstone of the present church on August of 1883.
To honor the German heritage of St. Francis Xavier Parish, an Oktoberfest was held on October 2.
On October 3, Fr. Jim Volkert was installed as pastor of both parishes.
During the year 1999, the interior of the church was completely renovated. The new Altar, side altars and pulpit were mad by Mr. Robert Daniels.
A celebration on December 11, 1999, brought to a close the year-long commemoration of the parish’s 160th Anniversary. Prior to the Mass, Bishop Richard Sklba blessed and consecrated the new Altar. A reception and dinner followed in the school hall at which time a video on the parish’s history was shown.
In June of 2000, air conditioning was installed in the church.
June of 2003, Planning Commission meetings to determine the future of our parishes and school were held at St. Robert Bellarmine.
July 2004, a new Mass schedule for the 4 parishes in compliance with district directives.
September 2007, an In Solidum Team of priests was established to serve the parishes of St. Francis, St. John, St. Mary, and St. Robert.
In 2008, changes took place with Fr. Howard Haase as pastor of all four parishes.
In 2009, St. Francis and St. John were assigned Fr. Gary Nowicki as Administrator, but he was unable to take the assignment due to health. We completed the year with help out priests and Temporary Administrator: Fr. Jim Vojtek, Fr. Donald Thimm, and Fr. Roger Savage.
2010 brought more changes for St. Francis and the Archdiocese with the assignment of a Parish Director, Mr. Russell Arnett. Father Roger Savage remained as our Supervising Priest. Mr. Arnett was a former Episcopal priest who has joined the Catholic Church. He was ordained to the deaconate in October and to the priesthood on March 19, 2011. Fr. Arnett is St. Francis’ first married priest.
Pray that St. Francis Xavier will be here for many more years and that our parishes will continue to grow in faith together.