It all began in the 1840’s when a handful of settlers began to purchase the rich farmland surrounding Eagle Lake from the government for $1.25 an acre. Many of these families were Irish Catholics who took their obligation to attend Sunday Mass very seriously. At first they traveled to the neighboring parishes every Sunday, but soon began to dream about a church in their own community. They were first ministered to by a traveling priest, Fr. Thomas Morrissey and later by Fr. Martin Kennedy who occasionally said Mass in private homes.
As a parish, St. Mary had a modest beginning. The first Catholic families in Dover were part of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Waterford. Early accounts of St. Mary’s refer to the Irish ancestors of the original families. Names like Lavin, McManus, Cunningham, Cox Nolan, Briody, Powers and Allan prove this fact. This is further corroborated by the names found in St. Mary’s cemetery. We don’t know exactly when that dream turned into a plan, but we can imagine it came as a response to the difficulty traveling to Waterford, Burlington, Paris or Brighton every week for mass. But there was another reason: these families wanted their own priest nearly to offer comfort and last rites to the sick and dying.
We do know that in the 1850’s Frank Cox, one of the early settlers in Dover Township offered a building site and lumber to build a church. We know that $250 was collected and paid to Peter Hankinson for hewing timbers for the construction of the church. The efforts met with difficulties and financial obstacles. They did not give up hope in1857 when their first attempt to organize a parish had to be abandoned. Instead, they continued to practice their faith as they waited for another opportunity. For some reason, perhaps lack of support from other area churches, the plan was abandoned for more than a decade. By 1866, the Catholic population had grown large enough to support a parish in Dover. Although the pastor serving at Waterford, Fr. Chas Exel, did not approve the idea, pastors from Racine (Fr. George Matthews) and Brighton (Fr. Michael Heiss), encouraged the effort. Sometime in 1867, Father J.M. Joerger, Pastor in Waterford, helped organize the 30 or 40 Catholic families in Dover into what is now St. Mary’s. At this time, October 7, 1867, Mary Power deeded some land to Bishop Hennei of Milwaukee. It was in 1867 that the Archdiocese gave permission for the formation of a parish in Dover. From 1868, when Fr. T.J. Corry was pastor, until 1901, the 30 or 40 families suffered some hard years. The toughest years were from 1886 until the arrival of Fr. B Schiefen. During this period, St. John’s of Paris and St. Francis Xavier of Brighton were good neighbors.
For their very first decision, the people of St. Mary’s had to select a location for their church. Initially, plans located the church at Collar’s Corners, the intersection of Highway 75 and 11. The present site on Church Road was chosen when 5 acres of land were made available from the Allen family. The parish paid $100 for the property.
Construction of the church and rectory was begun in the spring of 1867 and completed late in fall of the same year. The first church was a modest frame building situated on the site of the present school. The new church was dedicated there for the first time on January 6, 1968. Although a frame structure, the first church presented a very dignified and ecclesiastic architecture with a beautiful belfry and ornamental cornices, the white frame church had seating for 120 persons on the main floor and 32 in the gallery. The congregation chose Our Lady for its patron saint. Despite now officially a parish, St. Mary still did not get its own pastor for nearly a year after its dedication.
Some creative fundraising financed the effort. In addition to direct subscriptions found on handwritten ledgers from potential parishioners (gifts ranged from 50 cents to $150), the founders sponsored two picnics in the summers of 1867 and 1868 – sort of a forerunner to our summer auction/pork chop dinner. A collection on the day of the dedication and proceeds from annual festivals and picnics added to the treasury. Pew rent also provided an additional source of revenue according to these early church records. Altogether, they raised enough money to pay all the construction and furnishing costs-with some left over.
With the buildings in place, parishioners set aside land to be used for a cemetery on the east end of the property. In spite of the many sacrifices, the original families of St. Mary’s had to make, they were provident enough at this early period to plan a parish cemetery. In 1868, two men who had helped build the church, Thomas and Martin Briody, died of black measles with days of each other, and were the first to be buried in the church cemetery.
Notice those old tall marble monuments that mark the resting place of our earliest parishioners, Their spires stretch skyward and tend to confirm the legend that there was rivalry going on as those gravestones reached higher, sort of a “keeping up with the Jones” even after death.
During 1868, Fr. Matthew Joerger from Waterford celebrated Mass at St. Mary’s once each month. Fr. Thomas Corry became the first resident pastor on February 14, 1868, He was succeeded on September 1, 1870, by Fr. H. Hobbs who died in 1871 and is buried in St. Mary’s cemetery. After his death, St. Mary’s was again with a resident pastor until Fr. R.S. Tucker took charge in 1872; he served the 40 registered families until 1880. At this time the parish boasted a membership of 40 families and property value at $4,000.
On January 7, 1870, after the last nail was placed, the final coat of paint was applied, and all the debts for the church, rectory, stable, and privy settled, St. Mary’s treasury held $2.52. That doesn’t seem like a comfortable beginning, but he fact that the church-building venture ended up on the positive side of the ledger speaks volumes about the determination and faith possessed by these first parishioners and their dedication to the community.
St. Mary’s Total Abstinence Society, organized in 1878 with 70 members, build a meeting hall across from the old church that was also used by the community organizations as the Eagle Lake Dramatic Club. Several parishioners were active in the club and presented plays in St. Mary’s Hall. In September 1883, St. Mary’s Congregation was officially incorporated in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, witnessed by the pastor, Fr. E.J. Gross, and the first parish trustees, James Cox and Michael Cunningham.
Six pastors came and went between 1880 and 1892. Finally in 1892, St. Mary’s became a Mission parish, first of St. John’s in Paris, and then of St. Francis in Brighton. When celebrations of Mass dwindled from weekly to bi-monthly, parishioners petitioned for another resident pastor. In 1901, Fr. E.B. Schiefen was appointed pastor. He remained at St. Mary’s until his death in 1940.
During its time as a mission parish, and well into the 20th century, St. Mary’s managed to maintain its identity and served as a community center for parishioners and non-parishioners alike.
In 1901, when Fr. Schiefen became the resident pastor, St. Mary’s had about 45 families. The original priest house had been neglected during the nine years when St. Mary’s was a mission parish so in the early spring of 1902, Fr. Schiefen proposed the building of a new residence. After several meetings, parishioners agreed to the idea.,The original rectory built in 1867 was moved to the Menheer property. The old house was moved and later sold. The new rectory was erected during the summer of 1902. It cost approximately $2,200 and was paid for in the first year.
As new families moved into the area, the parish began to grow. In addition, summer visitors to the Eagle Lake area attended St. Mary’s. When the old church became too crowded, parishioners agreed to replace it. An article in a Racine paper dated May, 1907, described the new church: “The design will closely follow the English gothic style of architecture…and will be one of the handsomest small country churched in Wisconsin. The cornerstone will be laid June 9, and the structure will be ready for worship by December 1, 1907…The exterior will be of red Montezuma, Indiana brick, with Redford stone trimmings and a Bangor slate roof. Including the sanctuary and the tower, the new church will have a length of 88 feet. Its width will be 38 feet. The tower will rise 53 feet from the water table to the top cross. The seating capacity will be about 210 persons.”
It has been reported that the well-known architectural design firm of Brust and Phillips from Milwaukee designed the new church. They had designed many churches and other religious buildings in Southeastern Wisconsin. Mr. George Whelan, a contractor, helped Fr. Schiefen build the present church building which celebrated 100 years in 2007. The church cost approximately $14,000 and was paid for through a variety of events including an ice cream social, a fair, card parties, and subscriptions by parishioners.
The beautiful stained glass windows were donated by parishioners and friends of the parish. Two windows hold special interest. On the east side, St. Cecilia, patron saint of music, holds her harp. Across from her is St. Patrick sending the snakes out of Ireland. Notice the Irish or Celtic cross on the top of the gravestone behind him. The same style cross tops the belfry and the church entrance and reminds us of the strong Irish presence in the area and parish.
When the present church was built by Fr. Schiefen in 1907, the old church was maintained as a parish center until it was torn down in the early 1960’s to make room for the school building. Over the years, it hosted meetings, breakfasts, catechism classes, card parties and funeral dinners-much as the school did. Once the new rectory and present church were built with Fr. Schiefen as resident pastor, St. Mary's began to grow.
By the 50th Jubilee year of the parish in 1917, membership had grown to 95 families. Financial records from that year show a charge of $75 for horse-keep. In 1918, these were a $50 charge for auto-keep-a savings of $25.
In 1944-49, Fr. Rish obtained Dominican nuns (one was his sister) to come and teach catechism to the children. From that time, 1949, until the school was built, the nuns from Waterford came to teach on Saturdays and in the early summer vacation.
The Ladies Society was originally the Altar Society. During Fr. Zuern’s pastorate in about 1945, it was affiliated with Christian Mothers and the Communion Sunday was the first Sunday of the month. In 1960 when Fr. McCormack was Pastor, the ladies voted to change the name to the Catholic Women’s Club.
The 75th annual report in 1943 recorded 144 members. This number continued to grow nearing 350 members in the late 1950’s.
In 1960, boundary lines were drawn for a new parish to serve the many St. Mary’s parishioners who lived in the Union Grove area. In 1965, Fr. James Johnson was appointed to organize the parish and eventually built St. Robert’s church. The new church was dedicated on the Feast of St. Robert Bellarmine on May 13, 1968.
Education has always been important to St. Mary’s parishioners. In 1913 and 1914, the parish operated a parochial school. Fifteen elementary students and one high school student received their education from the Sisters of St. Francis. The present home of Mr. and Mrs. Frank McNamara was the convent for one teaching nun and one nun housekeeper. The one room school building, by all accounts a primitive building, was situated across from the recent school.
From 1951 through 1963, the Alverno Franciscan nuns from Waterford taught catechism in the old church. Some remember going to catechism classes every Saturday morning and every day for two weeks in the summer. In 1963, a new school was built and provided education to 5th through 8th grades. Later all 8 grades were taught until the school’s closing in 1979. The parish leased the school to Burlington School District for 15 years, while continuing to use it for parish functions and catechism classes. The building was later sold to the Women’s Resource center of Racine; an organization started by the Dominican sisters to provide services to women and children in abuse situations, and called the Dover Healing House.
Under the leadership of Fr. J. Cera, a new annex was built in 2000 as the parish needed to expand its worship space. Care was taken to maintain the décor of the original church inside and out and preserve the stained glass windows so much a part of our heritage. The addition added bathrooms, a bride’s room and handicap accessibility for our parishioners and guests.
In 2005, facing a priest shortage and upon Fr. Cera’s retirement, Fr. H. Haase, pastor of St. Robert, became the first shared pastor between the two parishes as we began to share staff and resources. In 2006 the parish joined its music ministry and in 2007 its councils, who began to lead the parish into the future. The parish office was relocated to the St. Robert campus.
In 2010, Fr. R. Kacalo arrived and began the task of returning our small church back to its original splendor by repainting the church and original statues. The rectory, which was in need of much repair, was razed.
In 2016, St. Mary again saw a pastoral change, now sharing a priest, Fr. R. Arnett, with St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Francis Xavier and St. John the Baptist. Further collaboration began with sharing of staff and now a four parish council.
While collaborating, St. Mary yearned to have a gathering space of its own and in 2017 set forth to build a new parish hall attached to its church building. Completion of the new hall in 2019 allows for St. Mary’s parishioners and guests to celebrate just as it has for 150 years.