Screen grab from Our Lady of the Lake’s livestream of their 150th anniversary celebration Mass.

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

The 150th anniversary for Ashland’s Our Lady of the Lake Parish was many months in the making, but the history and heritage behind this sesquicentennial celebration is comprised of generations of Catholic laity and missionary religious.

A celebratory Mass was held Sunday, Sept. 10, with Bishop James P. Powers as the main celebrant. In his welcome, the bishop recognized the “monumental event” they had gathered from near and far to commemorate.

To begin the homily, Bishop Powers brought attention to the sprinkling rite performed, “Where we recall our baptism, where we consciously rededicate ourselves to our God.” He noted how he had also sprinkled the walls to rededicate the sacred space to God.

Referencing a booklet of the parish’s history, Bishop Powers spoke of the donation of land in June 1873 with the first Ashland Catholic church, under the patronage of St. Agnes, being dedicated in 1874. It was only four years later when the bishop of La Crosse (the Superior Diocese was not created until 1905) requested the Franciscan Friars from the Sacred Heart Province in St. Louis to come and serve the parish’s needs. St. Agnes was added as a mission church, along with those in Bayfield, Odanah and La Pointe. In 1881, Franciscan sisters from the Joliet province arrived to teach at the newly built school, replaced in 1884 by the La Crosse-area Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

In 1890, after the lumber, mining and shipping industries attracted many newcomers to the area, the St. Agnes parish created a separate church for Polish-speaking immigrants, Holy Family. It wasn’t until 1990, considering the changes of demographics and priest availability, that the two parishes were consolidated and Our Lady of Lake Catholic Community was created.

The Franciscan sisters offered their teaching ministry for almost 120 years. In June 2019, a farewell Mass was celebrated in thanksgiving for the 141 years of services by the Sacred Heart Province Franciscan friars, necessitated by their own aging religious population.

Bishop Powers acknowledged that as important the historical events are: “The most important history, the most important reason for this church, for this celebration is the lives that have been changed as the result of this sacred place and all who have served here.”

He referenced the day’s Gospel, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I. Our Lord is ever present to us in this place. I hope and I pray that … as we enter this space, we know and we feel the presence of our God in a very real and special way … It has been a place of welcoming, of comforting, of being an instrument of God’s love, mercy and hospitality.”

Bishop Powers reflected on the readings, speaking of the importance of faith and relationship to one another. God’s call and Ezekial’s appointment as a watchman, which included giving warning to the wicked, laid a grave responsibility on the prophet’s shoulders as well.

“As Christians and Catholics, as people of God, as people of faith, we can’t just sit back and watch our brothers and sisters live in sin,” he preached. “Like Ezekial by virtue of our baptism, each and every one of us have been commissioned, have been appointed to be a watchman.”

He continued offering that the best way of being that watchman is to love our neighbor as ourself. Love, which for St. Paul “is a verb, an action … To love another is to care enough for them to call the to an accountability.” He added the reminder given by the Psalm, “We are all sinners, and when we are the one being called to take a look at our own actions, we need to be humble enough to hear and to accept correction.”

Turning again to the Gospel, the bishop said that Jesus’ instruction went beyond, bringing love and forgiveness into the context that Jesus intended. “Jesus isn’t concerned about who’s right or wrong, who started it or be the first one to apologize. His first concern is reconciliation; that repairing of the damaged relationship, as quickly as possible.

“This is the whole purpose of the process he outlines – first go alone, then take some witnesses, then tell the church,” continuing through treatment of the offender as a Gentile, which the bishop pointed out was “with the same love, care and compassion” as Jesus treated them.

“My friends, the readings today probably aren’t the warm, fuzzy, cheery ones we’d like to have for our celebration,” he confessed, “but they are the ones that our God has given us, and I think it’s for good reason. Because they’re words of our God’s love for us; because they are the messages that have been proclaimed in this sacred space for the last 150 years and God will for the next 150 years plus.”

Before the final hymn of the Mass a series of presentations and acknowledgements were offered. Attendees were invited to go far beyond remembering 150 years, but to go back more than 800 years to the call St. Francis of Assisi first received when praying before the ruins of the Church of San Damiano and the day’s celebration as a fruit of his broader understanding of that calling to renew and rebuild the universal Church.

“The followers he attracted are the ancestors of those who came to Ashland in 1878 and for over 140 years had been our preachers, our teachers and our leaders,” it was said.

A number of the Franciscan friars and sisters were introduced by name, including sons of the parish who joined the Franciscan order. Framed overhead photographs of the church and school buildings along the shore of Lake Superior were given as gifts to distinguished guests.

Final remarks were offered by pastor Fr. Jerome D’Souza. He shared how fortunate he felt to be part of the celebration and the longstanding missionary history of the parish and how the fruitfulness of Our Lady of the Lakes ministry and service comes from “seeds that were already sown by the Franciscans.”

“As a community we have a great responsibility,” he said, “to carry on our faith journey as witnesses to the Gospel and hand over to the future generations.”