The 1917 dedication of St. Joseph’s Children’s Home in Superior is considered the foundation of the diocese’s Catholic Charities Bureau, which celebrates their centennial anniversary this year. The bells from St. Joseph’s bell tower are now the bells that ring in the tower of the Cathedral of Christ the King. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

“History is philosophy teaching by examples.”

The Greek historian Thucydides wrote these words centuries before Jesus Christ was born, yet they set the framework for recounting the history of an important entity in the Diocese of Superior.

This year marks the centennial of the diocese’s Catholic Charities Bureau, whose mission is “to carry on the redeeming work of our Lord by reflecting gospel values and the moral teaching of the church.”
Though the names and services of this social ministry arm of the diocese have evolved, CCB considers the dedication of the St. Joseph Children’s Home in Superior in 1917 as its foundation.

The CCB’s threefold goal is to provide services of quantity and quality; to assure an ecumenical orientation for the services, those served and serving; and to avoid duplication of services adequately provided by governmental, public or private organizations.

The organization’s statement of philosophy did not exist in 1917. Priests and religious in the diocese, with the help and generosity of many, established need-based services before government programs were widely available.

It was Bishop Joseph Koudelka, Superior’s second bishop, who — despite a debilitating medical condition — committed to fundraising for the construction of the St. Joseph’s Children’s Home. According to CCB documents, the bishop was responding to the great need “for a safe, nurturing environment for orphans and children whose parents were experiencing the severe economic disadvantages of the northern frontier.” The first bishop had already entrusted the orphans left in the care of the diocese to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

By 1915, the number of orphans had grown from 13 to 40, and then to more than 200 children of all faiths soon after the dedication of the St. Joseph’s Home. Often, siblings from the same family were cared for at the home until a foster family could be found or the family was financially secure enough to take them back.

St. Joseph’s Children’s Home was located in Superior near Mariner Mall and Great Lakes Elementary School. Bishop Koudelka also raised funds for a children’s chapel to be built on the orphanage’s fourth floor, built in baroque style by Czechoslovakian artisans. Nearly 200 angels surrounded the ornate altar, by tradition representing a personal guardian angel for each child.

When the building no longer met modern building codes, it was sold to private parties in 1983. After unsuccessful efforts to save the children’s chapel, the angels and other chapel components were placed with a religious congregation in Washington for use in their seminary and school.

The Great Depression of the 1930s — and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal — changed the understanding of social welfare programs as the responsibility of private charities to that of the government. While the onset of World War II created much-needed employment, the need for charitable programs did not decrease; it instead diversified.

During the 1940s, Social Services of Superior changed its name to the Catholic Welfare Agency, with Monsignor Leo Block at the helm. He dually served as the agency’s director and orphanage superintendent. He expanded the adoption program and collaborated with public and private agencies pioneering services for children.

Early into the tenure of Bishop George Hammes, less than 50 children were housed at St. Joseph’s orphanage. Bishop Hammes was influential in transitioning the Catholic Welfare Agency to Catholic Charities Bureau, as it is now known. He developed the newly emerging program’s philosophy and emphasized serving those in the margins of society, including services for those with developmental disabilities.

It was Bishop Hammes who appointed Fr. Philip Heslin as Msgr. Block’s successor in 1964, beginning an era of unprecedented growth and leadership in the agency.

An only child and Chicago native, the young Heslin entered preparatory seminary at the age of 13. He sought out Superior to be his home diocese, after learning it had the most Catholics per priest. The needs of this northern frontier attracted him, but it wasn’t until weeks after his 1957 ordination that he physically set foot in the diocese.

Then-Bishop Joseph Annabring was very surprised when, upon meeting and asking what the new priest’s forte was, Heslin responded, “physics and chemistry.” He was assigned to Catholic Charities seven years later.

Not asking “why” regarding his appointment – but thinking that social work was “arranging teenage dances” – Fr. Heslin studied for a master’s degree in social work from Loyola University. He studied further for a PhD. to make the Bureau eligible for more state and federal grants; HUD housing for the elderly was the subject of his dissertation. The monsignor also taught statistics at the University of Minnesota-Duluth for 12 years.

Msgr. Heslin, who celebrated his 60th jubilee in June, is still hailed by current leadership and employees of the CCB. Current executive director Alan Rock said, “His are big shoes to fill. Among many, many needs, he truly made a huge impact.”

Under Msgr. Heslin’s leadership, St. Joseph’s Children’s Home became a center for treating emotionally disturbed children; four agencies were created to serve the developmentally disabled; and a resettlement program for orphaned Cuban refugees was developed.

In the late 1960s, a system of continued care for the elderly emerged as did the first of a network of affordable housing programs for the elderly and disabled. Centers opened to care for children of working parents, including Hudson Community Day Care. Opened in October of 1969, it is still in operation. The name was changed to Hudson Community Children’s Center when it moved to a new location in 2007.

In the 1980s, the CCB adapted yet again to meet the needs of the diocese’s aging population. There was a shift from institutional services to provisions for the elderly and disabled to live independently, as well as sponsorship of volunteer initiatives for seniors seeking community involvement.

By the year 2000, more than 2,000 seniors were volunteering in programs such as the Foster Grandparent mentoring program and Retired and Senior Volunteer programs. In 2001 RSVP of Northeast Wisconsin was honored as National Volunteer of the Year by Catholic Charities USA for their coordination of the Open Your Heart to Haiti program, providing uniforms and shoes for Haitian children to attend school.

With diocesan support and advocacy of parish pastors, direct service programs and housing initiatives were added during the 1980s and ‘90s, at a rate of approximately one per year.

In 1987, after 23 years of service from Msgr. Heslin, the acting associate director, Brian Soland, was named executive director. Well into his retirement from the CCB – although he remained heavily involved until the aging process took its toll – Msgr. Heslin was nominated for Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi award in 2005

Soland had joined Catholic Charities in 1971 as director of the St. Joseph’s treatment program. Soland held bachelors and master’s degrees in both psychology and sociology.

By the turn of the millennia, Catholic Charities Bureau oversaw a far-reaching umbrella of programs, facilities and initiatives. The current organization chart reads like a family tree with three primary branches: children and families, older adults and disabled persons.

When Bishop Peter Christensen was installed in 2007, he continued the dedication his predecessor, Bishop Fliss, had shown to CCB. He supported joint efforts with Catholic Charities USA to develop new programs addressing racism and poverty, disaster response and serving incarcerated persons.

Catholic Charities Bureau provided vital assistance to families during the 2008 recession. The average of six families per week seeking emergency assistance in 2007, jumped to 47 families per week in 2009.

By 2011, what had started as four programs overseen by Catholic Charities in 1971, had grown to more than 50. When Soland retired in 2013, Bishop Christensen affirmed, “under his leadership Catholic Charities Bureau has garnered the needed resources to respond to the needs of people most deserving of our care and concern.”

Rock stepped into the leadership of Catholic Charities Bureau in January 2013, having been appointed from his post as associate director. Rock started working for the CCB in 1997.

Thousands of individuals and families continue to be served annually by 950 employees and more than 2,000 volunteers across 60 programs in 74 communities. The organization also manages a handful of programs and entities in the Dioceses of La Crosse, Green Bay and Duluth.

In addition to emergency and disaster assistance and referrals, services now include first-time homebuyer education and home health care. Operating primarily in Douglas County, Dove Home Health Care and The Dove Agency, acquired in 1996, were named to the Top 100 of HomeCare Elite agencies in the nation.

The flagships of Catholic Charities programs for persons with disabilities are the Challenge Center, Inc. in Superior; Diversified Services Center, Inc. in Siren; Headwaters, Inc. headquartered in Rhinelander; Black River Industries, Inc. in Medford; and the most recently affiliated – effective 2014 – Barron County Developmental Disabilities, Inc.

Brenda Osterlund, of Catholic Charities central administration in Superior, has compiled hundreds of items documenting the organization’s history. “I don’t know that there’s anyone that we don’t serve,” she said.

Acknowledging the sense of family among employees, Osterlund added, “We are always adapting, because things area always changing. Many of us worked alongside Msgr. Heslin, watched him tirelessly keep connected with the current needs.”

Asked what she likes best about the organization, she replied, “Respecting the dignity of each person, created in the image of God. We try to meet you where you are and help you move to a better place.”

For more information, visit or call 715-394-6617.