Melody Kauer holds the hand of her grandfather, Ron Kauer, during the 125th anniversary celebration picnic at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Rib Lake. Mary Kauer, Ron’s wife, was honored at the celebration for her many years of service as the parish secretary. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

On Sunday, June 20, 125 years of Catholic life was celebrated at Good Shepherd Church in Rib Lake.

While the parish’s priest, Fr. Raj Sunkara, was unfortunately unable to return from his home visit in India in time, in a providential turn of events, the main celebrant had a historical connection to the parish.

Fr. Jim Hoffman, a retired priest of the Diocese of Superior, travelled from Arbor Vitae to preside over the Mass, which he concelebrated with retired priest-in-residence Fr. Dennis Muelemans.

Fr. Hoffman recalled being present at the church building’s dedication in 1972 and was pleased to share in the 50th anniversary of its use.

Fr. Meuleman’s presence aroused applause, as it was his first time back at the church since undergoing surgery and chemotherapy for early-stage colon cancer.

In his homily, Fr. Hoffman proposed that Jesus’ life’s teaching could be summarized into five categories.

“Everything he did, everything he said in the Scriptures falls under five areas: A person of prayer; a person of proclamation; a person of service; someone who carried his cross; and a founder of the church.”

Focusing in on Jesus’ role as founder of the church, he acknowledged “50 years in this beautiful building, a sacred place for a meeting with God.”

“Think of the sacraments as a meeting with Christ,” Fr. Hoffman said, “Christ using a human instrument to bring divine grace into life.”

He continued, “Think of how many times Mass was celebrated here, how many baptisms – (persons) incorporated into Christ’s sacred work, becoming heirs of eternal life. How many received first communion – that most intimate union that we can have with Christ? How many received the fullness of the spirit in Confirmation, consoled and strengthened through anointing of the sick, how many had their marriages blessed and filled with the presence of Christ in that sacrament?”
Included in the life lived in the church, Fr. Hoffman recalled Masses of Christian burial, religious education programs and the social life and activities bringing the community together.

“A remarkable record,” he stated. “Reflect on what would your life be like without this structure, without those meetings with Christ. What would the community be like without the presence of this church?”

He ended with a story from his early ministry as a priest. It was about a man who faithfully attended Mass with his wife, although he was not Catholic himself. The young priest asked him once about his motivation to be there week in and week out.

The response is something he has never forgotten, and left Fr. Hoffman thinking this man was “more Catholic than the Catholics.”

In this man’s own words, Fr. Hoffman quoted, “When I come to Mass, I do two things – I say thank you Lord for all the blessings of this past week, and then I say, ‘please, Lord, keep them coming.’”

After a brief pause, the celebrant invited those present to do the same.

Before the final blessing, parish trustees Tom Gojmerac and Chris Wille made some announcements.

Gojmerac acknowledged the parish community has seen a lot of changes. The Good Shepherd patronage only dates back to 2005.

It was only 16 years ago that the Rib Lake parish of St. John the Baptist was dissolved, along with St. Theresa in Westbrook and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Chelsea. The latter two churches were closed, and the Rib Lake site became home to a new joint parish under the patronage of the Good Shepherd.

Maintaining the historical connection between past and present, the church’s stained glass windows on the left side depict the three former patron saints. An image of the Good Shepherd fills the stained glass on the right side.
There are smaller sections of the large windows that incorporate stained glass stations of the cross from the Westboro church.

The trustees mentioned the retirement of longtime secretary Mary Kauer as being a part of the day’s celebration, a surprise to Kauer.

Prayers were also asked for former pastors, and Gojmerac read an official notice from the diocese appointing their Fr. Raj to be parochial administrator of the Catholic churches in Hurley and Saxon.

Announcing their new sacramental minister would be Fr. Kanna Jayanna, who is also currently stuck in India due to COVID-19 travel precautions, the trustee also asked for prayers for Fr. Kanna, for his speedy arrival, and for Fr. Patrick McConnell, who will be overseeing as pastor from his parish seat in Medford.

After Mass, approximately 60 parishioners and family members gathered for a picnic with refreshments and games. Historical displays were on hand, and both priests joined in the meal.

From the parish history, the first Catholics in Rib Lake were served by missionary priests from Athens and later from Medford. The first Mass in the area was celebrated at the home of Charles Seidel Sr. on his farm two miles east of Rib Lake, the site also of the marriages of Seidel’s four daughters and one son.

Masses were later celebrated in the Blue School House, with church structures being built first in Chelsea and Greenwood (known as “Historic St. Anne’s”) before any were constructed in Rib Lake.

In 1881, J.J. Kennedy, founder of the Rib Lake Lumber Company, donated land for two churches in the village, which was cropping up around the sawmill he constructed. His one stipulation was that they have the name “John.”

St. John’s Lutheran Church still stands to this day.

Even once St. John the Baptist was built, the priest from Medford was only able to visit once monthly to offer the Mass. In those times, transportation was still by horse and buggy, and the arduous trip did not allow for more frequent visits. Once a rectory was built in Rib Lake by the first resident pastor, Fr. Joseph Heeger, the Greenwood and Westboro churches became his mission sites.

Various improvements were made at St. John’s over time, including the major construction of a basement under the entire church, providing classrooms for instruction and a social hall.

From 1941 until 1996, the parish was served by the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, a worldwide order with the closest American provincial house located in Indiana.

Fr. Richard Girt, CPPS, was pastor from 1970 to 1981 and oversaw the construction of the new St. John’s church, which began in 1971. Bishop Hammes dedicated the church, hall and rectory in June 1972.

The parish history notes that Fr. Girt enjoyed fishing and hunting and his annual game dinners were well received. In 1977, he celebrated his silver jubilee at St. John’s and burned the church’s mortgage that same year.

The existing bell tower was an undertaking of Fr. Alvin Herber, CPPS, in 1991, dedicated by Bishop Fliss in 1992.
Of the diocesan priests assigned to the parish, Fr. John Long was the longest serving, from 1998-2003. Fr. Otto Bucher, a Capuchin, served there many years, from 2008 to 2019, before being called back to his home province.

The Rib Lake Catholic story includes four sons ordained to the priesthood – Fr. Bernard Niggemann; Fr. John Kauer; Fr. Bertram Niggemann, OSB; and Fr. Irvin Klister.

Women from the parish who entered religious life included twin sisters Sr. M. Judette and Sr. M. Juditha; Sr. M. Ferdinanda; Sr. M. Bernadette; Sr. M. Jovita; and Sr. M. Carletta.