Fr. Sare Sagar Rajesh leads the Divine Mercy chaplet during a holy hour July 27 at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in La Pointe, on Madeline Island. Adoration was held as part of Bishop Powers’ request for Eucharistic Revival throughout the Diocese of Superior. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

As the smell of incense lingered, Fr. Sare Sagar Rajesh led the Divine Mercy chaplet with those gathered at St. Joseph Church in La Pointe on Madeline Island, praying a holy hour as requested by Bishop James P. Powers as part of the Diocese of Superior’s Eucharistic Revival.

This international missionary priest from India was one more link in the long chain of international missionaries bringing the faith to the shores of Lake Superior – starting with the Jesuits in the 1600s, picked up by the famed Bishop Frederic Baraga in the 1830s and carried for a century by Franciscan friars into the new millennium.

This year marks the 225th anniversary of the year of Bishop Baraga’s birth. The holy hour was held on July 27, exactly 170 years since the first dated journal entry in the Slovenian priest’s diary.

Heading out to catch the ferry back to Bayfield, Fr. Rajesh acknowledged how honored he feels to be serving parishes with such a rich Catholic history. Bayfield area Parish Life Coordinator Dcn. Roger Cadotte’s own ancestors have a long history with the island and the Native Catholic community as well.

Dcn. Cadotte noted the stronger interest in St. Joseph from the wider church in recent years, with visits both this summer and last by Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who came to celebrate Mass there, as well as by a busload of seminarians brought by Bishop Andrew Cozzens from the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, this August.

In 2015, a group of five bishops from other mission dioceses accompanied Superior’s former Bishop Peter F. Christensen, likely making the historic church the most visited by bishops in Northwest Wisconsin.

This opportunity for St. Joseph’s Church to continue to be a pilgrimage site and Catholic tourism destination will undoubtedly help it survive. Dcn. Cadotte noted most Mass-goers during the church’s open season (Memorial Day to Labor Day) are tourists and campers. Information in the church explains that a second collection taken during these weekend Masses helps maintain the building and grounds.

Church caretaker Constance Ross confirmed the shift in Mass attendance in recent years.

Ross, who was also in attendance at the July 27 holy hour, “inherited the job” from Alice and Kenny Cadotte, who had served in that capacity for “many, many years.”

“There wasn’t anybody who could do it except for me,” Ross said, and she has been doing it for the past eight years, recalling how that coincided with the church’s population really dwindling.

Ross’ connection to the parish, however, goes beyond holding the keys. According to Dcn. Cadotte, she is the lone year-round resident who is a registered parishioner of St. Joseph’s, La Pointe. There are other summer residents who regularly participate at Mass, but Ross is aware of the significant role she plays in the church’s history.

A “hidden treasure,” she called it, one that is intertwined with her family’s multigenerational ties to Madeline Island.

Her great-great grandfather, Dillon O’Brien, came to the United States in the 1850s, fleeing the potato famine in Ireland.

“He came over and got a job working with Fr. Baraga to teach in the Catholic mission on Madeline Island,” she shared. “That’s how far back my roots go.”

She doesn’t know exactly how her grandfather and the venerable missionary priest came to be connected, but he worked in the island school and was then sent to the mission at Red Cliff by Fr. Baraga. Ross said he then moved his family to St. Paul, where she grew up.

“So many families, mostly summer residents, are descendants of Dillon O’Brien,” Ross added. Her father’s mother was an O’Brien, and her family would spend summers on the island. Their house can be seen as the ferry comes into the harbor.

“Just past the beach club, that row was known as ‘O’Brien row’ because most of the houses belonged to family members,” Ross said. Some homes are still owned by her relatives.

She remembers every Sunday the church being “packed with people.”

“It isn’t like that anymore,” she added.

Ross’s husband, Hamilton, also has a longstanding connection to Madeline Island. His father, Hamilton Nelson Ross, wrote a book – “La Pointe: Village Outpost on Madeline Island” – chronicling three centuries of the area’s development and natural beauty. In fact, the book was one of the documents said to have persuaded the federal government’s 1970 declaration of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Constance’s parents, Dr. John and Alice Theresa Teisberg, are buried in the cemetery at St. Joseph’s, and she has called the church home since she moved to the island full-time almost 40 years ago.

The Ross family moved to Madeline Island when their oldest child was 3 years old; she is now 39. A second daughter was born after the move and baptized at St. Joseph’s. Both Alice and Elizabeth made their first Communion at the parish church.

Hamilton was a contractor and had begun taking jobs that lasted later into the autumn, which made the transition doable for his employment. Constance, a teacher, worked as a teacher’s assistant and was hired as the public library director, a position she retired from in 2017 after 31 years.

Raising their daughters in La Pointe, Ross said it was “Important to me to get them off the island” at times to go to a museum or somewhere else and experience life off the island, something not a lot of local kids did.

Both girls went away to college, but Ross said, “They can’t wait to get home.” She was grateful they were able to spend extra time in La Pointe working from home during the pandemic.

“Our family ancestry is really, really important to all of us,” Ross iterated. Her family connections were also passed on to her daughters via their middle names; Alice’s is Dillon, after Dillon O’Brien.

As far as Ross is aware, St. Joseph’s Church has not ever been registered on a historical registry. Much of the Catholic history and information about Bishop Baraga can be viewed, including artifacts, at the Madeline Island Museum, a Wisconsin Historic Site.

It is significant to note the original mission church and Native cemetery are located at a separate place on the island. Historic markers denote the spot, which is across from the Madeline Island Yacht Club off Old Fort Road.

As a young priest, Fr. Baraga heard the call to serve the Ojibwe in the Great Lakes region and, after making contact with the Bishop of Cincinnati, arrived in New York in early 1831. His first mission was in Northwestern Lower Michigan at Arbor Croche (Cross Village) near Harbor Springs, the second being near Grand Rapids, Michigan. Both had active churches and schools.

La Pointe was the site of his first mission in Wisconsin, before the territory had even been declared a state. During this period, missions were also established along Lake Superior near Duluth and Grand Portage in Minnesota. Traveling by canoe when possible, Baraga is most well-known as “the snowshoe priest,” trekking through northern winters to tend his flocks. Fluent in numerous languages, he wrote a catechism and many prayers and hymns in the Ojibwe language. As immigrant miners moved into the region, a mission was requested on the Keewenaw Peninsula in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula near L’Anse – now home to the Bishop Baraga Shrine.

On Nov. 1, 1853, he was ordained bishop of the Lake Superior region and established the diocesan sede at Sault Ste. Marie. By that time steamship travel made visits to the missions more feasible for the aging bishop, who had spent decades weathering the elements. Seminarians were recruited from Europe to serve the diocese’s needs, with Marquette being chosen as new site for cathedral, as it was more central for the growing population.

For Ross and her relatives, descendants of the man who served beside “the snowshoe priest,” their history is inextricably linked with Bishop Baraga’s.

“I think of myself following in my great-great grandfather’s footsteps,” Ross said of her work at the church as well her role as a teacher on the island. “I think about that all the time.”