Lumen Christi Parish in Mequon-Thiensville was able to collect $43,000 to support St. Mary Parish in Odanah (pictured) through Lenten almsgiving. (Submitted photo)

Colleen Jurkiewicz
Catholic Herald Staff

When a small group of Irish and German families built the mission church of St. Cecilia in Thiensville in 1919, construction was supported by a grant from the Catholic Church Extension Society, a Chicago-based organization that raises money to build Catholic churches in rural communities.

More than a century later, St. Cecilia has become Lumen Christi Parish, which serves more than 2,000 Catholic households in Mequon and Thiensville following its 2005 merger with nearby St. James of Mequon.

Time has brought good fortune to what was once an isolated immigrant parish. As the suburbs north of Milwaukee swelled in population during the latter half of the 20th century, the one-time farming community was increasingly built up, and today the Mequon/Thiensville area has become a prosperous community where the median household income is more than $100,000.

So when the parish of Lumen Christi was contacted again by the Catholic Church Extension Society (now known as Catholic Extension) with an opportunity to “pay it forward,” Fr. Dan Sanders knew the answer was obvious.

“Everyone thought — ‘Whoa, this is ideal,’” said Fr. Sanders. “It struck a chord with our parish leadership.”

It was in October that Fr. Sanders received a letter from Catholic Extension President Fr. John Wall, inquiring if Lumen Christi would be interested in leading an appeal to benefit a parish with needs that resembled St. Cecilia’s a century ago. Enclosed with the letter was the original building certificate for St. Cecilia Church, dated Nov. 17, 1919.

Catholic Extension works with dioceses throughout the country that are isolated from institutional support or financially under-resourced. Since 1905, the organization has awarded 2,500 grants for church buildings like St. Cecilia. More than 400 seminarians received education assistance from Catholic Extension in 2019 alone, according to their annual report.

At the 4 p.m. Saturday vigil Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Odanah, in Ashland County, there are usually between 50 and 60 people in the congregation, estimated Sr. Phyllis Wilhelm, OSF, who has worked at the church for 11 years. Located on the banks of the Bad River, five miles east of Ashland, Odanah is the cultural and administrative center of the Bad River Chippewa, who were relocated to the area from Madeline Island by the federal government.

The community is strong, said Sr. Phyllis, but the faithful are mostly elderly. Upgrades have had to be made to the historic church to make it more accessible to its aging congregation. The tribe, which operates the Bad River Lodge and Casino, struggles financially compared to tribes in the southern part of the state, she added.

“They really don’t get a lot of people coming up here, especially times like now, with this pandemic going on,” she said. “Our tribe here, their casino is on the highway and there’s a lot of traffic between Michigan and Minnesota, so they have some patronage for their casino but it’s still not very lucrative.”
Lumen Christi decided to make supporting St. Mary’s their Lenten Appeal — but of course, Lent 2020 did not go the way anyone imagined. Even the wealthiest churches in the state found themselves hoping their parishioners would continue to support basic ministries with their almsgiving, even as public Masses were suspended.

“As Fr. Dan told me, ‘We will soldier on — but some of these churches in rural parts of the country, they are not going to have an easy time coming back,’” said Natalie Donatello, who leads Catholic Extension’s Parish Partnership program. “They don’t have a lot in savings and their weekly collection as it was was only $100, so where do you go from that, when you go from $100 to nothing?”

“Our people were able to be generous; most of them were able to work from home during this and were not laid off,” said Fr. Sanders. “Because of the sacrifice, I think more people wanted to because they were limited in how they were able to help people in other ways. The donations were the one way they could help someone at a distance.”

Sr. Phyllis, other religious sisters from the Diocese of Superior and a lay leader were scheduled to travel to Lumen Christi to address parishioners at Mass on March 21, but that was canceled after COVID-19 began emerging in Wisconsin. Even without that personal testimony, even without donating money in-person during collection, the parish raised $43,000, which will not only cover Sr. Phyllis’ salary for the entire year but will fund several other projects for St. Mary’s.

“They did so much more than I thought they would do,” said Sr. Phyllis. “That has to be a group of fantastic people down there.”

“We are hoping that when freedom of travel resumes and the virus is contained a little better, that Sr. Phyllis and her colleagues can come and visit us and introduce themselves,” said Fr. Sanders. “That’s what we’re looking forward to.”