The newest parish in the Diocese of Superior celebrated its golden jubilee Sunday, Aug. 7, with a visit from Bishop James P. Powers.
St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Pier Willow, was completed in 1966 and is a mission of St. Mary, Tomahawk.
Fr. Louis Reddy Maramreddy is the parochial administrator of both parishes and St. Augustine, Harrison. Deacon Cliff Eggett assists him at St. Francis.
‘Beer hall priest’
According to information provided by the Diocese of Superior, Bishop George A. Hammes gave permission to form a parish in the Pier Willow area in 1964.
The first Mass was celebrated in Hebert’s Tavern May 31, 1964. Mass was celebrated in the tavern every Sunday for two years; the assistant pastor, Fr. John Stoehr, became known as “the beer hall priest.”
Deer hunters’ Masses had also been arranged in the early days. Masses were held at the Tom Fisher residence on Pier Lake. Fr. Stoehr said he had so many dinners at the Fisher home, he often referred to it as the St. Francis rectory.
Because of an urgent need for a permanent building, Leo and Ann Hebert donated two pieces of land for a church and cemetery, Sept. 5, 1964.
On June 16, 1965, at the direction of Bishop Hammes, Fr. Pius Machalonis, pastor, petitioned the Catholic Church Extension Society for financial assistance.
St. Francis had 20 permanent families and a large number of summer residents. The parish had saved between $6,000 and $7,000, and the bishop had promised another $7,500 or more.
Estimated cost of the new church was around $65,000. In November 1965, Extension granted $10,000.
A church was built and dedicated by Bishop Hammes and five priests June 12, 1966.
St. Francis of Assisi has always been a mission church of St. Mary, Tomahawk. At times, due to the shortage of priests, Mass was celebrated about once each month.
On the remaining Saturdays, one of five deacons from St. Mary would travel the 25 miles to lead a Communion service.
Many hands build church
When the land was being cleared for construction, the local men who were loggers worked together to remove the trees and brush. This took a number of days, and Fr. Stoehr was anxious to help.
Early on in the process, he took a chainsaw owned by Ole Baker and began to cut up some of the brush. There are many ways to use a chainsaw, but Fr. Stoehr was using his in about the worst way possible. Not only was he dangerous to others and himself, but he ended up running the saw into the dirt, damaging the chain.
When he finally got the saw stuck in a tree, he was told, “Father, you might be more suited for hauling brush than cutting brush.” He finally agreed that could be the case.
The rest of the loggers were then willing to bring out their spare chainsaws from their pickups.
The church’s pews were donated from Marshfield, where a new Our Lady of Peace Church was being built. The old pews traveled to the Willow area on the back of a pickup truck.
The pews replaced the folding chairs that St. Francis Parish had been using.
The first baptism in the parish was held in the “tavern church”; the first baptism in the new church took place in October 1966.
The parish continued to grow and was usually filled.
On some winter days, there were as many snowmobiles in the parking lot as cars and campers. As the 1973 fishing season opened, the ushers counted over 400 persons at Sunday Mass.
There is no telephone or office at St. Francis; most of the church business is handled at St. Mary.
St. Francis currently numbers about 30 families as well as tourists in the summer and snowmobilers in the winter. Mass is at 4 p.m. on Saturdays.