St. Francis Solanus Mission in Reserve celebrated the 100-year anniversary of its locally quarried stone church on June 2, the Feast of Corpus Christi. The event, which included Mass, a Eucharistic procession, feast, powwow and fireworks, attracted a large crowd. (Photo by Isaac Hopke)

Isaac Hopke
Special to the Catholic Herald

In the most rural parts of the state, there sits a humble yet awe-inspiring mission church and school on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation. The historic stone church stands as a guardian to the lake it borders, Lac Courte Oreilles.

The parish contains a rich history of missionary work, providing Catholic education to the surrounding community while merging ancient Native culture with the traditions of the Catholic Church. Its story began well over a century ago, but a monumental achievement was celebrated on the Feast of Corpus Christi – the church’s centennial year.

Built with stone quarried from the surrounding area, the church was named after a missionary to the Americas, St. Francis Solanus. Since its construction, the mission church and school, run by the School Sisters of St. Francis from Milwaukee, has kept the beating heart of faith alive.

The June 2 celebration included cultural experiences embedded in the Mass, but also in the Eucharistic procession, dinner feast, powwow and fireworks. People from all around gathered to celebrate the centennial, including a variety of priests and Bishop James P. Powers.

With standing-room only and people seated outside, the celebration of the Mass gave an idea of what this centennial celebration, and the Feast of Corpus Christi, may have been like in a more socially Catholic time. After communion, the Eucharistic procession began maneuvering its way across the grounds with stops at three wigwam stations.

Following the procession, associate pastor Fr. Karunakar Madanu provided gifts from his home country of India to clergy and religious, including Sr. Felissa Zander and Sr. Maryrose Theobald, ministry partners who have served the school and mission for more than 50 years; Fr. David Neuschwander, pastor of the parish; Bishop Powers; and many others. It also provided an opportunity to acknowledge the 10-year anniversary of Fr. Neuschwander’s ordination to the priesthood.

Srs. Felissa and Maryrose have been religious sisters for 70 and 71 years, respectively; many alumni brought their children to meet their former teachers, with many describing the impacts the sisters had made in their lives. Both sisters teach at the school, with Sr. Maryrose teaching the younger students and Sr. Felissa teaching older students and serving as principal and occasional bus driver. Sr. Felissa has been described as a “powerhouse” for the church and school, as she plays a vital role in keeping the tuition-free private school functioning.

Following the celebration of the Mass, a great feast ensued, and then a powwow, allowing all in attendance to witness the rich culture portrayed in the traditional dances of the Ojibwe people. The audience sat in a circle around the dancers; stakes of various colors were placed to symbolize the four directions, and at the center of the circle were multiple drummers under a tent. They kept a solid rhythm, almost like a heartbeat.

Finally, a fireworks show closed the day of celebration for the church and its rich history. The day was marked with gratitude for all the Lord has so graciously given, and continues to give, the St. Francis Solanus Mission.