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St. Norbert College’s award-winning landmark, the spiritual center of the campus, was dedicated in 1870. The church was built on a site where ministry has been offered for nearly 350 years.

Old St. Joe’s Celebrates Its 150th Anniversary This Christmas

In the morning, sometimes while Deacon Kevin DeCleene M.T.S. ’12 is in prayer during Mass, the sun shines through the stained-glass windows on the east side of Old St. Joe’s.

“Those windows just glow,” DeCleene says. “Then, in the afternoon, the western sun illuminates different saints.

“And at night it’s not the windows so much as the wood roof and brick walls.” Those, he says, are lit to full effect by the church’s interior lights.

Come Christmas Day, however, DeCleene and many others will be measuring the passage of time at Old St. Joseph Church in a different way: by the long sweep of centuries, not the lengthening shadows of days. Dec. 25 marks the historic church’s 150th anniversary, or sesquicentennial. It was on Christmas Day in 1870 that Joseph Melcher, an Austrian-born prelate of the Roman Catholic Church and the first bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, dedicated the parish, which he had built to serve French Canadian settlers working in area lumber mills.

An inspiring history ...
Constructed on land where a mission chapel for early settlers built by the French-born Jesuit priest the Rev. Charles Albane stood for nearly 200 years, Melcher’s new parish immediately inherited a long and eventful past. Its future, too, would prove long and eventful. The all-wood structure Melcher erected in 1870, on land donated by De Pere native Jane Dousman, burned to the ground after a lightning strike in 1889, with only the statue of St. Joseph surviving. It was rebuilt as a brick structure in 1890; was decreed by Pope Leo XIII as the site of the National Shrine of St. Joseph in 1892; became the nation’s first college parish in 1969; and has undergone a series of renovations including a significant simplification of the interior in 1969 and the extensive reimagining of 1999 that gave us today's interior.

Old St. Joseph Church has been called Old” since 1969, when it was supplanted as a city parish by the new (and similarly Norbertine-led) Our Lady of Lourdes in De Pere and the college parish was created. The records of St. Joseph parishioners not affiliated with the college went to Our Lady of Lourdes

Old St. Joe’s is today the place of worship for St. Norbert College Parish, a spiritual community that includes all students at the college, many of whom worship there. Membership extends to the students who call St. Norbert College home as well as to faculty, staff, alumni and others with active ties to the college. The church is ranked 18th on theologydegrees.org’s “50 Most Amazing College Chapels and Churches.”

“I love that I am able to walk to the church at nearly any time of day,” says Kylie Rogers ’22, who started working for the parish her first year as a student at St. Norbert, initially as a sacristan for Masses. “Sitting on the floor in front of the tabernacle, especially when it is quiet at night, brings a peace that is unlike anything else in the world. …

“Old St. Joseph Church will always be a place I call home.”

The Rev. Mike Brennan ’99, of the parish's college of chaplains, also uses the word “home” to describe what Old St. Joe’s means to him.

“Having gone here as a college student,” he says, “when I walk in there now it’s like walking into my home. When I walk in there as a priest to Mass, it’s very humbling.”

... and an inspiring space
Though the church building remains basically the same as it was after being rebuilt in 1890, DeCleene says, its 1999 renovation was substantial. Costing millions of dollars, the renovation included gutting the church and exposing the brick in its interior. The result was a streamlined, modern sanctuary with no statues or crucifixes whose only flourishes other than spotlighted interior brick were stained-glass windows. With nothing else to compete with them, those windows are spellbinding, Rogers says.

“Inside the church, you’re captivated by the stained-glass windows,” she says. “The four to the left of the tabernacle depict St. Francis Xavier, St. Cecilia, St. Patrick and St. Anne. The four stained-glass windows to the right of the tabernacle depict various scenes in St. Joseph’s life.”

Says DeCleene: “They made the decision to make it a very contemporary space, very clean, with no large statues in the church. It really was transitioned to a worship space where the stained-glass windows tell the story.”

Entering the church is an unforgettable experience, for the stained-glass windows and the other ways the church plays on the senses, says Cole Johnson ’21, a member of the parish pastoral council. “When you walk into the nave, you’re greeted with the pleasant scent of wood from the several beautiful wood furnishings restored and repurposed from the original church building,” he says.

“And you notice that the prayer space for the laity is set up according to the monastic tradition with rows of chairs facing one another, with the presider's chair embedded within the congregation, so as to symbolize unity with the faithful.”

The National Shrine of St. Joseph, located in the oratory, also commands attention. Spouse of Mary and foster father of Jesus, Joseph is honored with a Feast Day on March 19, two days after the great feast of the Apostle of Ireland, St. Patrick – appropriate timing for the oft-overshadowed St. Joseph, who speaks nary a word in the Bible, a book filled with expressive, even bombastic characters.

“There is a lot of mystery around Joseph,” Brennan says. “I think he falls into the shadows a little bit because we recognize God as the father of Christ. He’s overshadowed by Christ, Mary, God.”

But in Old St. Joe’s, Joseph’s presence is felt. It's an experience that will likely be shared by new pilgrims with the declaration by Pope Francis of the Year of St. Joseph (Dec. 8, 2020-Dec. 8, 2021).

“Even if I don’t visit the shrine on a certain day,” Johnson says, “I usually pass through the atrium and give a look to the statue of St. Joseph himself, holding the Christ Child, which always brightens my day.”

If Johnson could ask St. Joseph anything, he says, he would ask this:

“What did you feel like when Mary told you she was pregnant with the Son of God?”

 

Dec. 17, 2020