Our History

History of Nativity of Mary Parish

Nativity of Mary Parish began in the winter of 1876, forty years after Henry James established the original plat of the "village of Janesville" and built a log cabin on the east shore of the Rock River. It would be Janesville's second Catholic congregation. The first, St. Patrick Parish, begun in 1847, had grown beyond the capacity of their church building, and were experiencing financial difficulties. Early in 1876 a meeting was held to consider organizing a second parish in Janesville. On March 3rd, the land for St. Mary, eight rods square, was purchased for $580. On March 14, the contract for the building of a plain, frame church was let for the sum of $2,000. The first liturgy was offered there in July, and in September, Rev. John Stephen Muenich was installed as the first pastor. Membership in the new congregation swelled, and by November it was necessary to build an addition to the new church.

On August 17, 1883, Nativity of Mary congregation was incorporated under the laws of the State of Wisconsin. Rev. Robert Roche, who succeeded Rev. Muenich as pastor, began a fund to improve the church lot, decorate and furnish the priest's house and church, and purchase property for a school. It fell to his successor, Rev. W.A. Goebel, to undertake the building of a new church to accommodate the increasing congregation. Under his supervision, and the plans by architects Frank Kemp and Fred Roesling, Sr., work began in the fall of 1900 on a new church, to be built in the High Victorian Gothic style. The completed building was dedicated by Bishop Muldoon of Chicago on June 14, 1902. Janesville's historic chronicle of that year described the new St. Mary Church as "by far the most imposing and handsomest church building in the city. Situated on a prominent section of the city, on high ground, its beautiful design and tall steeple add to the beauty of Janesville's architecture".

It was indeed a magnificent structure. The outside of the church, which boasted 21 inch thick walls and a steeple which soared over 200 feet into the air, was constructed of Waukesha limestone foundation and pressed brick, which consumed the entire supply of brick in the brick yard. Inside, the church auditorium with its arched ceiling, gas and electric brass lights, oak pews, pillars of onyx and Italian marble and antique stained windows, invoked the beauty of a cathedral. Although the church was considered too large when it was built, within six months it was filled almost to capacity.

Under Rev. Goebel's continuing direction, parishioners were encouraged to become an active part of the life of St. Mary Parish in a variety of organizations and ministries. His special commitment to Catholic education was expressed in the establishment of a parochial school. Nativity of Mary School opened September 1, 1913 in the old church building, which had been moved to the corner of Prospect and North Wisconsin Streets. There were 96 pupils divided among six grades. Within three years, the seventh and eighth grades were added, and later, a ninth grade. The Sisters of St. Dominic in Racine, WI., were commissioned to assume charge of the educational program.

Rev. Charles Olson, who became pastor in 1917, added a rectory to the complex the following year. He also rebuilt the Sister's residence to accommodate the enlarged teaching staff. During his pastorate numerous lay organizations were instituted or re-organized in the parish: among them, Holy Name Society, St. Mary School Society, Young Ladies Sodality, Children of Mary Sodality, St. John Berchman's Sanctuary Society and the Altar Boy's Society. In 1921 the church basement, formerly "the winter chapel" was remodeled with kitchen equipment installed so that the social activities of the church could be held there.

The Fiftieth Anniversary of the parish was observed August 30, 1926 with a day-long celebration beginning with Solemn Pontifical High Mass in church and continuing with a picnic dinner, band concert, program and dance at Riverside Park. That same year, 13 years after the beginning of St. Mary School, the 198 x 132 foot lot on which the school now stands was purchased, and serious planning began. In 1927, during Rev. Olson's Silver Jubilee as a priest, a drive for funds for the new school was launched. A year later, construction on the school began, under the direction of architects Flad and Mulder and general contractor T.S. Willis. The building was completed at a total cost of $160,000 and dedicated in May 1929.

The next several years were difficult ones for the parishioners of St. Mary. On Palm Sunday 1931, their beloved pastor of 14 years, Rev. Olson, died suddenly after a bout of pneumonia. The entire Janesville community mourned his death. The following year St. Mary and the rest of Janesville received an economic blow when General Motors moved its plant to Kansas City. Parish contributions fell off considerably, interest payments on debts were suspended, and only vital expenses were met. A fledgling kindergarten, which had begun in 1930, was abandoned.

On July 1, 1933 Rev. Ewald J. Beck from Decada, Wisconsin, began his pastorate at Nativity of Mary, a reign that would continue until his retirement 34 years later. The return of General Motors to Janesville in January 1935 signaled an economic upswing that within a few years enabled the parish to purchase a new organ and begin to redecorate the church. During the latter project, begun in January 1944, the original white altars were replaced by beautiful new oak altars, a main altar, donated by Rev. Beck, and two side altars. The installation of three bells, at 2,000, 1,000 and 600 lbs. each, in the church steeple on June 26, 1947 brought to a close that era of church improvements. At about that same time, the school debt was retired.

Emerging from the depths of the Great Depression and the horrors of W.W.II, St. Mary was fiscally solvent and spiritually revitalized. It was a member parish of the newly created Diocese of Madison, under the leadership of Bishop William J. O'Connor. The school continued to grow. Improvements, in the form of two new entrances near the side altars, were made on the church.

On February 25, 1952 St. William Parish was established on Janesville's west side, followed by St. John Vianney parish across town on May 23, 1955. The formation of these new parishes meant the loss of many parishioners to St. Mary.

In 1958 Pope Pius XII died, in the nineteenth year of his pontificate. His successor, Pope John XXIII was a dramatic contrast in personality and style to his austere predecessor. Warm and outgoing, he was possibly the first Pope to pay visits to men in jail. He called for a synod of the Roman diocese, a reform of the Canon Law and a ecumenical council, thus initiating a series of changes in the Roman Catholic Church that would have a profound effect on Christians around the world.

At St. Mary the school was experiencing a space problem. During these years all parish parents were required to send their children to Catholic schools, and as a result, enrollment was constantly increasing. The number of pupils grew from 458 in 1947 to the peak enrollment of 568 in 1952-53. In that year there were 74 pupils enrolled in Grade One. Even with the loss of parish families to St. Williams and St. John's parishes, by the 1958-59 academic year, classes were averaging 50 pupils per grade. To ease the overcrowding, alterations were made that resulted in three additional classrooms. Despite these efforts, the school remained overcrowded, and by 1966 it was decided that ninth grade would be discontinued.

In 1962 plans got underway for the building of a new convent. The old convent, part of which had been the original parsonage, was demolished. In 1964 the new convent was completed.

In Rome, Pope John XXIII from 1963-65 led the Church through Vatican II, the first council since 1870. There were many changes about to take place. For the first time Mass was celebrated with the Presider facing the people. English gradually replaced Latin as the language of the Mass. The Sisters' habit evolved from the long flowing habits to shorter, more tailored dresses, although many of the older Sisters continued to wear the habit to which they were accustomed.

Msgr. Beck retired in 1967. A farewell reception was held in his honor on June 4 in the school gymnasium, which had been the scene of many of his pastorate's festivals, sporting events, wedding receptions, dances, Scout meetings and CYO classes. Fifteen hundred people gathered to pay him tribute.

Rev. Bernard Pierick succeeded Msgr. Beck as pastor, arriving June 21, 1967. Under his direction the spiritual life of the parish experienced the updating of many forms of worship, increased participation of lay persons in parish activities, and great cooperation between St. Mary and other Janesville churches in a variety of many ecumenical and community concerns.

The first steps in the formation of St. Mary Parish Council took place shortly after Rev. Pierick's arrival. Originally named the Lay Advisory Board, the first group consisted of nine lay men & women, the pastor, his two associates and the school principal. When parish councils were mandated by the Madison Diocese in 1968, this board became officially known as St. Mary Parish Council. The membership was increased to 12. At the same time the plans were made to form a school board.

Religious Education for young people not attending St. Mary School began, and programs were held for parents to encourage their involvement in teaching religion to their own children.

One of the commissions of the Parish Council, the Social Services Commission, expanded its functions to reach out to those in need outside the parish. Members established a food pantry to provide emergency help to those not served by existing welfare agencies, provided workers and financial support to the Meals on Wheels program and offered rides to students in the Religious Education Program for the mentally challenged. Each year members packed and distributed Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets. This organization eventually led to the establishment in 1970 of a city-wide ECHO (Everyone Cooperating to Help Others) program, which now boasts over 30 sponsoring religious organizations.

Msgr. Ewald Beck died on January 31, 1971. Rev. Pierick was the Presider at the funeral Mass, which was con-celebrated by brother priests, some of whom had heard the call to priesthood while living in the parish. The Most Reverend Cletus O'Donnell, Bishop of Madison, gave the final commendation.

Late in 1971, after two years of preliminary discussion, plans for extensive renovation of Nativity of Mary where finalized. Liturgical guidelines developed by Vatican II were consulted in the renovation of the church's interior, which included moving the altar closer to the congregation, placing the Baptismal Font inside the church, and updating the sound system. Liturgical artist and designer John Pateros executed the project and designed the altar, font processional cross and other furnishings. He was assisted by a special committee of lay and clerical members of the Parish Council. Rededication of the church took place on Passion Sunday 1972.

Throughout the mid 1970's improvements continued on the church and other parish facilities. The church hall was remodeled to make it a comfortable and attractive setting for parish meetings and social activities. In 1974 a new Reuter pipe organ was installed in the choir loft of the church. The close of 1975 and the beginning of 1976 were marked by the formulation of plans for the Parish Centennial, to be celebrated in June 1976.

On Sunday, June 13, 1976 an impressive gathering of former priests of St. Mary joined the present pastors in celebrating Nativity of Mary 100 years. Bishop Cletus O'Donnell was the presider of the concelebrated liturgy. Over 50 priests and ministers from the Janesville area participated in the liturgy. A celebration banquet was held following the Mass, in the church hall, and the day concluded with a reception for the entire community, in the school gymnasium.

Early in 1977 Rev. Eugene Graham came to the parish to being his pastorate. He was succeeded as pastor by Rev. Thomas Doheny in June 1979. A Janesville native Rev. Doheny came to St. Mary Parish from a pastorate at St. Francis Xavier, Cross Plains, WI.

Continuing to respond to the liturgical changes initiated by Vatican II, the parish in 1980 formed a committee to begin planning a major renovation of the church. For a year and a half this committee, under the leadership of Rev. John Buscemi, a gifted artist and liturgical consultant, studied church documents, received and changed proposals and developed plans. A fund drive began to raise the $150,000 needed to finance the project. The final plans called for redecorating the entire church: elevated the sanctuary floor to improve sight lines; liturgical alterations that included altar, ambo, Eucharistic tower and baptismal font (all of which were refashioned from the existing ornamental wood altar and reredos from the rear of the sanctuary); interior and exterior lighting and sound improvements. The project began early in 1982.

The "house for the Church" was rededicated on October 3, 1982. Bishop Cletus O'Donnell presided at the liturgy, which was concelebrated by 21 priests who had served the parish or were ordained from St. Mary.

Work to improve the parish facilities continued throughout the next few years. In 1985 the school auditorium was remodeled. In 1986 the parish Property Commission began to study options for constructing an entrance to the church that would allow easy access for disabled and elderly and others who had difficulty negotiating the church steps. The plan that resulted from these discussions was developed through a collaborative effort of architects Robert Sterk, a St. Mary parishioner, and Jerry Orr, of Ware Associates architectual firm. It was presented to the parish community in April 1988 accompanied by a price tag of nearly $175,000. True to their tradition of providing an atmosphere of gracious welcoming, the parishioners responded enthusiastically to the plea support of this project. Shortly after the beginning of 1989, the barrier free entrance, consisting of an elevator off the street level serving both church and church hall, was completed. On June 10, 1989, Bishop O'Donnel came to celebrate a special liturgy of thanksgiving and dedication of the barrier free entrance. It marked the end of a long quest to make a beautiful church building accessible, and the beginning of the fuller participation andworship for many members of the parish community.

In June 1990, Rev. Doheny became pastor of St. Mary, Pine Bluff, WI., and Rev. Raymond Kertz, a Milton, WI. native, succeeded him. Prior to arriving at Nativity of Mary Janesville, Rev. Kertz had been pastor of St. Mary Portage, WI., and had served for 14 years as rector of Holy Name Seminary. At St. Mary Janesville he shepherded a parish community of over 1500 families through celebration of joy and sorrow. Under his direction a major effort was launched to assess the spiritual and social needs of St. Mary members. As a result of this survey, called the "The Listening Process", parish organization and ministries were refocused and revitalized. A Parish Renewal in Lent of 1992 offered an excellent and well received opportunity for spiritual growth.

1992 also brought occasions of great sadness. In the early hours of January 4, an arsonist broke into the church and set a smoky fire that resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in damage. Although the attempt to destroy the church was unsuccessful and the cleanup was accomplished in just a few weeks, the incident served as a sobering reminder of how vulnerable, and valuable, our church is. On August 31, 1992, Bishop Cletus O'Donnell died, three months after his retirement. During his 25 years as bishop he brought to his ministry a hope and a vision that made the Church of the Diocese of Madison unique and enviable. His successor, Bishop William Bullock of the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, was installed on June 15, 1992.

Throughout its history, Nativity of Mary Parish has been a vital, involved and caring presence in the Janesville community. Its beautiful church building give concrete form to the faith of the people. Built on one of the city's highest points, it seems to watch over the community serving as a beacon of hope for all.



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