St. Paul’s, first known as St. Henry in 1923, began in an old schoolhouse
By Ben Wideman | For On Mission
COMBINED LOCKS — When Debbie Jonen was asked to organize a few old boxes in the St. Paul Parish office last spring, little did she know the treasure trove of history she’d resurrect.
One dust-covered binder, labeled “St. Paul History,” included decades of notes and photos compiled by the late Anna Van Den Wymelenberg, who had been instrumental in archiving the early history of St. Paul Parish.
“I spent more time reading everything and looking at all the pictures than actually putting things in order,” Jonen said with a laugh. “Everything I’ve seen is so interesting.”
That unearthed history is especially noteworthy today as St. Paul Parish prepares to celebrate its centennial.
On Saturday, Dec. 9 — the 100th anniversary of the parish’s first Mass — many of the parish’s 450-plus families will gather at 4 p.m. for a Mass celebrated by Bishop David Ricken. Concelebrating will be Fr. Robert Stegmann, who has been the parish’s pastor since July. Also invited are most of the parish’s previous living pastors and deacons. A reception will follow.
Van Den Wymelenberg arrived at St. Paul Parish in 1926, three years after the parish’s founding. For the next three decades, she served as the “de facto archivist” — in addition to being the parish housekeeper, organist, wedding photographer, choir founder, religious educator and church decorator just to name just a few of her duties.
LONGEST-SERVING PASTOR, FR. DE WILD
Her tenure coincided with Fr. John De Wild, the parish’s longest-serving pastor (1926 to 1962). His tombstone is the first that visitors see upon entering the parish cemetery.
“With this being our 100th anniversary, it’s a great time to bring all of this history back,” said Jonen, who now serves as the unofficial parish activist. “Anna kept track of everything at the parish in those early years, so it’s neat to read about our history. To see her notes and the photos she took is special. If she hadn’t kept those notes, we’d have no details of our history from back then. So I’m hoping we can put everything in a directory to share with our community.”
Jonen, 70, recalls Van Den Wymelenberg from her youth, noting she was affectionately referred to as “Anna Van.”
“I definitely remember Anna and Fr. De Wild,” Jonen said. “In the summer, Fr. De Wild would have Mass at his house because he couldn’t stand very well as he got older. So I would go there and sit alongside Anna on his couch and we’d join others and have Mass together.
“That makes this even more special. As I read through all of Anna’s notes, it did feel like I was there with her. I can picture her typing all these notes.”
St. Paul Parish dates back to November 1923, when four women met with Bishop Paul Rhode of the Diocese of Green Bay to obtain permission to establish a new parish in Combined Locks. Two weeks later, they received that permission and St. Henry Parish (as it was first called) was formed. The Combined Locks Paper Company, now part of Midwest Paper Group, bought a fire-damaged, one-room schoolhouse and began remodeling it to be used as the church. A steeple was added, and a rectory was constructed adjacent to the building.
FIRST MASS ON DEC. 9, 1923
On Dec. 9, 1923, the parish celebrated its first Mass (in a different school since renovations on the one-room schoolhouse weren’t finished). Leading the Mass was Fr. Henry Halinde, a native of Germany, who was pastor of the parish from 1923 to 1926.
That same December day, parishioners asked the bishop if they could rename the parish “St. Paul” in honor of parishioner Paul Smith, a leader in the formation of the parish who contributed much time, labor and financial aid to the project.
The first Mass at the newly renovated one-room schoolhouse — now converted into a church — was celebrated on Christmas Eve 1923. Eight months later, the parish held its First Communion Mass. In January 1925, parishioners decided to purchase land for a cemetery.
“When Fr. De Wild arrived (one year later in 1926), the parish was deep in debt and filled with discouraged parishioners,” parish archives state. “It was even suggested that the parish be closed, but Fr. De Wild laughed that off and said the debt would be paid within a year. That promise not only was fulfilled, but by the end of the year the parish had some money left over ‘for a rainy day.’”
Over the next several years, the parish continued to grow, with Van Den Wymelenberg meticulously keeping notes and photos along the way. In September 1945, two teaching sisters — Sr. Ruth Marie and Sr. Leonella — started a religion program for the children of the parish.
At 95 years old, Theresa Lamers is among the parish’s oldest members; she has been alive for nearly the entirety of the parish’s history. She recalls being married at the original St. Paul church on Jan. 11, 1947.
“It was a snowy, cold day, I do remember,” Lamers said. “Fr. De Wild married us. He was quite the character. Sometimes he would get mad at the boys at Mass because they were misbehaving. He didn’t get mad at us girls — we were always very well-behaved.”
OLD CHURCH TOO CROWDED
In spring 1962, parishioners decided to build a new church since the renovated one-room schoolhouse-turnedchurch couldn’t accommodate the growing congregation.
“You could only fit four or five people on each side of the aisle in that church,” said Adriana Evers, 93, explaining, “We’d put chairs in the aisles and in front for everyone. It was a tight squeeze.”
Groundbreaking for the new church was held on April 7, 1963, with then-retired Fr. De Wild digging the first shovel of dirt. The first Mass at the new (current) church on Wallace Street was celebrated March 17, 1964, and was led by De Wild’s nephew, Fr. Bernard Timmers.
Later that year, the original church was torn down and the land reverted to Combined Locks Paper Company. A faith formation center was added a few years later.
“The new church has been so nice for us,” said Mary Jo Lamers, 87. “We couldn’t appreciate some of the things in the old church because it was much smaller. Once we were in the big church, we had room to spread out and grow. The new church was very different from the old church, and everyone loved it.”
OLD BULLETINS TELL PARISH STORIES
As part of her research, Jonen compiled stories and photos also saved by other parishioners, and read through every church bulletin the parish had ever produced. One bulletin from May 1966 read: “We thank all our parishioners and visitors for their devotion and orderliness at worship. We are especially pleased that no one leaves until the final hymn has been concluded. In some parishes, the scandalous practice of coming late and leaving early exists. We are grateful to you for your courtesy to God and God’s people.”
A more somber bulletin from January 2015 noted the passing of Fr. Robert Vandenberg, who had served the parish for 34 years: “His death is a great loss to our parish community, but a great gain to the Kingdom of Heaven where we pray as a parish community Fr. Bob now lives as he enters eternal life.”
Years ago, when Fr. Vandenberg was pastor, Mary Jo Lamers became the first female lector in parish history. At the upcoming centennial Mass, she will again serve as lector.
“Fr. Vandenberg suggested I be a lector on Sundays, and that’s how it started,” she said. “I really liked doing that because I’ve been involved with so much in this parish. And I’m thrilled to be the lector when the bishop comes (on Dec. 9). I was born and raised in this community, and it’s exciting to be here at this moment in our history.”
Jonen added, “It’s really a good feeling to be involved with this parish for so long and to play a part in sharing our history for, hopefully, generations to come. I love this parish.”