Churches of St. Thomas Aquinas, Waterford, Wisconsin
Heritage Site Plaque.
St Thomas’ rich heritage dates back to the 1840’s, when Wisconsin was a just a Territorial designation.
In the 1842-1843 time frame, the first known Catholics to settle in the area was a German named Mueller and a few Catholic Irish. In 1843 and 1844, an Irish Priest visited the area a few times and ministered at a private residence a few miles east of Waterford.
The Spring of 1845 would see an influx of more Catholics to Waterford.
Fr. Henry Kendeler of St. Mary’s in Burlington came as a supply priest and periodically ministered to their spiritual needs in private homes or barns. In June, 1846, the first Catholic service was held in Waterford by Fr. Kendeler at the newly built – but not yet used- cooper workshop of Charles Klunkefort. (It was a barrel making shop on the SE corner of Main and First St.)
From then on, every two or three months, on a work day, Mass was presented in Waterford, usually at the cooper shop. On Sunday, they had to travel to Burlington to satisfy their Catholic obligations.
In 1846 Fr. Kundig replaced Fr. Kendeler and in 1847, Fr. Schraudenbach replaced him.
By 1848, the year in which Wisconsin became a State, the number of Catholics in the Waterford area had grown considerably. Fr. Kundig, now assigned to Franklin, returned to regularly visit once a month, still at the cooperage or private residence. While the parish was small and poor, he encouraged them to raise funds to build a church. Much of the subscriptions were for five and ten dollars in the day when a common days wage was $1.50 – $2.00.
But, there was much division in the small Catholic community of approximately 80 poor families, primarily German and Irish, that needed to be overcome such as building location, materials and the vernacular of the mass. The bishop decreed that it be an English speaking parish. However, a number of documents found in the achieves reveal that German was the predominant language used within the churches of the diocese.
An anecdote later related by Fr. Schumacher in 1886, states that there was difficulty choosing the name of the church. It had been planned to be built in honor of St. Ludgerus. However, Fr. Fusseder was currently ministering there during the construction and effectuated the name when he offered as a gift a painting of Holy Thomas of Aquin.
Construction started on the little stone church in 1849 with only five feet of wall completed. Fr. Kundig again took over the mission in 1850 by visiting once a month and staying eight days per visit. Contracts were let for brickwork – $400 and the roof – $400. By winter, the roof structure was up but not finished until the Spring of 1851. After three years of unspecified difficulties, the church was ready to celebrate their first mass in the new building – Corpus Christie Sunday, June 22, 1851.
Only the shell was completed, the church had no doors nor windows and the altar was made of wooden planks. Little by little over the next few years, the women’s Marien Verein society finished furnishing the church.
First St. Thomas Church, built in 1851 with the Rectory on the right. Wisconsin Digital Collection picture restored by R.E. Gariepy.
Research of old maps and descriptions in church artifacts show that it was located directly behind the present 1880 church on the corner. The building in the rear is the original stone rectory which was built in 1858.
A significant point in development of St. Thomas Aquinas parish started immediately in the same year, 1851. Father Kundig’s next care was a school. At the time, Mr. P. Luig’ offered a room to be used for school purposes, and a farmer, Mr. Lensing, taught school on a salary of $8 a month. Twelve children attended the first school.
Fr. Matthias Gernbauer would become the first permanent pastor arranging for the first school building in 1852. It was a 10×20 foot addition to the church building – half of it was used for school and half as a vestry.
When the church and school were completed, Bishop Henni was finally available to do the inauguration on September 8, 1853. While he was here, he conducted a Holy Confirmation, sanctified the bell, and consecrated the St. Thomas Cemetery just a few hundred yards south on First Street.
In March 1855, Fr. Gernbauer was withdrawn and succeeded by Fr. Seif who left after two and a half months. He was succeeded by Fr. Stehle from June until January of 1856. He was replaced by Fr. Schraudernbach until October 26 when Fr. Sanner would be appointed as a full time priest.
In 1857, the parish recognized that they needed a parochial house and started working on a stone building on the south side of the church (shown in the above picture of the 1851 church). At a cost of $1000, the first rectory was 32 feet long, 23 feet wide and two stories high.
The rectory would later be remodeled into a convent for the teaching sisters and it was eventually torn down during 1940 to make room for the new 1941 school building.
October of 1860 would see Fr. Sanner replaced by Fr. Minderer for a short time because the majority of church members were Irish and he did not speak the language fluently. He was replaced by Fr. Heiss who served until May of 1864.
After 13 years, the school being in such a small building was barely adequate for its purposes. Fr. Conrad replaced Fr. Heiss in October of 1864 and immediately went to work to build an adequate building. Thanks to the willingness of the parish, Fr. Conrad signed the contracts on May 15, 1865 for $1510 to Wm. Bluder for the mason’s work and $300 to Barney Geising for the carpentry work. The parish had to supply all of the materials.
The cost of construction for the 46 foot long by 30 feet wide and 30 feet high was $3480.64. It had two spacious classrooms, a chapel, and four rooms for the Sisters.
After 82 years of service, the 1858 old rectory/convent building was torn down to make way for the new school. A slideshow of its final days follows:
Two new schools would be built in 1941 and 1957 to accommodate the growing enrollment which reached nearly 500 in the 1970’s.
On June 6, 2019 the school was closed, thus ending 168 years of St. Thomas’ continuous commitment to Catholic education.
“In the year 1870, Rev. J.M. Joerger bought a small organ for the church, paying $425 for the same.” as referenced in The Catholic Church of Wisconsin, 1896. This organ was retired from the church and school in 1903 and given as a wedding present to Joseph Harter/Anna Alby. It remained in their family until 2010 when it was returned to the parish and restored to playing condition.
A story related by a Harter-Alby descendant was that a small melodeon (pump organ) was purchased for the church and was carried back and forth between the church and school. The school boys were pressed into service to run the pump pedals while Sister played the keyboard. If the volume dropped, they would get a quick kick to pay attention to what they were supposed to be doing. It remained in their family until 2010 when it was returned to the parish and restored to playing condition. It was also played as part of the 165th parish anniversary celebration in June, 2016.
In 1879, then Pastor Schumacher, took on the task of building a larger and more functional church to keep up with the growing membership. When it was competed at a cost of about $20,000, it was free of all encumbrances. While completed in 1881, St. Thomas second church was officially consecrated Wednesday, June 21, 1882 by Archbishop Heiss accompanied by 20 priests.
1901 saw a new Parsonage built for $3500. It was moved in 1953 to the lot on Superior St., across from the small parking lot on 2nd street to make room for the new rectory in its present location.
Under Father Kornath’s leadership in the early 2000’s, early planning was started to investigate the financial impact, the structural size, and the location of a new House of Worship.
In June, 2005 Father Eugene Doda, Jr., became the new pastor. He immediately took charge of the planning of the new church. In less than a year on April 29, 2006; the parish witnessed Auxiliary Bishop Sklba and Father Gene, along with the architect and contractor break ground for the new church. On the seventh of April, 2007, on Holy Saturday, Father Gene celebrated the first Mass in the new church. The formal dedication ceremonies for the new House of Worship was celebrated on June 17, 2007 with Archbishop Timothy Dolan officiating .
Additional Pictures of Historical Interest:
A pipe organ built in the 1920’s still operates sending out its inspiring sounds within it confines. Two of the smaller ranks are mounted on the wall with the remainder enclosed behind the wall along with the wind chest.
An ornately painted interior graced the nave of the church in the early 1900’s.
Kerosene lanterns lighted the church. A preaching pulpit is on the right wall.
The bells have filled the village’s awareness of time for many years. They toll on the quarter hour and the number of rings corresponding to the hour. In 1966, the automatic bell system failed and the parish could not afford to fix it at the time. With the lack of the familiar bell tolling throughout the day, a local community effort was initiated to help pay for a new system. Around $6000 was raised and the time piece was re-built.
A 30 inch by 30 inch bronze plaque was erected in honor of the contributors. System upgrades continue to take place as needed.
On November 22, 1919 a chimney fire threatened to destroy this historic structure. Quick action by the local volunteer fire department contained the fire to the roof. Damage was assessed at $1313 and was mostly covered by insurance.
Lead Researcher: Robert Gariepy, Sr.
NOTE: Should the reader have further documentation to enhance the content of this web page, please contact the Lead Researcher through director@ExploreWaterford.com. We are particularly interested in pictures or historic artifacts that may be shared. Credit will be given.
- History of the parish of Holy Thomas von Aquin”, Fr. Schumacher, 1886, St. Thomas Archives, Translation by Kathrin Gariepy.
- St. Thomas Archives.
- Racine County Register of Deeds.
- Waterford: “Stories of Waterford and its Busy Lives”, Waterford Post, 1923.
- Archdiocese of Milwaukee Archives.