The Parish History of St. Olaf’s Catholic Church – Eau Claire, Wisconsin
December 28, 1967
by Vicki Hopkins
I wish to express many thanks to Father Myron Meinen, pastor of St. Olaf’s Parish, for the assistance which he gave me in gathering the necessary information for this paper.
On July 2, 1952 Catholics of the northern section of the city of Eau Claire were surprised that the Most Reverend John P. Treacy, Bishop of the La Crosse diocese, was establishing a new parish, to be known as St. Olaf’s, and that they would comprise its first members. The announcement of the new parish was received with mixed feelings, most people asking themselves if there was any real need for a new parish, and whether its few members could support it.
Definite land boundaries for the new parish were established by the Bishop’s office. These were County Trunk Highway “O” on the north, County Trunk Highway “P” on the east to the Eau Claire River, south to the Eau Claire River and County Trunk Highway “Q” (also know as Seymour Road) to the Chippewa River and then north to the intersection of County Trunk Highway “O” and the Chippewa River. These new boundaries included members of Sacred Heart Parish – Eau Claire, St. Patrick’s Parish – Eau Claire, Holy Ghost Parish – Chippewa Falls, and St. Mary’s Parish – Altoona.
When Bishop Treacy announced the formation of this new parish that was to be known as “St. Olaf’s” there was immediate discussion as to the suitableness of the name. In fact, a few days before the new pastor arrived, the matter had been discussed from a local radio station in a Sunday sermon- but not by a Catholic Priest. The most simple way to answer the question, “Why call a Catholic Parish, St. Olaf’s? is to ask, “Why not?” Unless a parish is given a title that applies to one of the Three Divine Persons in the Blessed Trinity, it is customary to place the parish under patronage of some saint. If a certain area has a large proportion of a given nationality, then it follows that a saint hero of that nationality will be the patron of the local church. Considering the number of Scandinavians in this part of Wisconsin, it seemed time that a Scandinavian Saint should receive recognition in this way. St. Olaf was King of Norway who died in 1030, and we celebrate his feast day on July 29th. If one is not familiar with the vicinity of Eau Claire, he may ask the question, “Are there any Scandinavian Catholics in the new parish?” Yes, in the original parish list there were thirty-nine Olson’s (including children), and also many Johnson’s and other names ending in “son”.
Father Robert Agnew, the first pastor of St. Olaf’s, arrived on July 9, 1952. He was accompanied by his mother, Mrs. John Agnew, who cooked and kept house for him. In order to acquaint himself with his new parishioners, Father Agnew took on the task of personally visiting each household. He discovered that he had about one-hundred and twenty-five adult members. St. Olaf’s had to be pioneered and so Father Agnew resided with the other Fathers at Immaculate Conception rectory until October 3, 1952. At this time he moved into St. Olaf’s first real acquirement, the rectory at 2913 North Hastings Way. Here the weekday Masses were celebrated. It also served as a place for organizational meetings and confessions.
On August 17, 1952, St. Olaf’s held its first Sunday Mass in the Veterans of Foreign Wars clubrooms. Although this building is not a typical site for the purpose of saying Mass, this was the only available building in the area large enough to accommodate the people in the area. This hall, 33 feet by 32 feet, continued to serve as a place for Sunday Mass until September, 1954. About 200 people could assemble at once, with no room to kneel and no side aisles. It soon became evident that three Masses would be necessary each Sunday to accommodate the parishioners. Father Jerome Palmer, O.S.B., Chaplain of St. Bede’s Priory, was the unofficial assistant on Sundays and Holy Days. The nuns from St. Bede’s Priory also contributed to the foundation of St. Olaf’s by teaching summer and vacation schools in living rooms, basements, and even garages.
On August 22, 1952, St. Olaf’s Altar Society was organized with Mrs. Victor Figlmiller, Sr., serving as its first president. Committee members were Mrs. John Grill, Mrs. John Hoepner, Mrs. Clyde Omodth, and Miss Pat Gilfoy.
On October 16, 1953, a permanent rectory was purchases at 2408 North Lane, which was directly across the street from the site of the future buildings of the Parish of St. Olaf’s. After some remodeling, it was occupied in January 1955.
Architect, Eugene Phillip, of Milwaukee, was engaged to draw plans for the new school building. The building committee members appointed were Mr. John Grill, Mr. Louis Statz, Mr. Andrew Carlson, Mr. Rudolph Epp, and Mr. John Hoepner. The Walker Construction Company signed the building contract, and plans for construction were soon underway.
On January 10, 1954, ground breaking ceremonies were held. Excavation and construction being started promptly thereafter. Bishop Treacy dedicated the school with appropriate ceremonies on September 29, 1954.
The new school building was completed in September but due to lack of Sisters to teach that year, no classrooms were open. However, now space was available on the second floor of the school for daily and Sunday Mass. Also on the top floor of the school, living quarters for the Sisters were being built. The Sisters staffing this school are the Sorrowful Mother Sisters whose mother-house is in Milwaukee. In September, 1955, the school opened with four classrooms. With a limited teaching staff, it was possible to have only the first seven grades. One-hundred and eighty-six children were enrolled that first year. The first meeting of the P.T.A. was held on November 2, 1955, with Mr. Donald McCrackin serving as its first president.
Within three years it was necessary to open all eight classrooms, including those on the second floor. Since the space on the second floor was being occupied, the “church” was moved to the basement of the school.
The following is a letter to the people of St. Olaf’s Parish written by Bishop Treacy on January 30, 1956.
Please accept my felicitations on your good fortune in being members of an entirely new Catholic parish. The life of the Church is never more vibrant and healthy than in a new parish. This is the conviction of priests and people who have experienced the “birth” and development of the many newly-established parishes in our Diocese.
It is not difficult to discover the reason for the more intense Catholicity in our new parishes. Sacrifice – always involved in the process of birth, whether of a new baby or a new parish – intensifies convictions and deepens the bonds of love. It is the sacrifices of money, time, and opinions by both the new pastor and his new parishioners which intensifies the Faith and deepens the love of the Church in our new-born parishes. Would it not be a great Grace from God to impress this spiritual truth on the minds of priests and people in so-called “old parishes”? Although most “old parishes” would not admit it, the fact remains that sacrifice of money, time and opinions is necessary for us all in order to be “spiritually alive”!
On February 22, 1957, the first official assistant came to the parish, Father Myron Meinen. While at St. Olaf’s he was instrumental in organizing the Athletic Program for the school, and conducted a fund raising project which led to the purchase of an organ for the church. He also organized the St. Vincent de Paul Society (to aid the poor and needy in the area), and he was the spiritual director of the then existing Discussion Clubs.
Catholic education has been the central concern of Bishop Treacy since he came to this diocese in 1946. Between 1946 and 1958 twenty-eight new grade schools had been built to serve various parishes, including the parish of St. Olaf’s. The question of the importance of these Catholic schools is often asked. The answer to this was partly answered in a funeral sermon as a result of a tragic accident. David Toner, an eight grade pupil at St. Olaf’s School had died accidentally of strangulation in his yard on April 16, 1958. Just that morning he had attended Mass and received Holy Communion before attending school. In his sermon, Father Agnew said, “People sometimes wonder why new Catholic parishes erect a school before they build a church. This morning we, unfortunately, seem to have the answer. Catholics are not so much concerned with having a beautiful edifice erected in their parish, but are concerned primarily with the proper training of their children as beautiful living temples of the Living God.” He then commented upon the fact that the family had gone to a good deal of trouble and expense to give their children a Catholic education, but he felt sure that the parents had no regrets about their sacrifices.
Due to the rapid growth since its founding in 1952, St. Olaf’s had incurred a debt on which interest payments were not an insignificant factor. The expanding growth can be shown by a few facts. In two years there were two-hundred and twenty-five (201 infants and 24 adults) baptized. During that same period there were twenty-four funerals. With such a proportionate gain, it was evident that future needs would be even greater. In order to reduce the debt and provide for future needs, the Building Fund Canvass was proposed by the Wells Professional Fund Raising Company. This was an organized intensive plan to raise the financial income. The use of pledges over a 150 week period was a basic requirement of this canvass. The use of pledges was used because it had been previously proved many times that the only manner in which the members of a church of this size can provide adequately for such a program is not by cash contributions, but by subscriptions to the payment of sacrificial amounts weekly over a three year period. While the basic purpose of the canvass was to raise funds to carry out a program meeting the needs of the parish, a profound spiritual impact was hoped to be achieved, and that would be another important product of the canvass. It is a long proved fact that where investment lies, so lies interest!
Following is a letter to the people of St. Olaf’s Parish written by Father Agnew in regard to the Wells canvass.
The Canvass now under way marks another milestone in the growth and development of St. Olaf’s Parish. Our first year included much of the bewilderment of infancy, the breaking of long-standing ties with other parishes and pastors, the inconvenience of Mass in a dance hall.
Our first steps involved the purchase of a rectory and the construction of our beautiful yet practical school building. Next came the opening of the school, with all the preparations and problems that this entailed.
We have finally reached the point at which we can pause and take stock of the situation. It becomes evident that, before any more construction can be undertaken, the debts already incurred must be liquidated. Having come to know you as well as I have, I am convinced that this can be done with:
FAITH: In the continuing goodness and providence of God;
PRAYER: For the guidance, the courage, and the generosity that we need;
SACRIFICE: Of our time, our private opinions and our private resources.
In August, 1959, Father Meinen, assistant, was replaced by Father Robert Hegenbarth. Father Hegenbarth organized the Christian Family Movement, and was also responsible for the interior decorating of the present church. He was also choir director.
In the fall of 1960 additional buildings were erected. A combination gymnasium-auditorium to seat 500 persons was constructed to serve as a temporary church. Four more classrooms and a music room were also added at this time. The dimensions of the combination gymnasium-auditorium are 130 feet by 60 feet. It is complete with a main sanctuary, a sanctuary for the priests and altar boys, a choir loft, and a crying room for children.
On September 27, 1961, Father Bernard Raschke came to take the place of assistant Father Hegenbarth. Father Hegenbarth was assigned to St. Patrick’s Parish in Sparta, Wisconsin. Father Raschke was active in the Christian Family Movement and also choir work. He was replaced by Father Patrick Devine, a native of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls area, on June 22, 1965. Father Devine, like his predecessors, was instrumental in promoting the Christian Family Movement in the parish.
In July, 1964, Father Agnew, pastor, was assigned to St. Wenceslaus Parish in Miladore. Father Myron Meinen, who had been the first assistant to Father Agnew, now returned to St. Olaf’s as pastor. Because of the many revisions in the liturgy, the parishioners have seen many changes since the arrival of Father Meinen. Mass is now celebrated on a simple table of cherry-stained oak. The former decorative altar became the altar of repose. The traditional communion stations which are similar in design to the new altar were designed by Norman Sommers. These were both built by Gilbert Statz. Another modern feature is the combination lectern and Bible stand, constructed by Louis Statz. The lectern is used by a lay commentator during each Sunday Mass. The vesting sacristy was transferred to the rear of the church. Before Mass begins, a procession, led by the cross-bearer and two candle-bearers, and followed by a server carrying the missal, and the priest. This procession starts at the rear of the church and proceeds to the altar while parishioners sing an entrance hymn. The organ and choir have been moved in front of the church to an area near the sacristy. In this way the choir might fulfill its role as semi-ministers of the liturgy as suggested by the Vatican Council’s Constitution on the liturgy. In order to make the reception of new members into the Church of God more meaningful, baptisms were incorporated into the Mass taking place between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The first baptism at Sunday mass was that of Angela Welke, daughter of Theodore and Lorraine Welke, on the First Sunday of Advent, December 5, 1965. Many of these physical changes were made with the hope that it would lead to a more active participation in the liturgy by the members of the parish.
On September 1, 1966, Father Robert Murray, a native of Oakland California, became the fifth assistant of St. Olaf’s Parish. He took the place of Father Devine. He, too, was actively involved in the Christian Family Movement. Father Murray was also instrumental in the renewing of a parish directory which had been originally arranged and published under the direction of Frank Seitz, a member of the parish. On November 5, 1067, Father Murray met his untimely death in a two car traffic accident on Highway 29 near Owen, Wisconsin. After the celebration of a Pontifical High Mass by Bishop Freking at St. Olaf’s Church, his body was flown to Oakland for internment. After the funeral here, Bishop Freking expressed his regret that he would be unable to send the parish of St. Olaf’s an assistant in the near future because of the growing shortage of priests in the Diocese. At the present time Father Meinen receives help on the weekends from the neighboring parishes.
St. Olaf’s Parish has grown from one-hundred and twenty-five adult members to over five-hundred families. The present enrollment is over three-hundred children, and the teaching staff consists of Teaching Sisters and Lay teachers.
In regard to the future of St. Olaf’s Father Meinen, pastor, has said,
As the present pastor, I wish to speak in behalf of the parishioners of St. Olaf’s congregation and predict that the parish has a great future….. a future blessed by Almighty God with a tremendous spiritual and physical growth. Because of the possible industrial growth and opportunities, we think that this parish may become one of the largest Catholic Congregations in the city of Eau Claire. As we look into the future, we see our Parochial School increase in numbers and size…. and a modern church being built to care for spiritual needs of the parishioners.
_____. Personal interview with Father Myron Meinen, Pastor of St. Olaf’s Parish, Eau Claire, Wisconsin. December 6, 1967.
Parish of St. Olaf. A Report Prepared for the Members of St. Olaf’s Parish, Eau Claire Wisconsin. 1956.
Sunday Bulletin from St. Olaf’s Parish. November 12, 1967