WISCONSIN DELLS -- As one enters the city of Wisconsin Dells, the population sign says 2,418. That’s the number of people who live year-round in this popular vacation destination.
However, that number often swells throughout the year. Wisconsin Dells, known as the “water park capital of the world,” welcomed over three million visitors in 2009.
Many of those visitors attend Mass at St. Cecilia Parish. The tourists keep St. Cecilia Parish very, very busy, especially during the peak vacation time from May to September.
An international parish
“We are an international parish,” said Msgr. Felix Oehrlein, the pastor. “It’s a tremendous joy to celebrate liturgy with people from literally throughout the world.”
Besides the tourists, many of those who work in the hotels, restaurants, water parks, and other tourist attractions come from other countries.
Throughout the year St. Cecilia offers a Mass in Polish on the first Sunday of the month at 5 p.m. and a Mass in Spanish on the last Sunday of the month at 6 p.m.
In order to accommodate the visitors, St. Cecilia Parish offers double Masses on Saturdays and Sundays during the tourist season. When the church itself fills up, the overflow goes to the gym across the street. Often both places are standing room only.
It takes a lot of volunteers to provide six Masses every weekend during the tourist season. “It’s a wonderful team effort in the spirit of Vatican II that so many people actualize their baptism to provide the Eucharist to all these visitors,” said Monsignor Oehrlein.
In practical terms, that means there must be twice the number of servers, ushers, readers, extraordinary ministers of Communion, musicians, and greeters. That’s in addition to the parishioners who provide hospitality from a little booth outside the church after the Masses with coffee, juice, and donut holes.
Enjoy what they’re doing
It’s obvious to visitors that the parishioners enjoy what they are doing. They smile, chat with visitors, and exude a joy that’s visible to all. They are truly living out the parish motto, “The place where love is spoken.”
Dave Kordell, the parish director of religious formation, has been assisting in the diocesan Guided by the Spirit parish planning program. He tells about a meeting where a gentleman stood in the back of the room with his arms folded. Then he came up to the microphone and complimented St. Cecilia Parish on its welcoming spirit. The man said that when he visited St. Cecilia’s, two ushers dressed in Sunday best showed him to his seat. The lay ministers wore robes and a whole family of children was serving the Mass.
“This gentleman was really impressed by our parish,” said Kordell.
Sister parish in Haiti
Besides its outreach at weekend Masses, St. Cecilia has been partnering with St. Joseph Parish in Baraboo for the last 15 years to work with a “sister parish,” Sacred Heart Parish in Thiotte, Haiti. The Wisconsin parishes have helped build a church, school, hospital, and water works.
“We sent 600 boxes of Christmas presents to children in Haiti last year,” said Monsignor Oehrlein, who noted that their sister parish was not affected by the January earthquake but is being inundated with survivors, especially seeking health care.
Dave Kordell pointed out that the parish also offers hospitality to parish mission groups who are traveling through the Dells to places farther west. “We let them stay overnight in rooms in our old school. We’ve been doing that for years,” said Kordell.
“We’re also working well with St. Joseph Parish in Baraboo with future plans for a Confirmation gathering with the two parishes. We’re working with St. Joseph on adult faith formation and a calendar of events.”
In addition, Kordell noted that St. Cecilia also hosts Masses for wedding anniversaries and family reunions held in the Dells. Guest musicians are also welcome to sing and play at Masses.
Priests help out
Monsignor Oehrlein expressed his appreciation to two retired priests, Msgr. John Hebl of the Diocese of Madison and Fr. Arnie Reuter of the Diocese of La Crosse, who assist him at St. Cecilia.
“We are really indebted to the priests who help us,” said Monsignor Oehrlein. “We are also grateful to the priests from Sauk City who maintain a Hispanic ministry with the Eucharist here.”
Father Reuter has been helping at St. Cecilia for 14 years. “I love it here,” he said. “The people are so good and there’s such a wonderful community spirit. We have great musicians and lay ministers. There is a lot of hospitality here.”
Expanding the church
While St. Cecilia is able to handle double Masses with the help of the retired priests, the parish is hoping for a better long-term solution: building a new, larger worship space to accommodate over 1,000 at one Mass.
Plans have been drawn up and the parish has been raising money for what is called its Millenium Project.
“It will be flexible in its design so that it can also fit the needs of our parishioners, especially those that are handicapped and elderly,” said the pastor.
Design highlights include a more accommodating welcoming and reception area at the front of church, a chapel for daily Masses, and an updated layout fitting with Church liturgical directives.
“Our major thrust is to develop a working facility for parish families and others with the service of one priest,” said Frank Zawlocki, the parish’s director of stewardship and development.
He noted that the church is over 102 years old. “It has fabulous art work and stained glass windows. We don’t want to lose that heritage,” said Zawlocki.
A number of features in the current church will be incorporated into the new church design.
Promoting the parish
Zawlocki noted that the parish has developed a variety of new promotional materials. One of them is a four-page envelope for visitors to make a donation or take home with them. “It’s been doing very well,” said Zawlocki.
The parish also created a “rack card” which can be displayed at restaurants, hotels, and tourist attractions. Over 39,000 of the cards were printed. “Mass Schedule” is the headline on the card, attracting visitors looking for times of Masses while on vacation.
A new booklet on the building project has also been developed. It includes information on memorial, donation, and intention opportunities. Zawlocki hopes to post the booklet soon on the parish Web site (www.dellscatholic.com). Scott Braucht is in charge of fund-raising for the Millenium Project.
Zawlocki said St. Cecilia also reaches out to thank its own parishioners with several social events throughout the year. A free Spring Fling Cookout was held April 24 with 215 people enjoying brats and hamburgers.
A Volunteer Appreciation Night will be held September 30 with food and gifts. “Our parishioners support St. Cecilia all year with their time, talent, and treasure, so we want to offer thanks,” said Zawlocki.
St. Cecilia parishioners appreciate the parish’s welcoming atmosphere. Kelly Koenig joined the parish almost nine years ago with her husband, Brad. They have three children.
Brad was Lutheran but became Catholic because of his positive experience at St. Cecilia. “Everyone was wonderful,” said Kelly. “We love the parish. If it wasn’t for this parish, we wouldn’t be here.”
Brad has been hired as the maintenance supervisor at the parish. The couple is involved in marriage preparation, Kelly is active in Confirmation preparation and Vacation Bible School, and Brad is a minister of Communion.
Steve Solava, a member of the parish Finance Council, is a Mass coordinator/sacristan. He admits it’s a challenge with double Masses on the weekend. “A new church would make life a lot easier,” he said. He also pointed out that parishioners are not celebrating as “one family” with split Masses.