PORTAGE -- St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish celebrated its 175th anniversary of parish life on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and though the snowstorm that dropped about 6.5 inches by the following afternoon kept some from attending, including Bishop Robert C. Morlino and the parish's oldest parishioner, the event was well-attended according to reports.
The Mass was the final event of the demisemiseptcentennial of the parish, the oldest parish in the Diocese of Madison and the second oldest in Wisconsin.
Throughout the year, the parish held several events including: a labyrinth in the school gym in January, the planting of a special tree in April, the "Best Fest" in May, the publication of a parish directory in June with a special blessing from Pope Benedict XVI, an outdoor Mass in July held at Paquette Park on the anniversary of the first Mass said in the parish, a food drive for local families in August, a family picnic in September, and an Irish wake in October. As well, the Portage Catholic Woman's Club held a St. Mary School reunion that drew about 18 Sisters from around the state who had taught formerly at the school.
Bishop Morlino came to Portage on January 4, the Feast of the Epiphany, to celebrate Mass for the anniversary, with pastor Fr. James Murphy concelebrating and Deacon Dennis Sutter as deacon of the Mass.
Looking to the next 175 years
"I'm looking at some of the very young men and women here and some of the grandpas and grandmas here, and I just think -- 175 years of acts of kindness, acts of faith, acts of forgiveness," Bishop Morlino said. "Imagine all of the marriages that have been lived out in this parish family, and imagine the amount of forgiveness that has been exercised, that has been offered in all of those marriages," he said.
"That's what we give thanks for as we celebrate 175 years. And if you sit back and think about it, which I'm sure you did a lot last year." he said.
It's overwhelming, he said, how much forgiveness, kindness and love, and faith came through the working of the priests, of the sisters, and now more recently the deacons, and the people here for 175 years. If we can't give thanks for that, what can we give thanks for? It's overwhelming. And that's God's great gift to you and through you," he said
"And now, as we look back on 175 years, we look to the past, we give thanks," Bishop Morlino said. "But more importantly we look to the future, and today's feast helps us.
"We as the body of Christ in the Catholic Church after 175 years have to worry about the next 175 and how we are going to proclaim the truth that every nation on earth will in the end adore Jesus Christ, and the best thing to adore him is the Catholic Church. How are we going to do that? That's the future of this beautiful parish of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, and that's what we have to think about as we celebrate 175 years."
We have to be united with Christ in prayer and go to see him like the magi, the bishop said. "Just as the magi put the gold, the frankincense, and myrrh at the feet of Jesus, we have to put any of our tendencies to worship false gods at the feet of Jesus. And once we do that, like the magi, we will be given the gift, as it said 'they returned to their country by a different route.' They saw Jesus the Messiah, they put the tools of their pagan worship, any tendency toward idolatry, at his feet, and what happened? They were changed. They went back to their country by another route."
That's our challenge here in Portage, he said: to adore the messiah, place before him any tendencies we might have to make an idol of something that's not God. And once we do this, we will get the gift to go back by a different route, being converted and changed.
"Let's thank God today for 175 years; let's thank God for this beautiful feast; and let's commit ourselves for the long-term future," he said.
St. Mary Parish traces its history to 1833 after Dominican Father Samuel Mazzuchelli arrived in the area to work with the HoChunk Indians. In 1851 a second church was built and dedicated to St. Bartholomew, and the first resident paster, Fr. James Roche, arrived in 1852. A third church was built in 1854, but the property was sold and on the new property purchased a church building was completed. That church, which still stands today though with some renovations, was dedicated to St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in 1959.
A school was opened in 1866 and was staffed by Sinsinawa Dominicans for 130 consecutive years, as well as Salvatorians and Racine Dominicans. It still operates today, teaching students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
By the late 1800s an influx of Irish and German immigrants arrived to dig the Portage Canal, and in 1877 the Germans formed St. Francis Xavier Parish. In 1966, having assimilated into the community, the parish was incorporated into St. Mary.
According to their Web site, the congregation currently has about 1,100 families. It is currently linked with St. Mary Help of Christians Parish in Briggsville.