||St. Stephen Church, Clinton, is celebrating 40 years as a parish. (Contributed photo)
CLINTON -- St. Stephen Parish will be celebrating its 40th anniversary on Sunday, Aug. 26, with a 10:30 a.m. special Mass, parish potluck picnic, and an afternoon of fellowship.
Fr. Bill Connell, pastor, will concelebrate the Mass with St. Stephen’s founding pastor, Msgr. Gerard Healy, currently pastor of St. Ann Parish in Stoughton.
Following the Mass, parishioners will gather in the parish family center for a potluck picnic and an afternoon of memories and fellowship.
“It’s refreshing to have a parish get-together that is not a fundraiser, but one just to celebrate our community spirit,” Father Connell commented.
Parishioner Kay Wildenberg said families are encouraged to display photos taken in or at the church through the past years. They are also asked to write personal memories to be compiled into a book as part of the commemoration.
Because the Clinton community has always supported St. Stephen Parish, the parish council chose to undertake a project during the anniversary celebration that will give back to others. Food is being collected to be donated to the Clinton Food Pantry to assist those in need.
‘Vibrant, involved parish’
Father Connell describes St. Stephen’s as a “vibrant, involved parish with about 100 families.” He said parishioners are willing volunteers for much of the maintenance, outdoor work, parish projects, and other needs for the buildings and surrounding grounds. Through the years, parish groups, including youth, have extended various ministries to the local community.
Father Connell enthusiastically added, “I have never been in a parish where there is so much parishioner involvement in the daily maintenance of its buildings and programs. It’s a real joy to see so many people working together to assure the continuation of our parish as an independent parish in the diocese.”
Noting the willing volunteers, Father Connell said this past year parishioners re-roofed the rectory and did landscaping around the parish’s spacious grounds. Parishioner Anna Roth, in memory of her husband, gave the funds to have the gathering area and sacristy re-carpeted. Pat Wendtland has faithfully provided the organ music for the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass since the parish was started.
A parish directory was also published in honor of the parish’s 40th anniversary.
Through the past years, a myriad of fund raising for the building projects have continued, said Father Connell. The parish benefited when crowds of people came to enjoy chicken barbeques, homemade donut sales, weekly bingo nights, raffles, salad luncheons, pancake breakfasts, and pork chop dinners.
He said most of the physical work needed to build and maintain the parish is donated by parishioners. They have cooperated in cleaning the church, making food for funeral dinners, doing yard work, and even helping install new roofs.
Extending ministry to the Clinton community, Father Connell celebrates Mass at the Alden Meadows nursing home across the street from the parish. “The residents there appreciate this ministry and faithfully support the parish by their attendance at the annual salad luncheon and other parish gatherings,” said Father Connell.
Recently, the parish finance council approved the purchase of a large screen television for use during the upcoming Year of Faith and for the parish religious education program.
Striking architectural features of the church building are its spectacular stained glass windows that reflect the spiritual vitality and vigor that were originally shared with the congregation by a former pastor, Fr. Patrick Swendrowski.
He co-designed the symbolic windows with local stained glass craftsman John Shepherd. Father Swendrowski had noted the windows and interior overhead lights were intended to be “symbols of life here on earth and life in heaven — going from darkness to light.”
Among the many designs of the stained glass windows are the life of parish patron St. Stephen, the Holy Family, three sacraments of initiation, and the Ten Command-ments. A significant window depicts Christ with multi-cultural children, called “Children of the World.”
The church interior has dark oak woodwork and beams that are highlighted by white walls. The altar was built by parishioner Gus Boerner who, with his wife Ruth, are founding members. This altar was originally used in the temporary storefront chapel where parishioners gathered. Father Connell noted the Boerners’ generosity. “Thousands of donuts were made in the Boerners’ basement as a way to raise funds for the present church.”
When it was built in 1973, the church had a seating capacity for 200 people. At that time, the new building was divided to include a large all-purpose room with a kitchen for serving meals which accommodated about 200 persons. At the entrance, there is a large gathering space.
In 1987, the parish council dedicated a new, 10,000-square-foot building to be used for parish functions and social gatherings. It was erected on the St. Stephen campus, just north of the church. Named St. Stephen’s Family Center, it has become “the spot” for local wedding receptions, religious education classes, St. Patrick’s Day dances, bingo, and Clinton community events such as the Red Cross Blood Drive.
With the new parish center, seating in the church proper increased.
The buildings are surrounded by spacious grounds with prominent statues in two settings.
Appreciation of parishioners
As he expressed appreciation for parishioners’ continuing involvement, Father Connell said parish trustees are long time members of St. Stephen’s. “Jim Gilbank has been instrumental in the building of the church, Family Center, and rectory. He was part of the group who approached Bishop Cletus O’Donnell requesting that Clinton have a parish of its own,” stated Father Connell.
He continued, “Leo Mullooly has a large extended family that continues the tradition of volunteerism and is always on call for many of the maintenance needs of the parish. Most recently, he made and installed railings in the sanctuary to accommodate the needs of parishioners who found the steps difficult.”
The parish staff includes Judy Wendtland and Arlene McMorran, who do accounting and secretarial duties. Steve Zahn is responsible for the religious education program.
Father Connell is the fifth pastor of St. Stephen Parish. In 1975, Father Swendrowski was appointed pastor, his first pastorate. At the time, he was also principal of Beloit Catholic High School (BCHS). Father Swendrowski lived in the church sacristy or his office at BCHS until the present rectory was built in 1977, recalled Father Connell. Succeeding pastors were Fr. Tom Fitzgerald and Fr. Sanctus Ibe.
Father Connell refers to himself as “editor-in-chief” of the parish bulletin. In that capacity, he’s enjoyed including memories of parishioners from the founding days of the church.
Reflecting on parish history, Father Connell stated, “I give a lot of credit to the group that went to Bishop O’Donnell seeking permission to form a new parish 40 years ago. It required breaking off our relationship with the Milwaukee Archdiocese and starting fresh (with first pastor Father Healy).
“Father Healy assumed a big challenge, but began what was to become a vibrant sign of the Church in the Clinton area,” added Father Connell.
Presently, St. Stephen clusters with the Beloit parishes. “We have a great relationship with them, especially Our Lady of the Assumption (OLA). OLA provides assistance when our numbers do not warrant a full program such as RCIA and marriage preparation.
“We have also benefited from OLA’s size when we transitioned into the new Roman Missal and also share their resources during Advent and Lent.
Catholics served since 1800s
Though St. Stephen’s has been a diocesan parish for about 40 years, Catholics in the mainly rural Clinton area were served by St. Catherine’s Mission in nearby Sharon since the late 1800s, according to the Clinton bicentennial history. After St. Catherine Church was built in 1911, priests served the Clinton chapel as a mission from Sharon over several years.
According to the bicentennial history, St. Catherine Parish included Clinton from 1940 until the Madison Diocese was formed in 1946, with Fr. Stephen Peil, pastor. Thereafter, it was served by St. Catherine’s as a mission until 1970, when it was designated a parish and assigned its own pastor. (The Rock-Walworth county line placed Clinton in the new Madison Diocese while Sharon remained in the Milwaukee Archdiocese.)
Histories state that the last joint activity between Clinton and Sharon parishes was a father and son breakfast in June of 1970, served by ladies from the Altar societies from each community.
At that event, Fr. Gerard Healy (now Monsignor) was introduced as the new Clinton pastor. At the time, Father Healy was assigned to both the Clinton parish and Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Beloit.
In 1971, parishioners decided to select a name and create a separate parish in the Madison Diocese. The parish name, St. Stephen, was chosen to honor Father Peil for his years of ministry.
The memorable year for the parish is January of 1972, when a building committee was established with about 80 families registered. With the help of a successful fundraising drive, groundbreaking ceremonies were held for the new brick and frame of St. Stephen Church at 716 Shu-Lar Ln.
The new parish at first met for Mass in a store front in downtown Clinton next to a local bar and the railroad tracks. Father Connell shared a bit of parish history. “Father Peil came from Sharon for weekly Mass and would often times have to stop his homily to wait for the noise of the local train to subside.”
Rented rooms in the Clinton Town Hall were used for religious instruction classes while congregation members were planning the new building.
Fr. Bill Connell, pastor, and Kay Wildenberg, parishioner, also contributed to this story.