MADISON -- Many students who attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison (including me) have fond memories of attending St. Paul’s University Catholic Center.
It has been a “home away from home” for thousands of Catholic students on the secular university campus since the early 1900s.
For alumni and others with ties to St. Paul’s, a new book by Robert Booth Fowler, a UW professor emeritus, provides a history of St. Paul’s and an opportunity to put that history into perspective.
Catholics on State Street: A History of St. Paul’s in Madison covers the founding of St. Paul’s in 1906 (with some earlier reminisces of its precursor, the Melvin Club) to the present day.
A history focused on people
Since the author is a professor emeritus of political science and integrated liberal studies, the book is, as he calls it, “a scholarly history.” But it is certainly not a dry historical treatise.
It is personal, too, since Fowler himself was involved at St. Paul’s for many years.
His book focuses primarily on people: the priests, staff, students, and nonstudents who have been involved at St. Paul’s.
Fowler says in his preface, “It is much more about God’s people engaged on earth in a church, which means it has many sides and not all are happy and not all are uncontroversial. Certainly not.”
Besides his own knowledge of St. Paul’s, Fowler used archival resources at the UW-Madison Archives, the St. Paul’s Archives, and the Diocese of Madison Archives, in addition to newspaper and magazine sources.
He also interviewed many people who were at St. Paul’s in different eras. “I listened to a great many stories of people’s experiences over a considerable time at St. Paul’s -- their joys and sorrows, their visions and complaints, whom they admired there and whom they didn’t.”
Focus on students
Fowler mentions that he himself was a leader of the movement in the 1990s to shift St. Paul’s toward a more student focus.
“I continue to believe both that St. Paul’s must be about students above all and also that it should be welcoming to those who are not students,” he said.
He sees this as something that was intended from the beginnings of St. Paul’s and has been strengthened in recent years under the current priests, Frs. Eric Nielsen and Eric Sternberg.
Fowler shows throughout the book that St. Paul’s has always been about “witnessing to the faith, leading some to the faith, and others to a deeper faith.”
Days of ‘Father Mac’
Perhaps most interesting to me were the years from 1967 to 1975, when Msgr. Henry “Father Mac” McMurrough was pastor. Those were the years of the Vietnam War and civil rights struggles, as well as the bombing of Sterling Hall.
Father Mac faced many challenges. As Fowler points out, “This was an extraordinary priest, with extraordinary impact on people.”
Father Mac, the author said, “proved an excellent choice for the times. For example, again and again interviewees noted his uncanny ability to manage St. Paul’s in a time of great turbulence, especially in Madison.”
One person likened the situation at St. Paul’s to “a giant ship in wildly roiling waters with Father McMurrough at the helm sailing it surprisingly smoothly.”
Unfortunately, Father Mac’s intense involvement at St. Paul’s took a toll. Bishop George Wirz, the late auxiliary bishop of Madison and his friend, told Fowler that Father Mac grew “both stronger and weaker” at St. Paul’s: “stronger from his ‘magnetic leadership to so many’ and weaker ‘by the secret draining of his spirit by it all.’”
Father Mac left St. Paul’s in 1975 to live in Montana, hoping to return in a year. He never came back. He died in a canoeing accident in 1980 at the age of 54.
The book is dedicated to Kathy Bonus, director of religious education and catechetical ministry at St. Paul’s from 1981 to 1989, one of many women involved at St. Paul’s throughout its history.
Fowler’s book, which was self-published by Seventh Haven Press, may be obtained at Amazon.com