Final Mass is celebrated at old St. Paul’s building Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Kevin Wondrash, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016 -- 12:00 AM
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Hundreds of St. Paul University Catholic Center in Madison members, past and present, attend the final Mass in the old building on January 3. To view or purchase photos, go to (Catholic Herald photo/Kevin Wondrash)

MADISON -- In a church typically full of college students, it’s a blessing to hear “grandma used to sit way up there,” as a woman reminisced to her granddaughter about her days at St. Paul University Catholic Center.

The more than 100-year-old building, after many facelifts over the years, held its final Mass on January 3 -- the Feast of the Epiphany.

Next month “old St. Paul’s” will be demolished to make way for a new church and student center, set to be completed in the summer of 2017.

“I have deep gratitude for my years that I was here -- tremendous gratitude. It was life-changing,” said Katherine Bonus, who served as director of catechetical ministry from 1981 to 1989.

Bonus was one of many former students, staff, and others who had been connected

with St. Paul’s over the past few decades who came to say goodbye to the old building and share great memories.

“I’m so glad we came . . . [it] brought you back to that time again,” said Mary McConnell from Verona. She and her husband James were married at St. Paul’s in 1976. They both attended Mass at St. Paul’s while they studied at UW-Madison.

Old friends pray together

As the church began to fill up, guests were welcomed by the sounds of a choir made up of mostly former St. Paul’s members who came together for the occasion.

Their sounds of music and prayer filled up the church spiritually as much as those who came to pray filled the church spatially.

Fr. Steve Umhoefer, St. Paul’s pastor from 1980 to 1990 and retired priest of the Diocese of Madison, was the main celebrant.

He welcomed everyone and reflected on when he was first assigned to St. Paul’s, after desiring to serve at a rural parish.

‘They don’t have any cows at St. Paul’s,” he recalled thinking at the time.

He admitted to being later “thrilled” at the assignment. “I’m still thrilled and I still feel very warm [here],” Father Umhoefer added. “I’m happy to lead you in prayer.”

Former St. Paul’s Pastor Fr. Randy Timmerman, who served from 2002 to 2006 and is now pastor at St. Dennis Parish in Madison, was the homilist.

Father Timmerman said he was “uplifted and inspired” during his time at St. Paul’s. “Truly one of the great gifts through my time here was the hunger in the hearts of young people.”

“In every age, this place -- 723 State St. -- has been a place for the faithful to encounter this gift of God’s love and then to go forth in a spirit of excellence,” he added.

On the Feast of the Epiphany -- the Magi finding the baby Jesus and declaring him to the light to the nations --Father Timmerman compared St. Paul’s members past and present to the three wise men.

He said the Magi used their natural gifts, their intellect, and all the instruments that were available to them at that time to observe the star. “We used the natural gifts God has given us in relationship with one another, but it’s always oriented to the divine creator.”

He closed by encouraging everyone to “stand up, stand out . . . the spirit of excellence, the spirit of the Lord most high has come upon you not for yourself, but to be light to the nations.”

Joining Father Timmerman and Father Umhoefer were several other priests from the diocese who either previously served at St. Paul’s or had been members there themselves while attending UW-Madison and are now priests.

Saying farewell

Current pastor Fr. Eric Nielsen spoke to everyone toward the end of Mass.

He called it “a beautiful sight to see all of you here and all the old friends coming back.”

“There are many beautiful things about this building,” Father Nielsen said, jokingly saying it’s “the only church in the history of the world where people have to come sit in the front pews first,” acknowledging its stadium-like design.

While once a St. Paul’s member himself while a UW-Madison student, Father Nielsen said he gained an appreciation for the building while serving as pastor and seeing Confession lines flow through the building as well as his own exploration of the church, intensified by himself being an engineer.

Following Mass, a reception was held as a chance for everyone to remember and reflect on their time at St. Paul’s.

Many chose to stay in the chapel as long as they could, taking pictures and sharing stories.

“When I first came, this was a little much for me -- I never had a church like this before,” said Mary Ellen Rodriguez, who began attending Mass at St. Paul’s in the 1970s. “Once I was in, I was all in.”

“I learned to love the Lord here and speak of Him and so it’s a wonderful place,” said Rodriguez.

“It was a wonderful place for so many students, you can just tell by the enthusiasm and the smiles,” said James McConnell from Verona. “Many students came here for guidance and for spiritual sustenance during the difficulties of being a college student. It was a respite for them.”

“The Spirit is here as it always has been in the people who are here and you don’t have to preach about that, it is what it is,” said Father Umhoefer. “Everybody cares about this place and caring about the Church is not just caring about the building but the people.”

New St. Paul’s coming

The new building, set to open in time for the 2017-2018 school year, will feature a larger chapel, larger student center, and reception hall for events such as speakers or dances.

It will be on the same spot as the old church, on Library Mall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

While the construction project is ongoing, Masses will be held at St. James Catholic Church and Luther Memorial Church -- both within a few blocks of St. Paul’s.

The old altar will be broken down and used as part of the foundation in the new building.

For more information on St. Paul University Catholic Center and the building project, go to

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