||St. Willebrord Church in downtown Green Bay, is known to many as the church where legendary football coach Vince Lombardi attended daily morning Mass. It is one of the sites on the Green Bay Packers Heritage Trail. Above is pictured the plaque as seen outside the church. (Compass photo/Sam Lucero)
GREEN BAY -- Green Bay Packers fans who check out the new Packers Heritage Trail will discover a number of Catholic sites that have ties to the team’s history.
The trail, designed as a self-guided walking tour, features 22 commemorative plaques located within a two-mile radius of downtown Green Bay. Seventeen plaques are part of a city walk. Five others are a part of self-guided bike tours.
St. Willebrord Church
One of the city’s sites is St. Willebrord Church, known to many as the church where former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi attended Mass.
Cliff Christl, a Green Bay native and longtime sportswriter who developed the idea for the tour, said St. Willebrord was an easy choice for the trail but he didn’t know if placing a plaque on church property would be possible.
Norbertine Father Andy Cribben, pastor at St. Willebrord, said he was initially skeptical of the plaque but the text, which connects faith with the history of the Packers, convinced him it was worth it.
The text describes Lombardi’s connection to the church along with parish history and information about Norbertine Father David Rondou, who was pastor at St. Willebrord during the Lombardi years.
Christl said Lombardi immediately built a relationship with Father Rondou especially since they shared a common sports bond. The priest served as athletic director at St. Norbert College in nearby DePere in the early 1930s.
“I was told that Father Rondou never prayed for the Packers to win, but he did pray for the Bears to lose on occasion,” said Father Cribben.
The text on the plaque also notes that visiting players attended Sunday morning Mass at St. Willebrord.
“That’s another nice feature," Father Cribben told The Compass, diocesan newspaper of Green Bay. “It says something about their real lives, that they were men of faith.”
St. Norbert College
A plaque was also installed on the campus of St. Norbert College, as part of the trail. The Packers have held training camp at the college since 1958.
“One of the most fascinating aspects is that Lombardi could be so intimidating when he was around his players,” said Christl, who wrote the book, A Championship Team: the Packers and St. Norbert College in the Lombardi Years, in 2010.
“He would bark at them to the point that they would be scared to death walking around campus, and at the same time, he was so humble when he encountered priests and nuns on campus, particularly nuns. I guess he was extremely soft-spoken and always courteous and always made a point to stop and talk with them,” Christl said.
“They had their meetings there,” he said. “They ate all of their meals there. It was a much different experience for the Lombardi Packers. When you talk about the ways those teams were molded, it was on the practice field, but it was also on the campus, much more so than today.”
Other walking tour sites
Christl said another site on the tour with a Catholic connection is a community center owned by the Norbertines. “The Packers used the top floor as a clubhouse,” explained Christl. “They had a big stockholders’ rally there in 1950, the stockholder’s drive that saved the franchise. The Norbertines had a presence there through most of that period of time in Packer history.”
The gravesite of Curly Lambeau, first coach of the Packers, is also part of the walking tour. The grave, at Allouez Catholic Cemetery, is not marked with a plaque but there is information about him on the trail’s Web site: www.packersheritagetrail.com
The Web site also showcases photos and information about other unmarked sites that Packer fans may find of interest, such as St. Francis Xavier Cathedral where Lambeau’s first wedding was held. A Mass was celebrated for Lambeau at St. Francis Xavier three days after his funeral in 1965. His grandfather’s masonry company helped build the church.
The Heritage Trail project originated from stories Christl wrote for both the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Packers Yearbook. The story he wrote in 2009 for the yearbook focused on a downtown walk linked to team history.
“That’s when it clicked in,” he said. “Hey, my wife and I have lived downtown for four years, and this could be a good community project. We could do something for the downtown area and try to draw more tourists and even locals to downtown.”
Jeff Kurowski is a reporter with the Compass, newspaper of the Green Bay Diocese.