A dream becomes a reality Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Sep. 08, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

Attending the Mass of Dedication of the new St. Cecilia Church in Wisconsin Dells was a very emotional experience for me and my husband.

As friends of St. Cecilia’s late pastor, Msgr. Felix Oehrlein, we were so happy to see his dream of a new church become a reality.

It was not just his dream, however. It was a dream shared by the two pastors who followed him, along with the parish staff, parishioners, and many friends of the parish.

Unique parish

St. Cecilia Parish is quite unique. It has a membership of about 650 families, but it also serves thousands of visitors each year — many who come to enjoy the “water park capital of the world.”

When Monsignor Felix came to the Dells as a pastor in 1999, he discovered that the parish often had to celebrate two Masses at once to accommodate the overflow crowds. St. Cecilia Church — which seated about 350 people — would be filled first. Then the additional worshippers crossed the street to the “summer chapel” in the parish center gym for the second Mass.

This meant that St. Cecilia Parish needed twice the number of servers, ushers, readers, extraordinary ministers of Communion, musicians, and greeters.

Monsignor Felix was impressed with the commitment of parishioners at St. Cecilia’s to volunteer for the parish and be so warm and welcoming to visitors. He experienced that warm welcome himself from so many of the Dells families, including the Kaminskis, Van Wies, Johns, and Makowskis, to name a few.

Although there was only one full-time priest assigned to St. Cecilia’s, the parish was fortunate to have priests who helped out on a regular basis. One of them was the late Fr. Arnie Reuter from the Diocese of La Crosse, who lived close to the Dells.

Others were retired priests who came to St. Cecilia’s to assist with Masses, among them in recent years being Msgr. John Hebl and Fr. Jim McEnery.

Getting involved

Monsignor Felix immersed himself in the Wisconsin Dells parish life and the community as a whole. A gregarious person, he got involved in community activities, including serving as chaplain to the Wisconsin State Patrol District One and the Kilbourn Volunteer Fire Department of Wisconsin Dells.

He became friends with many of the members of the Dells business community and patronized the local restaurants frequently, always stopping to talk with friends and strangers alike.

Planning for the future

As he became acquainted with his parishioners and others in the community, Monsignor Felix shared his excitement about what he first called the Millenium Project — expanding St. Cecilia’s for the new millenium.

Monsignor Felix and the parish staff and members caught his enthusiasm. They embarked on fund-raising efforts and started making plans to build a new church.

Plans were underway, but Monsignor Felix died unexpectedly in 2011. His successor, Fr. Michael Richel, carried on the church building project. He, too, died in 2014. Following in his footsteps was Fr. Eric Sternberg, who pursued the church project with enthusiasm. “Gathered in Unity” became the theme of the building project.

Building new church

In May of 2015, the dream began to become a reality. St. Cecilia Church — which served the community since 1902 — was carefully deconstructed. Many of the elements and artifacts from the historic church were saved. For example, stained glass windows and Stations of the Cross were refurbished to be placed in the new church.

The new church has the same architectural style as the former church, but it has new elements. These include intricate hand-painted scenes honoring St. Cecilia’s heritage and a new organ constructed in the Netherlands (it has a tremendous sound).

The church now includes a ground-level front entrance and a courtyard to improve accessibility to the church. Community members purchased dedication paving stones as part of the fundraising effort to construct the new Ad Domum Dei plaza, an outdoor space for gathering after Mass or for special events. My husband John and I bought a paving stone designed to remember the friends of Father Felix.

The former pastors are remembered in portraits hanging in the gathering space and in two new bells hanging in the newly constructed bell-tower. The new bells are dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel and to St. Felix, pope and martyr. Joining those two bells is the restored bell dedicated to St. Cecilia.

Achieving ‘great things’

Father Sternberg said, “The new St. Cecilia’s is a recognition of the preservation of the tradition and history of the parish in a place that is both modern enough to welcome all sorts of visitors and large enough to have room for them. The church is also a beautiful space, showing something grand can be done in the contemporary period. We can aim high and achieve great things in the Dells area.”

Father Sternberg mentioned in remarks at the dedication Mass that it took a “Kraut” (someone of German descent) from Sauk City to start the project and another “Kraut” from Sauk City to conclude it. Both he and Monsignor Felix are natives of Sauk City.

Father Sternberg also noted that there have been many people from the community and beyond who have contributed to the project. He thanked them saying, “Our congregation would not have been able to achieve this goal without their support.”

I’m sure St. Cecilia Parish would be happy to accept your donations. For more information, visit

Congratulations to all those who helped make this dream become a reality. And if you have the opportunity, visit the new St. Cecilia Church in Wisconsin Dells. It is worth a trip in itself. You will be amazed!