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Glimpses: The History of St. Francis Borgia – Catholic Growth in Wisconsin

As St. Francis Borgia Parish approaches its 175th anniversary (1844-2019), we will share some short articles about our congregation’s growth through the 1800s into the present. Thanks to Marty Moore for his diligent research for these articles.

Catholic Growth in Wisconsin

It’s hard to imagine this area as a vast wilderness, with Indians as the only inhabitants until French explorers and traders brought Christianity to the region. Traveling with Joliet from New France, Fr. Marquette founded Sault Ste Marie and St. Ignace to our north, in the early 1670s. In 1673, Marquette and Joliet followed the Wisconsin River and portaged to the Mississippi to the unsettled, Indian-occupied area of Prairie du Chien. They were the first Europeans to visit the northern Mississippi Valley along our western border.

By 1817 Jesuits had established and ministered to members of the new St. Gabriel Catholic community, located at the time in the Michigan Territory which extended to the Mississippi. In 1839, now located within the new Wisconsin Territory, the cornerstone was set for their present church dedicated to St Gabriel and now the oldest operating church and congregation in Wisconsin.

Prairie du Chien drifted from the St. Louis Diocese, to the Diocese of Dubuque and then to the Diocese of Wisconsin (now Milwaukee) as it reached statehood (1848). It finally became part of the La Crosse Diocese in 1868.

Working from Milwaukie’s St. Peters Church in the 1840s, our founder, Fr. Martin Kundig, organized worshippers in many areas of our state, including Cedarburg. By 1843 the “Newland” Irish community had already organized and taken the name “St Francis Borgia” which was “officially” recognized in 1844 by our newly-formed bishopric and Bishop John Martin Henni. In 1870, our historic South Church was erected. We now begin celebrating 175 years as a congregation.

There is true value in recalling past generations and their struggles to reach this point in time. Counted as one of the oldest congregations in Wisconsin, our parish eagerly looks forward to the future.