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Glimpses: The history of St. Francis Borgia – A Look Back – What Was It Really Like?

As our parish celebrates 175 years (1844 -2019), we continue to share articles about our congregation’s growth through the 1800s into the present. Thanks to Marty Moore for his diligent research.

Our early parish history includes log cabins and saddlebag priests. What were the worship conditions in a time with no decent roads and less accommodating conditions than today?

Our parish officially started in 1844. But the Irish farmers of Newland (an area around Pioneer and Wauwatosa Roads) were already settling by the mid-1830s, and likely together practicing their traditional faith in their homes. From Milwaukee, the earliest missionary priests visited those homes, offering monthly Mass. They carried limited “baggage” – essential sacred vessels and linens to say Mass. Settlers provided fresh breads and wine for the services.

As the population grew, the need for a central worship site was apparent. Rev. Kundig arrived and inspired groups to erect log-cabin chapels. One can imagine a chapel – only 20 by 30 feet, wood floor and benches, an elevated sanctuary – it might seat fewer than 100. Heated by pot-belly stove, the chapel was a dingy, dark and damp house of worship.

Our Newland chapel served more than 23 families. Priests lodged at local farms between visits – resting, and cleaning vessels and linens to prepare for Mass at the next site on the circuit.

Mainly farmers, the settlers would be busy each day, working their fields, with little time to gather for joint prayer – save for a monthly Mass. By 1852 things changed. The log chapel was replaced with a frame church with a rectory. St Francis Borgia got its first resident pastor, Fr. Jacobus Colton. Mass was offered each Sunday, and at times during the week. Our resident priest rode north to our mission chapel – St. Bridget in Jackson.

In the 1800s, attending Mass wasn’t convenient or easy. There were fields to work, harvests to bring in and always limited time. Yet even under harsh conditions, the congregation thrived. The early settlers set examples of perseverance that make us ponder the significance of our present day struggles.