PRAIRIE DU CHIEN — As if to prove there’s no hard feelings that the southwest Wisconsin Catholic diocese is headquartered in La Crosse, St. Gabriel Church in Prairie du Chien will host the kickoff of the diocese’s sesquicentennial March 3.
Oddsmakers would have picked St. Gabriel to become the mother church when the diocese was created March 3, 1868. It is the oldest operating church in the diocese, with roots as far back as 1817, when Jesuit missionaries ministered to Catholic settlers and Prairie du Chien was a teeming center of fur trading and other commerce thanks to the Mississippi River.
The papal decree that two dioceses should be spun off from Milwaukee designated them to be headquartered in La Crosse and Green Bay. However, many clung to the assumption that Prairie was the logical place for the diocese’s cathedral church, and St. Gabriel was built with that thought in mind, according to “Feed my Lambs,” a new historical account of the diocese published to celebrate the sesquicentennial.
By then, though, Prairie du Chien’s potential as a Midwest destination point had tanked, and the Vatican’s choice for the diocesan see city was La Crosse, deemed “the city of the future,” according to “Feed my Lambs.”
“Once upon a time,” Prairie du Chien was the favorite, confirmed Mary Antoine, a native and the history guru of the city of about 6,000 and the surrounding tri-state area.
“Originally, Prairie du Chien was the only community in all of Wisconsin — this and Green Bay,” Antoine said.
An 1857 brochure touted Prairie as having the potential to become one of the biggest and most influential cities in the Midwest, with the first railroad connection with Milwaukee and other drawing cards.
“Oh, look, we’ve got the railroad, logs, crops and the Mississippi River,” she said, making it a commercial pipeline to Green Bay, the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal.
“But Prairie du Chien never quite grew, for a variety of reasons,” Antoine said.
The 69-year-old Antoine’s interest in history is rooted in her youth, when she lived with her grandmother, who mesmerized her with stories of the old days.
“When I was young, I hung out with old people. Now, I’m an old people,” Antoine said with a touch of her self-deprecating humor.
After majoring in history in college and obtaining a master’s degree in historical museum studies, she and her family lived in upstate New York until returning to Prairie du Chien. She has owned and lived in for about 15 years a house that was on the grounds of St. Gabriel until it was moved and eventually fell into disrepair.
The house, which she was fond of since she used to walk past it on her way to and from St. Gabriel’s School, became her restoration project for its historical and sentimental value.
The home itself is a museum of sorts, with her collection of fur trading artifacts and French Canadian furniture from Wisconsin. Among her favorite items are blanket chests she once collected.
St. Gabriel Church bears the fingerprints of several ancestors of the mother of three, including a stained glass window her grandmother donated. The church still has her family’s pew, which dates to the days when parishioners paid pew rent, and brass tags at the ends of the seats indicated who owned which.
“The more rent you paid, the closer to the front,” she said. “The construction of the church was very much a community project,” she said. “People donated what little money they had and lots of labor.”
As a result, the building process was a long one, with the cornerstone being laid in 1836 and work continuing with limestone quarried from the area’s bluffs until the church was completed in 1850.
Prairie du Chien historically had two Catholic parishes, with St. Gabriel on the north side being the worship home of French Canadians, Irish and Germans, she said, and the Bohemians gravitating to St. John Nepomuc, which was dedicated in December 1831, on the south.
“Both of them had huge congregations,” Antoine said.
Pastoral duties at the parishes cycled between diocesan priests and Jesuits over the years, until the Jesuits left the city in 2009 and both parishes came under the care of diocesan priests, according to “Feed my Lambs.”
The parish schools eventually merged, becoming what now Prairie Catholic Schools.
In 2011, parishioners decided that, among other factors, “keeping two sets of books, it was easier to merge,” Antoine said.
St. Gabriel and St. John churches joined under one umbrella, Holy Family Parish, with Bishop William Callahan celebrating the first Mass on June 30, 2012. It claims the distinction of being one of the newest parishes in the Badger State, while using the oldest existing church, St. Gabriel, in the state.
Back to the time of the diocese’s founding, the dilemma after the Vatican designated La Crosse was that the only church in La Crosse was St. Mary’s, a small wooden building that had been completed in 1856 and paled in comparison to the size and beauty of the stone St. Gabriel.
Mostly Irish and French Catholics worshiped at St. Mary’s, while plans were drawn up for St. Joseph’s Church but building had not begun.
Bishop Michael Heiss took those plans and turned them into what was to become the cathedral, at Sixth and Main streets. The line item in the building contract stipulating a need for 650,000 bricks indicated what a massive structure it would be, and St. Joseph Husband of Mary was dedicated on Oct. 2, 1870. St. Joseph, by then now the Workman, was replaced with a modern design based on the gothic architecture of the original and dedicated in May 1962.
Although it might appear that St. Gabriel was passed over, its historical importance will be underscored Saturday, when it hosts the Mass and ceremonies to launch the sesquicentennial year.