History of St. Mary Immaculate Conception Parish
The word church really means the People of God gathered together to celebrate their faith in Christ, lived out in communion with God and one another. What follows is part of the history of the Catholic Church at Torun in Portage County.
The people of God who came to America and settled in this part of Wisconsin in the late 1800’s were mostly peasant farmers seeking a better life for themselves and their children. These simple and courageous Poles were fiercely committed to their Catholic faith, which was woven deeply into every facet of their lives. Out of this religious spirit, came the foundations of parishes in the area, such as Poland Corners, moved to what is now Polonia, Rosholt, and Hull. Both priests and people traveled great and difficult distances to be sacramentally nourished. The parish of St. Casimir, Hull, comprised the entire district known today as Knowlton and Torun.
Bishop Messmer of Green Bay Diocese had insisted that all Catholic children attend Catholic schools and receive religious instruction. Some families, who lived miles away from the schools located both in Polonia and Hull, found it a real hardship to comply with this regulation. On the other hand, Fr. Luke Pescinski, the pastor at St. Casimir complained that the small parochial school and church at Hull could not accommodate all the area’s children and adults unless the school and church were enlarged.
In 1895, the time was right for the people of God, settled in the town of Dewey, to found a parish of their own. About 100 people lived in the area they named Torun. It is possible, that the forests and nearby Plover River, reminded them of their homeland’s welcoming, ancient, and cultural city of Torun, Poland, with its expanse of woodland and beautiful Vistula River.
Julian Fierek began the process of preparation to build a church by soliciting interest and support necessary for the undertaking. Julian and Martha Fierek were the first to offer $100 and four acres of land intended for the new church. Bernard and Katie Zylka donated two acres of land for what would become the cemetery. Several offerings of $75 were made. Others gave what they could, bringing the starting total to $700. The preparatory work would take many months of persistent effort on the part of Mr. Fierek, Felix Bruski, and John Ossowski who became the backbone of the project under the supervision of the pastor of St. Casimir’s, Fr. Nicodemus Kolasinski. Those beginnings were made more difficult, because, although the early pioneers saw the need, and sincerely wanted their own place of worship and learning, only 45 families were able to donate either manpower or finances. John Ossowski became the first secretary and Albert Zylka the first treasurer of St. Mary’s Congregation in its organizational stages. For two dollars a day, Joseph Napietek, a carpenter, was hired to lend his expertise in supervising the construction of the planned two-story wood frame building.
The congregation bought a parcel of land with standing timber, which they logged and hauled to Bentley’s Mill. The mill owners, though non-Catholics, donated the cost of sawing the logs into boards. With spirits lifted, everyone pitched in with whatever talent they had. When they proudly viewed the completion of their combined labors, the people realized a marvelous fact: their love gifts of cooperation and goodwill had made a real difference. The building was completed at a cost of $3,000, but its estimated value was $17,000! God had blessed their efforts to raise up a house of worship in the midst of His people.
On December 5, 1897, the happy congregation at Torun, gathered at their Church of the Immaculate Conception, better known as St. Mary’s, was dedicated by Bishop Messmer of Green Bay. From the start, St. Mary’s was a mission of St. Casimir and serviced by the pastor from that church. In 1898, a new pastor, Fr. Theophil Malkowski, administered the organizational work of the fledgling parish for just four months.
In December 1899, the community welcomed their first resident pastor, Fr. Romuald Magott. The people were delighted to have their own priest living among them at the church. It is evident from correspondence dated November 12, 1900, from Mr. Julian Fierek to Bishop Messmer. In the name of the Parish, he expressed gratitude for the Bishop’s quick action in securing a pastor in so short a time. Mr. Fierek presented a petition signed by 55 members requesting permission to move the small district school onto church property. The thought was to be ready in the event Religious Sisters could be brought in to teach children in both schools.
The priest occupied the living quarters on the first floor of the church building. With the church proper upstairs on the second floor, the first floor, besides housing the priest, provided classroom space for the school children. The first teachers were two young Polish women hired for $45 a month. A layman succeeded them in teaching the children grammar amid religious classes there.
Fr. Magott baptized three-day-old Stephen Gburek, on December 23, 1899. He was the first infant baptized at St. Mary’s. In 1900 Fr. Magott was replaced by Fr. Joseph Smiech who remained until 1902. On April 30, 1900, church records show the first marriage held in the new church was that of Frances Gosz and Theophilius Felikowski.
Fr. T. Maluszewski became the pastor in 1902 but stayed only a few months. That same year, Fr. Romuald Magott returned as pastor until 1904. Fr. James Kula was appointed pastor and stayed until October of that same year. He was followed by Fr. Felix Nowak who remained until June 1905. Torun was missioned by Fr. W. B. Polaczyk from St. Casimir’s until Fr. F. M. Fierek arrived and stayed until January 1906. During the one year tenure of Fr. F. S. Walaskiewcz, the Women’s Rosary Society was formed. From its beginning in 1906, the Society boasted sixty members. Mary Przybylska was president and Johanna Schulist became the secretary.
Fr. Stephen Phazal took charge as pastor from January until November of 1907. After him, again, for eleven months Fr. W. Polaczyk attended St. Mary’s from his parish in Hull. In December 1908, Fr. S. Kasperski was appointed until June 1911. When Fr. Leon Jankowski, took charge from St. Casimir’s in 1911, he began plans to build a new rectory. During his time, on May 9, 1914, the church became incorporated. In 1915, after 18 years, the school at St. Mary’s was discontinued. Children were catechized by the pastor in the church and for their grammar courses, they attended public schools. With the arrival of Fr. W. Demski, work on a new separate parsonage became a reality. The church dwelling had been in service for 19 years when the new rectory was completed in 1916 at a cost of $3,000.
Fr. V. Pruc became pastor in 1916 and served until April, 1918.
Around this time, two acres of land were purchased from Lawrence and Angeline Richter, one acre on each side of the road to the right of the rectory and cemetery. This was done by the congregation to prevent the possibility of someone constructing a tavern or other undesirable building near the church or cemetery.
St. Mary’s was still making major improvements on church properties in spite of financial burdens and other demands of World War I falling heavily upon citizens. There is record of the parish having eighteen men in the army and one in the navy. One man was killed in action and seven others had been injured. The new pastor, Fr. Stanisz reported that the parishioners bought hundreds of dollars worth of Liberty Bonds, 10,000 war stamps, and they were involved in Red Cross work and contributed $400 in other war-work activities. Father noted that people could do no more as they were busy picking potatoes, and soon after, the majority of them were afflicted with the terrible flu that was raging the area at the time.
On June 1, 1919, tragedy struck the small congregation. Fr. Stanisz had just finished celebrating the Sunday High Mass with a Church full of pious parishioners. At 12:30, the people were gathered about the front door of the church waiting for a severe rainstorm to abate. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck the 75-foot cross and church tower directly above the people's heads. In a matter of seconds, two persons, 16-year-old Joseph Dudzik and 36-year-old Stanislaus Przybylski were killed and nine others were injured. They were: Agnes Orlowski (18), Joseph Breske (26), Ben Pepowski (25), Charles Pepowski (28), John Lemke and his father, Martin Zoromski, Frank Stanczyk, and the 15-year-old son of Michael Kluczykowski. Four of these needed hospitalizations, while the rest were treated at the scene. Many others were rendered unconscious by the lightning and shock of the tragedy. Only slight damage was done to the church. The cross and a small section of the tower were destroyed. In October 1919, Fr. Stanisz was replaced by Fr. Ignatius Grad who labored here until 1929. His ten-year term was the longest of any pastor thus far and he is the only pastor buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Torun. In 1922, Fr. Grad formed the Holy Name Society, which consisted of fifty-seven original members. John Bialas and Florian Osowski were the first officers. The parish marked 25 years of existence that year. In 1923, the Holy Mary Society with fifty-five original members was organized. The first officers were Anastasia Lemke and Rose Rychter. That same year the Apostleship of Prayer, consisting of thirty-seven members, began. Anastasia Lemke and Anna Bruske were their first officers. Fr. A. Forysiak succeeded Fr. Grad but died in less than one year. For a short time Fr. S. Elbert, chaplain of St. Joseph Academy in Stevens Point, took charge until Fr. B. Platta was appointed. He stayed until June 1931.
For the next eight years Fr. S. A. Janczewski was pastor; Fr. Anthony Krausa followed until 1940. Fr. Peter Nowicki took over from October 29, 1940, until October 5, 1943. It is remarkable that under the weight of financial strain endured by U.S. citizens due to World War II, parishioners pulled St. Mary’s out of debt and even held $2,500 in the parish treasury.
When Fr. Joseph Schulist arrived, he found many repairs and improvements necessary. The greatest of these was the need for a new Church building, as the wooden structure was slowly becoming dangerous for public gatherings and was considered unsafe by state authorities.
As a result of the creation of a new Diocese in Madison, WI in 1946, Portage County, which was formerly a part of the Green Bay Diocese, became part of the Diocese of La Crosse,. On July 1, 1947, His Excellency, the Reverend John P. Treacy, appointed Fr. Chester Zielinski to succeed Fr. Schulist as Pastor.
On June 12, 1949, the parish celebrated a most happy event. Fr. Chester Osowski, a son of the parish, was ordained a priest and celebrated his first Mass in the old Church. One can only imagine the joy of the parents, Florian and Matilda Osowski, as they knelt and received the first blessing from their priest son.
Fr. Zielinski, after much persuasion, was able to begin plans for a new church building. Gage Taylor, the architect from Stevens Point, prepared the plans and specifications. Ground was broken by the pastor in July 1949. The members of the building committee were: Frank Schultz (treasurer). John Laskowski (secretaty), and John Hintz, Edward Dudzik, Anthony Bruski, Frank Gagas, Felix Kielpinski, John Dulak, Jr., Bernard Ramczyk, and Bernard Danczyk. The motion to build a church was made by Harry Helminiak. The parish in Torun, at that time, boasted a membership of about fifty families. For this building project, the people received financial help from benefactors in Stevens Point and surrounding Portage County as well as from many donors throughout Wisconsin and Illinois. The cost of the church was $50,000.
The blessing of the cornerstone took place on October 16, 1949, by the Vicar General of the Diocese, Right Reverend Monsignor C. W. Gill with the Right Reverend Monsignor Julius Chylinski, Dean of Portage County assisting. It is known that a picture of the old building and a history write-up of the first fifty years of the parish’s existence - be found in the cornerstone, which was laid in place by John Laskowski and Frank Schultz.
For months in the cold winter, parishioners sacrificed their own time and energy to do most of the needed construction work. On Palm Sunday, April 2, 1950, the Most Reverend John P. Treacy, Bishop of La Crosse, dedicated the new church. The first wedding celebrated there was that Dorothy Cychosz and William Jelinski on September 30, 1950
Fr. Chester Zielinski served St. Mary’s as resident Pastor from 1947 to 1954. He had the courage to move the parish into the future and the vision to see the need for an up-dated place of worship where parishioners could come together happily and with pride. Father’s zeal went beyond the physical building of the church. It was his pastoral concern that enabled this living Church to grow in response to world, family, and neighbors. Fr. Chet nurtured its life of prayer. Parish membership grew.
On November 24, 1954, Fr. Ed Klimaszewski became pastor until he was succeeded by Fr. Dominic Eichman in September of 1955. The interior church was decorated and a new organ was installed in 1956.
Fr. Alois Sherfinski began his pastoral appointment in June 1958. In seven years Father greatly endeared himself to the people by simply being among them. Folks fondly remember Fr. Al helping farmer during threshing and shepherding the spiritually needy from the "confessional" of his car. The "penance" usually was to return to faithful attendance at Sunday Mass. Fr. Al died at age 44 on August 2, 1965. He is buried in Memorial Park in Wausau.
A new Bishop for La Crosse Diocese was installed in February 1965. He was Bishop Frederick Freking. The last resident pastor who came to serve at St. Mary’s - Torun, on August 25, 1965, was Fr. Richard Tomsyck. During his eleven year stay, Father was also Pacelli High School chaplain, teacher of religion, and student counselor. While at St. Mary’s he was responsible for implementing Vatican II’s liturgical renewal, which was evident in the renovation of the church interior as well as the use of English for Sacraments and Mass prayers in place of Latin. There was increased lay participation in liturgy and in parish leadership positions such as Parish Council and Parish Board of Religious Education.
The circumstances surrounding Fr. Tomsyck’s departure from St. Mary’s, in spring of 1978, were painful and confusing for all. Most noticeable was the significant drop in parish membership. Also St. Mary’s Parish became members of Stevens Point Area Catholic School System. Again, as often in the past, St. Mary’s was without a resident pastor. Father died two years later on January 13, 1980, following a tragic car accident. His body rests in St. Adalbert’s Cemetery in Milwaukee.
Fr. Arthur Redmond had been pastor of St. Casimir’s since 1969. Now, in 1978, his duties extended to include the parish in Torun.
As a layman living in Stevens Point, Mr. Florian Hurrish, was appointed as Temporal Lay Administrator over the day to day life at St. Mary’s. "Dutch", as Mr. Hurrish was called, was directly responsible to the pastor and to the dean, Fr. Vaughn Brockman. In the span of time following Fr. Redmond’s pastorate and the assignment of a new pastor, Mr. Hurrish kept up parish life at both St. Mary’s and at St. Casimir’s.
In November of 1982, Fr. Edwin Stanek succeeded Fr. Redmond as pastor of both parishes. Florian Hurrish had begun preparation for the diaconate and attended classes with his wife, Harriet. In 1983, he was ordained a Permanent Deacon for the Diocese of La Crosse by Bishop John Paul. Parishioners traveled by bus to La Crosse to witness the happy occasion. Deacon Dutch, by his ordination, was able to expand his ministry of pastoral concerns. Besides preparing couples for marriage and baptism, Dutch could administer these sacraments as well as officiate at funerals, preach, and conduct Sunday Communion Services in the absence of a priest. Under the pastoring of a now quite ill Fr. Stanek, Deacon Dutch and his wife, Harriet functioned as a team. This pleasant couple walked amidst the congregation - leading, lifting, praying, working, laughing, and crying. They did much to revive, heal, and strengthen the faith life of the people in their personal daily lives and as a parish. In the summer of 1987, Deacon Dutch, who by then bore the title of Pastoral Associate, was reassigned to serve and take up residence at Immaculate Conception parish, Custer.
In Torun, the rumor that a nun was coining as Pastoral Associate became a reality on September 1, 1987. Sr. Catherine Kieliszewski SSJ-TOSF, was assigned by Bishop John Paul to be Pastoral Associate to Fr. Stanek, with residence at St. Mary’s - Torun. The leadership of Deacon Hurrish and Sr. Catherine as Pastoral Associates became a forerunner of patterns emerging in La Crosse Diocese as well as in the larger church.
What were the expectations of the pastor in this new arrangement of a Pastoral Associate in his other parish? In Fr. Stanek’s words to Sister "Stay in Torun. I’ll stay in St. Casimir’s. Do everything regarding the physical and spiritual life of the parish - except those reserved to a priest. Keep me informed - and - stay out of my hair." And so it was, for the eight years Sr. Catherine served in partnership with Fr. Edwin. Fr. Stanek, a wise and prudent man, was very supportive of Sister in this uncommon, but a complementary arrangement. As a dedicated shepherd of the flock, he listened intently and advised on pastoral matters, but left the actions in Sister’s hands. The parishioners were accepting and cooperative.
The parish made many necessary repairs and improvements. Parishioners worked to hold increasingly successful picnics, which supplemented the parish budget and kept the financial figures in the black. Through the combined efforts of Sister and Father together with the people’s vigilant prayer, Torun finally became a Non-Commission Member of Steven’s Point Area Catholic Schools, thus eliminating a major portion of the former educational assessment.
Deteriorating health problems forced Fr. Stanek into retirement from active ministry in the fall of 1994. He died August 12, 1996, in La Crosse. Bishop Raymond Burke celebrated the Funeral Liturgy in St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
Area priests, who had been helping out with the celebration of Sunday liturgies for years, remained available for Sunday Mass and sacramental needs. From among them, Fr. William Moeschler, a retired Maryknoll priest, became a most regular celebrant at Torun.
Until a pastor was assigned month’s later, Fr. Joseph Diermeier, OFM Cap. came to live at St. Casimir’s and canonically became Temporary Administrator of both parishes. Although Fr. Joe was mainly visible at St. Casimir’s, the Torun congregation also came to know and appreciate the spiritual influence of his Capuchin Franciscan’s presence. Fr. Joe left in May 1995.
In July 1995, Fr. Don Walczak came to live at St. Casimir’s, while serving as pastor there and at St. Mary’s. By December, when a six-month medical leave became necessary for Fr. Don, Sr. Catherine assumed responsibility for life at both parishes. Again, area clergy especially retired Fr. Herb Zoromski, came to the rescue to fulfill sacramental needs until a healthier Fr. Don returned in June 1996. Father Don unexpectedly passed away in April of 2007.
Father Wesley Janowski was then assigned to St. Casimir and St. Mary Parish and remained until his reassignment in July 2011.
In July of 2011, Father Gregory Michaud became the Parochial Administrator of St. Mary's with additional assignments at Sacred Heart, Polonia, and St. Adalbert, Rosholt. Father Michaud remained with the parish for five years, when his assignment shifted to remain with Sacred Heart, Polonia, while also becoming Pastor of St. Mary Immaculate Conception Parish, Custer. During his five years with St. Mary, Torun, Father Michaud rejuvenated the parish through reigniting the Councils and Committees.
On June 30, 2016, Father Jeffrey Hennes became the Parochial Administrator of St. Mary's with an additional assignment at St. Adalbert Parish & School. In July of 2019, Fr. Hennes departed from St. Mary-Torun and St. Adalbert parishes, moving to our neighbors in Stevens Point at St. Stephen & St. Joseph. During his time with St. Mary, Fr. Hennes continued to explore the ways to best make our church building handicap accessible while refreshing the parish rectory office space.