St. Mary History

One of the Oldest Parishes in the Archdioceses of Milwaukee

Catholics from European countries came to the Burlington area in the early 1800s and sought to continue to grow their faith. Before a parish was established, missionary priests traveling through Burlington offered Mass in the homes of area Catholics. The earliest known Mass was celebrated in 1838 in the house of Mr. Nimms by Fr. Thomas Morrissey, a missionary who served in this area for twenty-three years. In 1842, the people of this area donated $60 to buy a horse for another missionary, Fr. Martin Kundig, to help ensure that during his travels Mass would be offered in the Burlington Area.

By the year 1844, the parish under the name of St. Sebastian was formed and plans for the first church building took place. The land for this church was purchased from Mr. E. Perkins for $25 in early 1847. Thanks to the hard work of many parish members the total cost to construct the new stone church were $578.84. This is amazing considering they purchased land and a small building in December 1845, from Squire Lewis Royce to add to the parish campus for $600. This first church, St. Sebastian, was built on the site, which is now the State Street parking lot. The building is credited as being the first masonry building in all of Racine County. St. Sebastian's was consecrated by Bishop Henni on November 9, 1845. This was the first in a long series of building projects for the parish. The parish started with a number of temporary pastors, though Father Michael Wisbauer is credited as being the first resident pastor of our parish in 1847.

The parish quickly outgrew the first church and in 1854 the cornerstone was laid in the "new stone church." This Gothic Revival church was designed by Victor Schulte, who was one of Wisconsin's first architects, and he also designed many of the original buildings for the St Francis Seminary. On December 8, 1859, Bishop Henni consecrated the stone church under the title of the Immaculate Conception, which was the choice of the United States Bishops as the Patroness of the country. Despite the steeple being removed in 1893, it still remains one of the best-preserved cobblestone buildings in the nation. Many of the original diamond-shaped windows can be seen, which is extremely rare for a building of this age.

St Mary parish grade school began in 1860 four days after the arrival of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. 110 students are shown to have attended the school that first year. Through the next approximately 120 years the parish and schools were faithfully served by Notre Dame and Franciscan (OSF) Sisters.  In total, there were over 350 sisters that served our parish. The school was started in the first church (St Sebastian) just four days after the sisters arrived. The school later moved to the old stone church, then to the building where Catholic Central now resides, and eventually to the grade school's existing building in 1955. Since then, the old stone church, and old convent have been used as classroom space when needed for the grade school and high school.  Currently, the Annex houses four classrooms for the grade school, and the convent is home to the parish preschool which was started in 2001.

In 1890, work began on the current church building thanks to urging from Father Jacobs. He believed in the project so much that he personally purchased the land for $500 from the School Sisters. The new church, and its 186-foot tall tower, were dedicated on December 10, 1891. In the years to follow, it was noted that Fr. Jacob purchased and donated many other things for the church, including the existing stations hanging on our church walls. He and his cousin also donated a new main altar and organ in 1904. Fr. Jacob was a very business-orientated pastor. As noted in the history of St Mary Parish, Fr. Jacob not only as pastor, he ran a shoe store and served as Director of the Bank of Burlington.

On August 9, 1892, Immaculate Conception (St Mary) Parish celebrated the first mass for The Reverend Phillip Klein, who became our first parish member to be ordained a priest. This started a tradition of many young and women from our parish entering the religious orders. Fr. Klein was later made a Domestic Prelate by Pope Pius XII, in July 1954.

In 1920, the parish bought back its first church, which had been sold to the St. Eustachius Benevolent Society. It then became the first home to a Catholic two-year commercial business high school in 1924, thanks to the efforts of Father Van Treeck. After five years, the school expanded to a four-year program. By 1926, St Mary High School (later to be called Catholic Central High School) moved into its new building on the south end of the campus, which is shared with the grade school. Catholic Central High School now functions separately from the parish and is sponsored by many parishes in the area.

Also in 1926, St Therese Chapel in Powers Lake was built for summer services.  At first, this chapel was administered to by St. Alphonsus in New Munster, though soon afterward it fell under the care of our parish for many years. (This chapel was closed in 2009 due to the shortage of priests.)

The current rectory offices were completed in 1976 and added much-needed office and meeting space. Many of the recent projects have been done by Catholic Central and include the addition of the big gym, the remodeling of Topper Hall (the original gym which is now a Theater), the addition of the MAC, and most recently the addition of the practice gym and additional classrooms. On the morning of July 24, 1977, a fire destroyed most of the church. Thanks to the dedicated effort of many parishioners serving on a variety of committees, the church was rebuilt. It was rededicated on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1979. At this time, the Good Shepherd Chapel was added to the south side of the church. Since 1980 there have not been any significant building projects to the church or grade school, though the campus is continually being maintained and updated.

The history of our parish would not be complete without noting that in the nearly 175 years in existence, our parish is proud to say that more than 20 of its members went on to become priests, 2 became brothers, and more than 20 became sisters. Immaculate Conception Parish is very proud of its history and looks forward to the history its parish members will work together to create in the years to come.