Not long ago, Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity participated in a summer Heritage Walk from Clarks Mills to Maple Grove, Wisconsin. Why Clarks Mills? Why Maple Grove? We desired to capture again the founding spirit of our first Sisters who lived at Clarks Mills and our first postulant, whose family immigrated from Ireland and settled in an Irish community at Maple Grove, Wisconsin.
To do this we shuttled from our Motherhouse in Manitowoc, Wisconsin to Clarks Mills, the birthplace of our Congregation. We prayed first at the roadside memorial commemorating our Sisters who lived here at this site of our first convent. We were reminded that “our Congregation of Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity is rooted in the call of God to Theresa Gramlich and Rosa Wahl. Their simplicity firmly built on faith in a loving God, their joyful acceptance of poverty, their love for the Church, and their selfless dedication to the service of others are the cornerstones on which our Congregation is built. God leads us under their inspiration to continue to incarnate these gifts through our lives in this Congregation.”
A pilgrimage challenges true endurance. This destination to Maple Grove also proved to be a greater distance than we expected. However, we found strength in the many pilgrims, our Sisters, family, friends and companions in mission who have endured and reached their own eternal destiny and who walked with us along the way.
An important stop along the way was in the area of where the first Catholic Church at Noonan’s Corners was built. Savage Corners and Noonan’s Corners are the same place on earlier maps of this time in history. The Noonan Church was built in 1850 by a Father Joseph Brunner, SJ along what was called the Manitowoc-Menasha Trail. The Manitowoc-Menasha Trail is the modern Highway 10. Ahead of its time, this church served families of mixed nationalities. The first Mass was said in the home of B.S. Lorrigan for Catholics numbering 14 families. It was at this location that our first postulant Mary Doyle’s family became acquainted with Theresa Gramlich and Rosa Wahl.
Years later, a certain Fr. Eugene McGinnity who was pastor in 1866 suggested to the Germans attending his parish that they start their own church. This was the origin of Clarks Mills. Fr. Joseph Fessler was assigned in 1866. Father Fessler immediately began organizing a parish for the Irish members. The members of St. Patrick’s, Maple Grove, call it “old St. Patrick” while older people in the Village of Cato called it simply Noonan’s Church. There is no doubt from material obtained through reliable sources that this first building was really dedicated to St. Paul.
As pilgrims we next set our eyes on reaching Maple Grove. As we neared St. Patrick Church, Sister Linda Brandes tolled the bells welcoming us to her own childhood parish, as well as the home of Sister Patricia Doyle (postulant Mary Doyle). Beth Kiel and other members of the Friends of St. Patrick, who exist to preserve the Irish Heritage of the Maple Grove Community Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, were also on hand to greet us and welcome us to this quaint spot.
After sharing lunch with each other, we toured the former convent, church and school marveling at all the priceless photos and keep sakes stored in this place that tell the story of a proud, yet humble, faith-filled people. It was noted that other relatives of our Sisters were among those highlighted as we moved from room to room and building to building.
One interesting memorial found outside was entitled the “The Hedge School”. This maze was constructed as a reminder of forces that drove early settlers to leave their beloved Ireland and move to a corner of the Wisconsin wilderness to build the community of Maple Grove. In Ireland it was against the law to educate any child of a Roman Catholic family. Some parents hired a traveling teacher who would hold classes in the corner of a field, shielded from view by hedges. The classes would move from field to field daily to escape the eyes of the authorities. If caught, the teacher would be arrested and the parents fined.
Aside from the well-kept cemetery near by, there were also other trees and restful benches identified in memory of loved ones that created a peaceful atmosphere. Much care and love has gone into creating this spiritual haven of Irish heritage and love for God.
Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity are very grateful that Mary Doyle was courageous enough to join a small band of German immigrants to become a Religious Sister and that her parents were willing to support her call from God. The rest is our history.