EDITORIAL: The bells of St. Mary’s belong in Lake Church

“While church bells usually bring members of a parish together, the bells at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lake Church are dividing the congregation.”

That was reported in an Ozaukee Press news story last week, and it’s surprising to think that there could be a debate about doing anything other than keeping the bells from the landmark church in the Town of Belgium enclave where they been for 134 years.

Yet there is a debate. Father Jim Weyker, who has connections to the Belgium area and served for more than 25 years in Tanzania, Africa, has asked that the bells be sent to a parish in Africa.

The request has apparently gained enough traction that concerned parishioners have formed a Save the Bells committee.

It’s now up to parish leaders to make what should be an easy decision —     keep the bells that one day could be among the last vestiges of a church that played a central role in a small community and in the lives of generations of parishioners where they belong in Lake Church.

Like about half the parishes in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, St. Mary’s Lake Church was merged with others years ago. It is now part of Divine Savior Parish, and last year the final Mass was celebrated at St. Mary’s Lake Church.

The church is now for sale, and there’s nothing to stop a new owner from demolishing it to make way for a development on its prominent site not far from Lake Michigan.

Parish mergers and church closings are the new reality in a Catholic Church grappling with a shortage of priests. The Milwaukee Archdiocese estimates that by next year the number of retirements will exceed ordinations, resulting in a 40% reduction of parish priests.

Consolidating parishes and churches is practical, but that’s not to say such decisions aren’t emotional. In addition to being physical representations of faith, churches are the sites of some of the most formative events in the lives of parishioners — events that range from baptisms and marriages to funerals.

Even for non-Catholics, churches like St. Mary’s are important historical landmarks. The church that stands today was built by a parish of Luxembourg immigrants in 1884 to replace earlier structures that dated to 1848. For years, there was little else in a community named for its church by the lake other than St. Mary’s and a general store and tavern across the street. Today the church remains the most prominent edifice in the small community.

An important part of that edifice are the three bells that gave the church an audible presence in the community. They rang for daily Mass, funerals and the daily Angelus, as well as to announce deaths.

“I remember working on our family’s land with my dad. You could hear the bells and know someone had died,” Bob Hubing, a longtime parishioner who formed the Saved the Bells committee, told Ozaukee Press.

But times change. The bells were silenced in the mid-1980s when the parish converted to an electronic carillon system and the parish school, whose students rang the bells by pulling on ropes that lifted them off the ground as they tolled, was shuttered years ago.

Father Jim Ernster, who grew up in the area and celebrated his first Mass at St. Mary’s Lake Church said, “If we have one thing left, it might be the bells. I feel terrible about it. The school is gone. The convent is gone. The church is going to be gone. There will nothing there.

“There should be a memorial.”

That memorial, erected in the church cemetery as proposed by Hubing, should include the bells of St. Mary’s and a plaque explaining the important role they and the church played in the community.

That should be an easy decision for parish leaders to make. While the bells have no sentimental or historical value for parishioners in a faraway African country, they have deep meaning for former members of St. Mary’s Lake Church. And if the tug of war over them has divided Divine Savior, keeping the bells in Lake Church would certainly unite the parish in an effort to preserve an important part of the community’s religious and cultural past.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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