Luxembourger mysteries revealed!

Kevin Wester’s book tells stories of the Luxembourger immigrants who settled in the Town of Belgium–some of them are a bit scandalous
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

For Kevin Wester, the virus that is making history is also helping preserve it.

The Belgium native, who has dedicated much of his life to telling the story of Luxembourg ancestors and connecting people to their original homeland, has published a book titled “Lake Church, Wisconsin, A Pictorial History.”

It’s a work Wester had been hoping to complete for decades as he compiled information more than a century old.

“I decided three years ago I’m not getting any younger. I have to do it,” the 56-year-old Milwaukee resident said.

So he started writing at 9:30 at night, after the work of his two businesses was done for the day. But his prose wasn’t up to par. He needed to find more time and energy to devote to his passion.

He already had most of the research.

When the Covid-19 pandemic and corresponding shutdown of the economy happened, a window of opportunity opened.

Wester helps people attain Luxembourg dual citizenship and runs annual tours to the country through Luxembourg Adventures. Trips stopped and dual citizenship requests slowed.

“It allowed me time to make the book better,” he said.

Wester spent nine to 12 hours per day on the book and recently got it published. “This was a dream of mine for 40 years,” he said.

Wester grew up being babysat by his grandfather, who drove him and his brothers to various family graves, homesteads and churches in the area.

Wester’s brothers, he said, “couldn’t stand this stuff and I just loved it.”

While in high school, he was given a cassette player with a microphone for Christmas. “I went around interviewing old people,” Wester said.

Those people and the tapes are long gone, but Wester transcribed the recordings from the 1980s.

For anyone from the Town of Belgium hamlet of Lake Church or who attended St. Mary’s Church or school there, the book’s 257 pages are a gold mine of history. Wester included 68 class photos — he’s only missing one from 1973 — and all but one of the students’ names.

The widow of a longtime school janitor when Wester was in high school gave him the school photos to copy a decade ago.

The school closed in 2009 with four children in the fourth grade. Its largest class was 40 sixth-graders in 1964.

While it’s billed as a pictorial history, the book consists of much more. Some of its stories are even shocking by today’s Hollywood standards.

Wester details the history of a priest Wester’s aging father told him was tarred and feathered in Texas before making his way to Belgium.

Wester wasn’t sure if his father was blowing smoke, but research confirmed the story.

Wester recounted that Father Joseph Keller, who he said had a loud mouth and thick German accent, was not well-liked after World War I, particularly because of the sour sentiment toward Germany.

The Ku Klux Klan in Texas stripped Keller, tied him to a tree, covered his skin with hot tar and stuck feathers on him from pillows they cut open.

Keller managed to walk back to town and told the sheriff, who was in on the assault. Keller ended up heading north and had a nervous breakdown in Missouri before he served at Lake Church for seven years in the 1930s. Wester’s father was one of his Mass servers.

The anti-German sentiment led many Catholic church members to demand more power and rebel against the priests in charge. One St. Mary’s priest was so scared he held a baseball bat when answering the door.

In 1926, the church was shut down and for a while parishioners had to go to Holy Cross or Port Washington for Mass. Wester said one of the nuns was so mad at the parishioners that she tried to burn down the school. The janitor, also a shoemaker, who lived across the street, put it out.

The book includes some of Wester’s own family history. One of his ancestors, Melchior Wester Jr., was among three friends who were studying to be priests in Milwaukee. During a baseball game, Melchior was hit in the head with a line drive and died. His body was brought back to Lake Church on a train.

“Can you imagine years ago what that was like?” Wester asked.

Not all the history was bad. A moccasin-making factory in Lake Church’s former public school building helped save the Allen Edmonds Shoe Corp.

Lake Church Leather, which was started by one of the Allen brothers who disagreed with his siblings’ business philosophy, later went out of business and was bought by the then Allen Edmonds owner John Stollenwerk, who used it for storage of dyes and shoes.

When Allen Edmonds’ Belgium plant was destroyed by fire in 1984, the items in Lake Church were all the company had left, which allowed it to start over. Stollenwerk remains a controversial figure, Wester said, since he promised Belgium a factory but eventually moved everything to Port Washington.

The first 75 pages of the book tell the story of the first Luxembourgers to come to the United States for a better life. They sold everything they had, including their pets and dishes, to get on a ship and cross the largest body of water they ever saw. They arrived as immigrants who could not speak the English language.

The first Luxembourg immigrants came to Lake Church in 1846. The group, Wester said, was a tough bunch. The land in Lake Church looked more like the wooded areas of nearby Harrington Beach State Park today. Trees were cut down and stumps were pulled out by oxen.

When someone died, survivors walked seven miles with the body to Holy Cross so the person could be buried in consecrated soil.

“These people are the hardiest people you will ever meet in your life,” he said.

St. Mary’s Church was started in 1848 in a log cabin that is now the ranger station at Harrington Beach. In 1868, a new building was constructed, but it was struck by lightning 16 years later and burned down. Farmers brought fieldstone to help build a new church.

“It was a very cheap way to build a church. You had to get rid of your fieldstone, anyway,” Wester said.

The church, he said, is one of two in the U.S. with the most authentic Luxembourgish architecture. The other is near Dubuque, Iowa.

The book answers the age-old question of why Belgium isn’t called Luxembourg.

Wester said Luxembourg, Wis., was founded by about five Luxembourg families before a Belgian priest moved to the area.

The Village of Belgium, he said, traces its ancestry to an area of Luxembourg near the border of Belgium. People’s passports read Belgium and the name stuck.

Wester is working on a longer, second volume of biographies of the immigrants from Luxembourg that he hopes will be published by the end of the year. He also wants to do books on Holy Cross and Belgium.

“I know people are loving that they realize there’s a legacy left,” he said, adding, “The legacy isn’t a book. It’s us.”

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