Wisconsin’s Holyland: rural roots with German heritage

st-joseph-statueWith the arrival of spring comes the promise of renewal, revival and – especially for Christians – rebirth and resurrection as Easter approaches.

It was that way for German farm immigrants in the mid 1800s, too, and hundreds brought to the Midwest their prospects for prosperity and the faith to be at peace with whatever was out of their hands.

You’ll find much evidence of those high yet humble hopes in Wisconsin’s Holyland, where at least 10 Catholic churches in 10 tiny communities still dot the rural landscape within 100 square miles of Fond du Lac and Calumet counties.

“Many times the church was built first, and the community developed around it,” notes “Breaking Bread in the Holyland,” a 42-page tourism booklet about the area’s history and highlights.

“Although some churches have been remodeled, and the use of some converted from places of worship, the spiritual impact of the entire Holyland remains strong.”

On some church properties, including St. Joseph’s, sturdy church schools sit vacant on weekdays. It is not unusual for churches to share the services of a priest, and not unprecedented for that priest to be of an advanced age.

There also are sweet little surprises, like hearing church bells chime on a Friday afternoon. Or finding weathered but still glorious statuettes on tombstones and pillars. Or seeing a sign outside St. Peter’s that says Mass happens four day a week.

It is not difficult to gain a sense of great congregational pride while driving this area’s tidy hills, walking its well-kept church cemeteries or having the good luck to see the inside of a gorgeous little sanctuary.

For me, the latter happened – like a lot of good things in life – only because of good timing and goodwill. While leaving the hilltop grounds of St. Mary’s in – take a guess – Marytown, a church member was arriving.

He rolled down his window to inquire: “Want to see the inside? I have to check the furnace.”

While expressing my delight at the immaculate and ornate nave, he suggested that I take a look from the choir loft. “You should see it decorated at Christmas time,” he added. “Just beautiful.”

Yes, he was a church member – and rightfully proud of that fact. I should have written down his name.

The first St. Mary’s – formally known as Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church – was made of logs in 1849 and burned in 1880. Fire also destroyed the second parish, so the third was built with stone.

Fire and isolation remain as challenges to the Holyland’s faithful today. Among the more recently vacated structures is a longtime convent in Mount Calvary. At the community’s 200-student St. Lawrence Seminary High School, fire this month destroyed 1872 St. Joseph Hall, the oldest building on campus.

But little Mount Calvary, population 750, remains big enough to support Holy Cross Church (a Catholic parish) and Villa Loretto Nursing Home, whose 120 acres also include assisted living apartments and the adjacent Cristo Rey Ranch, a 300-animal menagerie of Clydesdale horses to pot-bellied pigs, peacocks to cats, alpacas to emu.

Pet therapy is a part of programming for elders, and it all happens because of the work of six Catholic nuns.

“Breaking Bread in the Holyland” was put together by staff at travelcalumet.com, with an assist from the Fond du Lac Convention and Visitors Bureau. Besides churches, the booklet identifies the area’s supper clubs, “the ideal place to break bread.”

Why link the two? It’s not uncommon to find one near the other. “After Sunday Mass many adults would flock to the supper clubs for brunch, drinks and a challenging game of cards,” the booklet observes. “In later years, going to Mass on a Saturday night and then to the supper club was the norm for hard-working” rural couples.

Download or order “Breaking Bread in the Holyland” by going to travelcalumet.com or calling 920-849-1493, ext. 263.

Calumet County bills itself as the Supper Club Capital of the Midwest, and a new map shows the location of 32 such places.

Why so many? “One theory is because the region was settled by men and woman that worked hard in the farm fields and needed a night out at the end of the week,” the Calumet County Tourism map explains.

Also on the map are 71 spots to find a fish fry on Fridays, fine dining to rural bar-grills. For a copy, go to travelcalumet.com or call 920-849-1493, ext. 263.

Fish is the typical entrée of choice for many Catholics during Lenten season, but the Dorf Haus Restaurant, Roxbury (Dane County), offers another option: turtle.

Cooks say the meat tastes a bit like roast beef. It is marinated overnight with carrots and onions, then roasted four hours. Add mashed potatoes, gravy, cole slaw and fritters to the plate for $15.95.

The unusual, seasonal menu addition began more than 30 years ago, and this year’s final turtle meals are served 5-10 p.m. April 18, Good Friday.

Dorf Haus is best known for its German recipe specialties during other times of year. Look for the restaurant across the street from St. Norbert’s Church, around since 1846 in this town of 1,800 residents. foodspot.com/dorfhaus, 608-643-3980.