A Belgian Church at the Head of the Lakes

Superior’s Sts. Anthony and Margaret Church

Originally published November 2014
Fr. Rudolph Hanssens, OFM, a native of Antwerp, Belgium, first Pastor of Sts. Anthony and Margaret Church, from 1914 to 1917. (Image courtesy St. Anthony Church)

When Superior, Wisconsin’s Sts. Anthony and Margaret Catholic Church was established in 1914, it came as a welcome relief for the Catholic Belgians in the city’s Allouez neighborhood. Before that they were forced to attend mass two miles away at St. Francis Catholic Church in the East End—and getting there could be treacherous.

Established in 1892, St. Francis didn’t have a church building of its own until 1908, and at the time there was no Catholic church in Allouez. The neighborhood, bounded on three sides by the Nemadji River, Bluff Creek and Allouez Bay, was home to a large number of Belgian immigrants employed at the Great Northern ore docks. Fr. Eustace Vollmer, of St. Francis traveled to Allouez twice monthly to offer mass to mostly Belgian Catholics, either in private homes or at the Modern Woodsman Hall at 3816 East 3rd Street.

On alternating Sundays, the Allouez parishioners traveled to St. Francis. There was no convenient streetcar line, and none of these immigrant dock workers could afford a horse and carriage, let alone an automobile. At the time, the only passage out of Allouez crossed a narrow wooden bridge over Nemadji River, located about two blocks west of today’s Nemadji Bridge. A hardy bunch, the Belgians didn’t mind the distance of the walk as much as they did crossing the bridge. Snow and ice coated the timbers during the winter, and a stiff wind regularly blew through the bog it crossed, causing the bridge to sway.

An unidentified girl standing in front of the altar on the occasion of her First Communion. The ornate altar, with a wooden, hand-carved rendition of Michelangelo’s Last Supper, was obtained from Italy in 1919 by Fr. Kubelbeck. (Image courtesy St. Anthony Church)

Luckily for Superior’s Belgians, in 1905 the Catholic Church established the Superior Diocese to serve northern Wisconsin, appointing Fr. Augustine Schinner bishop. Schinner died in 1913, and Joseph M. Koudelka took over. Koudelka immediately recognized the need for a church in Allouez. Key to the church’s success would be locating a priest that could not only speak Latin and English, but Flemish as well—for most parishioners, English was a second language. The church sent Fr. Rudolph Hanssens of Antwerp, Belgium, to preside over the first mass for the Allouez congregation in May of 1914.

Hanssens wasted no time declaring his dream to build not only a church and rectory, but a school and convent as well—all of it surrounded by good Belgian households raising well-behaved children educated in the Catholic doctrine. Hannsens received help from Superior pioneer James Bardon, namesake of Bardon’s Peak and once editor and publisher of the Superior Times, who donated two blocks on East 43rd Street to the diocese for the site of the new church. In July 1914 Rene Lagae began construction of a 40 by 80-foot wood-frame building with a full basement and a steeply pitched gable roof featuring a central steeple—a fairly typical design for early twentieth century churches.

Sts. Anthony and Margaret altar boys photographed some time in the mid 1920s. (Image courtesy St. Anthony Church)

During construction, the parish referred to the building simply as the “Allouez Church.” Hanssens believed he had the power to choose the name for his parish. But his fellow Franciscans, led by Fr. Vollmer  of St. Francis, had their own thought on the matter. The church would be named after a Franciscan saint, but Hanssens and Vollmer could not agree on which saint. Vollmer wanted to dedicate the parish to St. Anthony of Padua. Hanssens had once promised that if he ever had the opportunity to build a new church, he would dedicate it to Saint Margaret of Cortona—a favorite of the Belgian people.

It took months for the two clerics to reach a compromise—the new church would be named Sts. Anthony and Margaret. In 1959 a new church was built to replace the 1914 building. When the new church opened, it was named simply St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. St. Margaret, apparently, was not part of the new church—no reason for the name change has been found. At the time, some parishioners joked: Anthony and Margaret had been granted a divorce. Not all of their fellow parishioner, nor other members of the diocese, appreciated the humor.

The foot-bridge seen in this photo (at the left in front of the railroad trestle) spanned Bluff Creek between Itasca and Allouez. After Sts. Anthony and Margaret Church added a school in 1925, Catholic students from Itasca crossed this bridged twice a day. It is almost identical to the bridge early parishioners used to cross the Nemadji River when attending Sunday Mass at St. Francis Church in the East End. (Image courtesy St. Anthony Church)

It has been 100 years since the Belgian Catholics of Allouez had to walk the two-mile trek to St. Francis, but its parishioners have not forgotten those early days. Each Easter Monday, members of the Belgian Club walk from their clubhouse on East Second Street to St. Anthony’s Church to celebrate a mass in memory of their departed brethren.

Superior’s Sts. Anthony and Margaret Church

3 Responses to A Belgian Church at the Head of the Lakes

  1. top row from left to right sixth person is AL Laverdiere.dad would have only been 3 to 5yrs old at the time.I have seen this pic before.

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