About the Church

Parish History

(compiled by Fr. Joseph Diermeier, Pastor)

"What return shall I make to the Lord for all the good that He has done for me?" These are the words of a beautiful psalm from the Old Testament. We at St. Mary’s have only to pause for a moment to become aware of the good things God has done and continues to do for us. It has been a great privilege for parishioners of St. Mary’s, both past and present, to work together as we build God’s Kingdom. Perhaps that is the answer to the psalmist’s question. What return are we making to the Lord for the wonderful things He does for us? The answer: we are trying to build God’s Kingdom.

The first group of settlers to what is now Marathon City came in 1857. The area was dense wilderness at that time and the first years were a struggle for survival. In 1858 an area in the center of the village was set aside for the Catholic Church and school. That area is now the part of Marathon enveloped by Fourth and Fifth Streets and Market and Main. A log mission church was first erected and according to records, was first named St. Benedict but was later changed to Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1863 when the first resident pastor. Fr. Joseph Lutz was appointed to the Marathon parish. This first pastor remained for one year and then chose the life of a hermit. He was succeeded by Fr. Michael Swebach, the second resident pastor who remained for two years. Following the pattern of the first pastor who remained for one year and the second for two, the third pastor, Fr. Karl Hengen, remained for three years. At this point the pattern stopped. The fourth pastor. Fr. F.J. Zawistowski, became pastor in 1869 and Fr. L. Spitzeberger became the fifth pastor in the year 1870. In 1874 Fr. J. Reisser became pastor and he was the first pastor to remain in Marathon for a relatively long term, remaining as pastor for fourteen years. Under his leadership the third church building was erected. In 1882 the Manitowoc Franciscan Sisters of Charity began their apostolate to the Marathon community and remained here until 1894. From that point onward, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA) have been part of the history of our beloved parish. Presently, Sister Marian Bauer and Sister Mary Ann Wiesman, both from the FSPA congregation, continue to serve in parish and school ministries.

Most who settled in Marathon were German Catholic immigrants who came from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Traditional German values were important to these early settlers and so classes were conducted in German during the initial years of the school’s existence. Fr. E. Hanses became the seventh pastor and he remained at St. Mary’s for 16 years, from 1888-1904. He had been pastor at the turn of the century, a time which boasted of approximately 230 families listed as parish members. Marathon had come a long way from its original ten families who began the settlement only little more than forty years earlier.

In 1904 Fr. Winand Daniels was appointed as pastor. He holds the distinction of being the longest serving pastor of the parish, remaining for 32 years. During his pastorate a new school, a Sisters’ convent, and eventually a new parish church were built. The convent not only housed the Sisters who taught here but also some of the students who boarded during the week, going home only on weekends and summers. In 1911, the present church was dedicated and certainly to Fr. Daniels’ credit, the architecture of the building was breathtakingly beautiful.

Fr. Daniels attempted to keep the German language strong at St. Mary’s, but by this time it was becoming somewhat of a losing battle. The English language was supplanting the German tongue. Fr. Daniel also established a two-year high school for the parish but that part of the program ended when Fr. Daniels died. That was the same year that the school fire occurred. These two events, a pastor’s death and a school fire, shook the growing parish but perhaps also served as a catalyst to remind the parishioners of their zeal and enthusiasm to move forward despite adversity.

Fr. E. Beyer came to Marathon as the ninth pastor of St. Mary’s His three predecessors remained for long pastorates, but now the parish would again see shorter terms. Fr. Beyer remained for five years and Fr. Federick Forester, the tenth pastor, remained for four years. It was under Fr. Forester’s pastoring that the parish, for the first time, was almost in debt-free condition.

A beloved pastor came to St. Mary’s in 1945. He was Fr. Wenzel Multerer, whose name is still remembered as one enters the gymnasium of the present St. Mary’s School. Above the doorway to the gymnasium, one is able to see the large letter of "Wenzel Hall." Fr. Multerer remained for 14 years, during which time he modernized some of the things we now take for granted. For example, on 1951 parishioners were able to kneel on cushioned kneelers in the church. Fr. Multerer, appointed a monsignor before his death, resigned from the parish due to ill health. He died on the same day that his resignation was rereported in the dioceasan newspaper.

The twelfth pastor of St. Mary’s was Msgr. Joseph Cysewski, an elderly priest who remained for only one year at Marathon. In 1960, Fr. Lloyd Geissler received word that he has to shepherd the parish of St. Mary’s, a position he would hold for the next 19 years.

When Fr. Geissler came to St. Mary’s, once again the parish had been in debt. Fr. Geissler worked diligently during his first years to reduce that debt. During Fr. Geissler’s time of service to the parish some great upheavals took place in the nation and throughout the world. It was a time when a President would be assassinated and when civil rights were burgeoning. It was also a time when the Second Vatican Council would be convened, a Council that updated the Catholic Church in many respects. Fr. Geissler helped the parish make the transition from Latin liturgy to the English language. He helped the parishioners understand the theology of Vatican II and he worked to implement the teachings that had been given to the Catholic Church in the Vatican Documents. Part of the theology of Vatican II was that ministry is a shared responsibility. It is the work of clergy and laity alike for we all share in the same Spirit given to us by God. Lay ministries grew at St. Mary’s and have continued to flourish since that time. Shortly before Fr. Geissler completed his many years as pastor of the parish, a pre-school program was begun. Little by little the various needs of the parishioners, young and old, were addressed. In 1979 Fr. Geissler was transferred to Poinatowski and an era came to its end at St. Mary’s. The next pastors to serve at St. Mary’s would be Capuchin Franciscans. Due to the growing shortage of dioceasn clergy, Bishop Freking (the diocesan bishop at that time) asked the Capuchin Order to consider the pastoral care of the parish community at Marathon. The Capuchin superiors agreed, and Fr. Campion Baer was chosen as the first of the Capuchin pastors to serve at the parish. Fr. Campion was no stranger to the parish community. He had held a number of areas in previous years, having been stationed at St. Anthony’s in Marathon. St. Anthony’s had formerly been a theology school for Capuchins studying for the priesthood. In 1970 the seminary discontinued, and the building was converted into a retreat center. St. Anthony’s Retreat Center continues to serve Marathon and the surrounding communities as a retreat center even to this day.

During the five years that Fr. Baer served as pastor there were maintenance tasks that needed to be addressed. New sidewalk and curbing, new carpeting in school, a new gas/oil burner for the school, as well as new insulation in all the buildings of the parish to reduce higher energy costs. By 1980 the parish had grown to approximately 600 families. It was during Fr. Campion’s five years at St. Mary’s that talk about church renovation began. A committee of parishioners was formed to study the diocesan guidelines for church restoration. Because no clear consensus was reached at that time, the restoration project was suspended. During the five years of Fr. Campion’s pastorate another special event occurred for the parish in the ordination to the diaconate of Mr. LeRoy Knauf who continues to this day serving as deacon at the parish in Poniatowski.

In 1984 the Diocese of La Crosse received a new bishop, Bishop John Paul. St. Mary’s also received its new pastor in Fr. David Funk. With Bishop John Paul’s recommendation, the parish of St. Mary’s focused its attention on an addition to the school building. The new addition was completed and dedicated in the fall of 1986. It was during these years that the Sister’s convent was razed, a playground placed where the convent had been, and a new convent was purchased across the street from the church and school.

In 1990 Fr. Larry Abler was named as the sixteenth resident pastor of St. Mary’s Parish. A whirlwind had arrived at Marathon when he came. Fr. Larry was accompanied by two associates, Fr. Malcolm Maloney and Fr. Gerry Pehler. The bishop had asked the Capuchins to take on the additional parishes of Halder and Cassel. Another change in 1990 was that Sister Catherine Kaiser completed her term as principal. For the first time in St. Mary’s history a lay principal was at the helm of the school. The capable person chosen for the task was Mrs. Janice Michlig who had taught at St. Mary’s for 19 years prior to assuming the principal duties. Mrs. Michlig retired in 2001. She was succeeded by Mrs. Laurie Ellis. Ms. Terese Globensky served as Principal for the following nine years and she is succeeded by our current Principal, Mr. Joseph Koch who is now in his fourth year as Principal.  Assisting each of the Principals has been Suzie Lang, our school secretary.

During Fr. Abler’s pastorate, he introduced once again the notion of renovating the parish church. With an adept committee he was able to steer this renovation project from inception to completion. In 1993 Frs. Pehler and Maloney left St. Mary’s and Fr. Joe Jeruzal arrived as the associate pastor and would remain in that position until 1998.

The newly renovated church building was dedicated in June of 1994. Fr. Larry continued to serve as pastor until 1996 at which time the present pastor arrived.  During his pastorate a new crucifix was purchased for the church as well as a life-size image of the Divine Mercy of Jesus.  Additionally, under the supervision of David Salber, the parish Plant Manager, new flooring was put into the church, new carpeting, and a new tile floor in the sanctuary. 

The north side of the church needed a new retaining wall and sidewalk. Bob Schumacher was chosen for this project and it stands as a beautiful piece of artistry for all who pass by. A statue honoring the Blessed Mother was placed within the new retaining wall section and commended to honor her are all the young children who had died from St. Mary’s since the parish began.

Brother Robert Thorn came to the parish in 1998 and served as deacon for one year. In 1999 "Father Bob" was ordained to the presbyterate and served as associate pastor until the spring of 2002.

In 1999 Bishop Burke gave permission for our parish to build an Adoration Chapel where exposition of the Blessed Sacrament could take place. On September 8, 2000, the chapel was dedicated by Bishop Burke. It is called the Pax Christi Adoration Chapel

With Bishop Burke’s departure to Saint Louis as its Archbishop, the Diocese of La Crosse received Bishop Jerome Listecki who served here until 2009 at which time he was named the Archbishop of Milwaukee.  From 2010 until now our Chief Shepherd for the Diocese has been Bishop William P. Callahan.

When folks come to the door or call on the phone the first person they usually encounter is the parish secretary.  We have been blessed with excellent parish secretaries who often become an administrative assistant to the pastor.  Recent parish secretaries have been Joan Stencil, Sandy Hornung who was assisted by Janice Gage, and our current parish secretary, Jen Switlick.  Another highly valued person on any parish is the person who directs the music ministry.  Brian Stieber has filled that position for our parish over many years and his service to the parish has been a tremendous blessing.

In addition to the many vocations to the single lifestyle and to the married state of life, we have parishioners who have entered religious communities and some who have been ordained as permanent deacons and to the priesthood.  In recent years from the Knauf family we have a permanent deacon (Deacon Leroy), a priest (Father Randy) and Sister Barb who entered the Franciscan Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Joseph.  Additionally, three men from the parish have been ordained as permanent deacons by Bishop Callahan and have been assigned to the parish.  They are Deacons Bryan Hilts, John Bourke and Gordy Ruplinger.   

As we look back at our parish history, we are grateful that at St. Mary’s Parish we are building God’s Kingdom and making a return to the Lord for the good He has done for us. For what has already been accomplished we give thanks to God. For all that waits us in the future, we give both our thanks and an assent to continue our work to build God’s Kingdom. After all is said and done that’s a return, we can give to the Lord for all the good that He has done for us.