The history of the Diocese of Superior dates back to the 17th century. Our Journey Through Faith offers a glimpse into the historic events that played a role in the growth of Catholicism in Northern Wisconsin. Diocese of Superior - Statistics
Our Journey through Faith: A History of the Diocese of Superior,
Although a Catholic mission existed in Merrill as early as 1875, it wasn't until 1885 that St. Francis Xavier Church was established. By 1890 it had a membership of 400 families. In 1898 a school was added, and the parish continued to grow. In the late 1950s, because of its size and the abundance of clergy, St. Francis Xavier was divided into two separate parishes, the original St. Francis and the newly formed St. Robert Bellarmine which moved to a location on the east side of the city. St. Robert's added a school in 1959, and St. Francis built a new church and school in 1961. Financial difficulties forced St. Francis to close its school in 1969, but it re-opened again eight years later for grades six, seven and eight. Because of the increasing shortage of priests the two parishes merged again in 1995 using St. Robert Bellarmine's facilities. The newly formed parish took the original name of St. Francis Xavier. The Catholic community of Merrill has always had a special commitment to providing its youth with a Catholic education as evidenced by the presence of parochial school for over 100 years.
REFERENCE: Our Journey through Faith: A History of the Diocese of Superior,
by Sam Lucero, 2005.
In the very early years of Merrill's existence, Catholics in the area were ministered to by a priest traveling from Wausau to Jenny (our town name before we became Merrill). Our Catholic community was considered a mission church prior to 1885. Merrill's Catholic residents attended Mass and sacraments were administered in a small framed building built on the comer of Second and Blaine Streets. This mission church was razed prior to 1885 when the community of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church was established.
Merrill's first resident pastor, Fr. Engelburt Blume, was appointed on May 17th, 1885. Because the original St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church building was not yet completed, Masses and other functions were held in one of the schools in Merrill and at the West Side Skating Rink in the interim period. In time, the building project reached completion, and St. Francis Church stood on the corner of Second and Blaine Streets. This is the present site of the Park City Credit Union facilities. The new church was 80 feet long by 45 feet wide and sat 500 people. It included a bell tower, stained glass windows, balcony for the choir, and three altars: the main altar; the west altar of St. Mary; and the east altar of St. Joseph. In 1890, the St. Francis Church population was 400 families. The first rectory was built at 204 Blaine Street. Fr. Blume resided there from 1885 to 1920, when he died. The Catholic school was ready for students in October of 1898 with a staff of four nuns. Enrollment quickly increased, and by 1905, eight nuns were employed at the school.
Also during this time, the newly created Diocese of Superior was established in 1905 under the direction of Bishop Augustine Schinner. (Merrill was part of the Diocese of Green Bay prior to this.)
Change came to the Merrill Catholic community in the late 1950's and early 1960's when it was decided Merrill would have two Catholic parishes within its boundaries. St. Francis Parish would remain, and the parish of St. Robert Bellarmine was established. Both parishes would be housed in different buildings than where the original St. Francis Church was located. In 1962, the school and church of St. Francis were razed, and the St. Francis Parish Hall which was located just to the north of the church, was taken down in 1964. This hall held many memories for St. Francis parishioners because it was used as a gathering place for committees, meetings of the Knights of Columbus, Foresters, Altar Society, Scouts, etc., as well as for dances and banquets. It also housed its own bowling alley in the basement.
The parish of Sf. Robert Bellarmine was established on July 1, 1956 by Bishop Joseph Annabring. Fr. Leo Krynski became the first pastor at St. Roberts and served from 1956 until 1970. Initially; Masses were held at the Holy Cross Convent Chapel until the first Mass was celebrated on August 15, 1959 in the temporary church at the St. Roberts School building. In September of 1959, St. Roberts School opened and housed grades 1 through 8. Bishop George A Hammes dedicated the new St. Roberts Church and School in August of 1960. Intentions were that the school gymnasium would serve as the church until a permanent church would be built. These intentions still hold true today, as it is the hope of the Merrill Catholic Community that a new church will one day be built and the present church can return to its original use as the school gymnasium or parish hall.
In 1961, Msgr. Gerald Mahon became the first pastor of the new St. Francis Xavier Parish. Also in 1961, the new St. Francis School was built and again, a temporary church was located in the north end of the school building. Intentions at the time were that a new church would eventually be built and the classroom area that housed the church in 1961 would return to classroom space. These facilities, as well as a new rectory, were built on West Eighth Street, and eventually a convent was also constructed on West Tenth Street adjacent to the school. St. Francis School remained open from 1961 until 1969 when it closed.
1n 1977, St. Francis and St. Roberts schools united to form Merrill Catholic Schools. Grades 1 through 5 were housed at the St. Roberts building, while Grades 6 through 8 were housed in the St. Francis building.
1n 1989 and 1990, Bishop Raphael Fliss, along with Fr. Edward Powell and Fr. James Kraker, pastors of the Merrill parishes, and both Parish and Finance councils worked to explore the possibility of reuniting the congregations of St. Francis and St. Roberts, again forming one Catholic presence in Merrill. Plans seemed to be moving forward, but after objections from some parishioners, the merge was put on hold. Fr. James Horath arrived in Merrill in June of 1992 to become pastor of St. Roberts Parish. When Fr. Powell retired in January of 1995, Fr. Horath became pastor of both St. Roberts Parish and St. Francis Parish. Prior to that time, in the fall of 1994, the issue of merging both parishes was revisited. In June of 1995, both parishes did merge into one. By January 1996, all 8 grades were housed in the present school building, but surroundings were crowded. In May 1997, construction began on the St. Roberts building in order to enlarge it to be able to comfortably house all 8 grades of the Catholic School and provide office space for parish staff. The St. Francis property on West Eighth Street was sold to the Merrill Public School System after the merge became official. After the two parishes merged into one, a poll was taken of all parishioners regarding the name by which the one united parish would be known. The majority wished to keep the name of the mother church established in 1885 - St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church.
Today, St. Francis Parish is blessed in many ways. There are 164 students in grades Pre-K through 8 enrolled in our Catholic School this year, and an updated parish census was just completed with 1000+ families registered. We are growing in numbers, and we are experiencing renewed interest in growing spiritually as a parish family. In June 2010, Father James Horath retired and was replaced by Father Michael McLain, a second-vocation priest. We are blessed to have many volunteers who generously donate their time, talent and treasure to further God's work here in our community. We look forward to a bright future!
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