The Reverend Father J. Bondue founded the first Catholic chapel in Kilbourn City, WI in 1850 known as Saint Simon the Apostle, and included pastoral missions in the towns of Easton, Quincey, New Haven, Dell Prairie, Lyndon Station, and many other places. In 1851, Father Anthony D. Godhardt arrived in Kilbourn City, and in 1855, the parish was re-dedicated in honor of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Father George Strickner became the first Pastor in 1866 and started planning the erection of the first church on the corner of Bowman Road and Wisconsin Avenue. His successor, Father Reindle saw the program through to its completion and dedicated it to Saint Cecilia in 1868.
In 1871 Father William DeKelver was appointed the first resident Pastor of the Parish and during his pastorate, the first rectory was built and it remained the rectory until February 2005, when it was demolished to make room for the planned building of a new church.
Calvary Cemetery was established during his tenure with the land for the cemetery being purchased on August 6, 1869, for $30.00.
The first Saint Cecilia Church
Father John Holzknecht, became Pastor in 1897 and oversaw the planning and building of a new church and school. He would not see this completed however. His successor, Fr. Otto Kolbe would see this task brought to completion
The cornerstone of the new church was ceremonially laid on July 4, 1902. The July 10, 1902 edition of the Dells Reporter carried the following story: The greatest attraction of this Fourth of July celebration was the laying of the cornerstone of the new Saint Cecilia Church; the ceremony by Reverend Father O’Brien of Green Bay, delegated by the Bishop, assisted Father Kobe, who was Pastor at that time. The hundreds who witnessed this step in God’s cause bowed their heads in deep reverence, and all who were gathered about the foundation of this beautiful structure in progress were brought more within God’s teaching, and the reverence bestowed upon the faces of the innocent and all alike during these services must have been an hour of rejoicing to the angel in Heaven as they looked down with heavenly love upon the scene.”
Work began in the building of the new church and benefited through the generous gifts of many to build a church with beautiful wood altars, luminous painted stained-glass windows and the glory of a bell-tower. On August 12, 1902, the tolling of the 2,200 pound bells in the tower announced the blessing of the bell ceremony at Saint Cecilia Church.
Saint Cecilia’s was officially dedicated on June 22, 1903, by Bishop S. G. Messmer of Green Bay. The church and the parish were dedicated to Saint Cecilia, virgin & martyr and the patroness of music.
Growing in our LORD and our Lady
With the end of the Second World War saw the growth of the nation in general and of the Wisconsin Dells in particular which was becoming one of the premiere vacation destinations in the Midwest. March 1946 the Diocese of Madison was created and Saint Cecilia Parish was brought into that new Diocese.
The shrine of “Our Lady of the Dells” was erected due to the efforts of Father L. F. Strofer to honor Mary, the Mother of God. Presiding at the dedication ceremony on August 28, 1955 was Bishop William P. O’Connor, the first Bishop of the Madison Diocese.
In September, 1963, with Father Joseph Dreis as Pastor, Saint Cecilia School opened and was staffed by Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, whose religious order had been founded in the Diocese of Madison. For ten years the school brought the light of faith, knowledge and Catholic community to the Dells in a vibrant way.
During the 1970’s the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa experience a tremendous loss in the number of professed Sisters and had to leave Saint Cecilia School. The subsequent financial difficulties forced the school to close in 1973.
As the Wisconsin Dells continued to grow the school building was put into use as a day care and center of education as well as community building. With the increasing number of tourists visiting the Dells, the gym of the old school building was turned into a chapel that was used during the summer months and on holidays.
A new millennium and a new Saint Cecilia’s
The tremendous expansion of resorts, water-parks, hotels, entertainment, restaurants, shops and the vast expanse of state parks and natural beauty created a need to accommodate many more people than could attend Mass in the church.
The Reverend Father Felix G. Oehrlein was appointed Pastor in 1999, in the midst of all this excitement and in the dawn of a new Christian millennium. Under his leadership, the Parish started a fund raising campaign to fund the expansion of our worship facilities so that we may have a single church that would accommodate the large number of persons attending Mass.
The Parish and the whole community was shocked when, on November 25, 2011, Monsignor Oehrlein died suddenly. While there was concern that this would stall the effort to build a new church, the Lord was good to us and, in February 2012, Fr. Michael C. Richel was appointed Pastor of Saint Cecilia Parish.
Fr. Richel re-organized the campaign to build a new church into the Gather In Unity campaign. His simplicity, kindness and organization gave a renewed clarity on the reason and importance to building a church that could welcome everyone to worship God in one place and with one voice. The parish was, again, deeply saddened when, in March 2014, Fr. Richel announced that he was ill with pancreatic cancer.
The Bishop of Madison appointed Fr. Eric G. Sternberg as Parish Administrator on August 21, 2014 and, only three days later on August 24, Fr. Michael Richel passed away. Fr. Sternberg took up the plans laid by Fr. Richel and worked toward the construction of a new parish church.
On January 28, 2015, Fr. Sternberg was named Pastor of Saint Cecilia Parish and took up the building project with earnest. Mr. Valentin Schutte of River Architects and Mr. Tom Kraemer of Kraemer Construction worked with Fr. Sternberg and the Gathered in Unity Committee to make plans. Through the generosity of many Fr. Sternberg announced in March 2015 the coming construction of a new church.
On Sunday, May 17, 2015 Fr. Sternberg, along with all of the priest-sons of the Parish and all the still living priests who had served at Saint Cecilia, celebrated the last Mass in the church built in 1902. Hundreds of the faithful came to celebrate Mass and celebrate all the memories of that place. The next day the sacred items were removed from the church and demolition began.
Over the next fifteen months tremendous works were done to prepare the site and construct the new church of Saint Cecilia. The plan was to build a new church that was a homage to the previous church but with enough space to accommodate everyone who wanted to come and have some of the conveniences that modern construction allowed.
The stained glass windows were all removed and completely restored. The one bell in the bell-tower was also restored and two new bells were forged to accompany it. The statues were all cleaned and re-painted to await their new home. The altars were taken apart and everything that could be reused was reused.
New Saint Cecilia church was dedicated on Sunday, August 28, 2015 by the Most Reverend Robert C. Morlino, Bishop of Madison in the presence of 56 priests of the Diocese of Madison, thousands of the faithful and dignitaries from the State of Wisconsin and the City of Wisconsin Dells. After the ceremony the 600 block of Oak Street was closed to house a dinner and celebration which concluded with a fireworks show over the Wisconsin River.
As it has from the beginning and now, after the dedication of the church, our Parish works tirelessly to preach the Gospel, teach the Faith, celebrate the Sacraments, serve in Charity and build community in our Lord Jesus Christ.