ALEX GRUBER | EDITOR IN CHIEF
Students at St. Norbert College will have noticed the small construction crew working at Old St. Joseph’s Church. The team has been performing renovation and restoration on the historic building since before the start of the academic year. While its efforts largely focus on maintaining the appearance and structural integrity of the church, it has also made a significant change to Old St. Joseph’s former entrances on the north side of the building.
A religious structure has stood on the current site of Old St. Joseph’s since 1676, when Father Charles Albanel, a superior in the French Jesuit mission in the Green Bay area, built a chapel there that stood for almost two centuries.
A parish was officially established in 1870 to serve French-Canadian settlers coming to work at the local lumber mills. Joseph Melcher, an Austrian-born priest who served as the first bishop of the diocese of Green Bay, oversaw its institution.
During a storm in 1889, lightning struck the church of St. Joseph Parish, causing it to catch fire and eventually burn to the ground. A new church, financed by funds gathered from members of the Archconfraternity of St. Joseph across the nation, was finished in 1890. In 1892, a decree of Pope Leo XII established the parish as the site of the National Shrine of St. Joseph. The shrine moved to St. Norbert Abbey in 1969 but returned to Old St. Joseph’s in 2016.
The Norbertines arrived in De Pere in September 1898. Before the end of that year, they became the sponsors of St. Joseph Parish and its church and have taken care of it since then. St. Joseph Church took on “Old” before its name in 1976, when “New” St. Joseph Church, now known as Our Lady of Lourdes Church, was completed in western De Pere.
In 1925 when the West De Pere Norbertine community was raised to the rank of an abbey, a covered portico was added to the north side of the structure to shelter parishioners arriving at and leaving from the church. The doors under this portico served as the church’s principal entrance and exit until a renovation in the 1990s added the gathering space and its two sets of doors to the east side of the building, at which point the portico’s doors were made inoperable from the outside. The narthex which had been expanded in 1925 became a reconciliation chapel and a Marian chapel to the east and west of the central doors, respectively.
In 2015, the portico was discovered to be structurally unsound and in danger of collapse, prompting the decision to raze it. The destruction of the portico left the original central doors starkly visible to anyone passing by the north side of the church, and discussion soon centered on what to do with them.
The work realized on the doors this year took place through the collaborative efforts of personnel of St. Norbert Abbey, the College Parish, College, Performa Architects of De Pere and local wrought-iron workers. The latter created and installed decorative wrought iron grilles over the old side doors, and framed the openings with raised brick flowerbeds. A few stairs ascend from each of the side doors to a long raised platform in front of the central door bordered by a wrought-iron railing.
The central doors have a rectangular wrought-iron grille, on which were placed eight bronze panels depicting figures important to the Norbertine Order. These panels come from the workshop of Egino Weinert, a German artist who spent many years as a monk and had a career spanning seven decades.
Going clockwise from the upper-left panel, the scenes on the Egino panels are the Holy Family; Pentecost; Norbert of Xanten; Mary Magdalene; Monica, the mother of Augustine of Hippo; Hermann-Josef, a German Norbertine saint of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; John the Baptist; and Augustine.
Deacon Kevin DeCleene, Senior Director or Parish Services for St. Norbert College Parish, expressed joy and appreciation toward the work done on the doors.
“The really beautiful thing is that we could hold [the beginning] of the Palm Sunday and Easter Vigil Masses here,” he stated, with the parish community gathered in front of the renovated doors before processing together into the church.
DeCleene also mentioned that weddings and even funerals could also benefit from the more scenic and community-friendly backdrop the new doors provide.
Though they may only now operate as emergency exits, the redone doors of Old St. Joseph’s Church will certainly remind those who see them of the rich history of the church and the Norbertine Order as it, the order, and the college move into the future.