Celebrating 150 Years

A Belgian priest’s mission to Wisconsin to establish a monastery resulted in this Community in 1868

by Sister Mary Kabat
published November 2017

Late at night on February 2, 1868, Sister Pius Doyle and two novices arrived in Green Bay by train from Racine, Wisconsin, to join Father Edward Daems, Christine Rousseau and Pauline La Plante in their pastoral work at Holy Cross Parish near Green Bay. Holy Cross School opened on February 12, 1868 ... that was 150 years ago when the Bay Settlement Sisters came to be.

Seventeen years earlier, 25-year old Crosier Father Edward Francis Daems came from Diest, Belgium, to join several Crosier priests and brothers for the dual purpose of serving the immigrants of Northeast Wisconsin and establishing a Crosier foundation in America. In 1852 he became the first resident priest serving the entire Door County Peninsula from Holy Cross Parish in Bay Settlement.

The challenges endured by the settlers were overwhelming--poverty, disease, lack of education and opportunities to receive the sacraments and grow in their faith. Father Daems served as their pastor, their healer with his knowledge of medicinal herbs, their advisor in legal matters, their source of news, their confidante and friend. He had inexhaustible energy and a compassionate heart.

Needs of his community in Belgium took Father Daems away from his beloved parishioners. That all changed in September 1859 when he returned to resume his pastoral service to the Mother Church in Bay Settlement, 14 small local churches throughout the Door Peninsula and the Chapel of the Holy Virgin at Champion. How it all took place, we don’t know for sure but in 1864 during the Civil War, Father Daems was the only remaining Crosier. Though a Crosier foundation was not to happen at that time, a new dream formed in his pastoral heart. He was convinced that a common education would unite his parishioners of diverse languages and cultures. With a confident spirit, he built a parish school in 1865.

But from where were teachers to come? Undeterred, Father Daems sent a request to the Racine Dominicans for Sisters to come and teach in the school. He was told no Sisters were available. Holy Cross parishioners Christine Rousseau and Pauline La Plante had recently been received as novices to the Dominican community. When they returned home to Bay Settlement, Father Daems asked them to move into the rectory and assist him with his work. They left behind a friend and teacher, Sister Pius Doyle, from Platteville, Wisconsin. She wrote to Father Daems offering to teach in the school and convinced two novices to join her. Late at night on February 2, 1868, these three young women arrived in Green Bay and made their way the next day to Bay Settlement. Holy Cross School opened just ten days later on February 12, 1868, with 79 students up to age 27 speaking Dutch, English, French and German.

Although the novices who traveled with Sister Pius did not remain, a farm girl named Mary Van Lanen joined Sisters Pius, Pauline and Christine. Sisters Pius and Mary taught in the school and Sisters Christine and Pauline took care of the garden, rectory and church, prepared medicinal herbs and met the needs of the people who continually came to the door. On November 7, 1874, the four women -- our founding Sisters -- were received into the Third Order of St. Francis.

Father Daems’ health had been declining since a bout with typhoid fever in 1872. The hardships of his years as a missionary pastor were taking a heavy toll on him. On February 12, 1879, eleven years to the day that Holy Cross School had opened and the Sisters began to minister at his side, Father Daems died. Though no Crosier monastery had been established, the four women were committed to living his spirit and carrying on his mission to respond compassionately to the needs of the immigrant families in Northeast Wisconsin.

(Sources: Community History written by Sisters Pius Doyle, Dominica Shallow and Louise Hunt)

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