Preserving parish history is archivist’s labor of love

The prairie grasses along Ottawa Avenue hadn’t yet given way to asphalt roads, subdivisions, and local businesses when Dousman and neighboring Ottawa’s first Catholic Church, St. Bruno, held its first Mass in 1852.P32POF-HENDRICK

The nearest church was what is now known as St. Lawrence Parish in Jefferson. In those days, St. Lawrence was called “The St. Bruno Mission.” In 1852, the St. Bruno Mission Church was enlarged and officially named St. Lawrence.

“The first Mass was held in a private home, by visiting priest Fr. Michael Haider, pastor of St. Lawrence in Jefferson,” said Debra Hendrick, St. Bruno Parish historian. “The altar was constructed out of boxes, and built by the priest. The tiny parish became a mission of St. Lawrence Church.”

However, don’t get Hendrick started on today’s priest shortage! She explained that in the 1840s and early 1850s only about seven priests provided for the needs of 2,000 Catholics in the Wisconsin and Iowa Territories. Missionary priests rode on horseback over dirt roads doing missionary work, which consisted of baptizing, converting, hearing confessions, performing marriages and celebrating Mass.

“Now that was a shortage,” she said. “I like to ponder this sometimes, because it is not a new problem.”

A history buff, Hendrick worked for more than 12 years with her uncle, Dan Lauer, on the restoration of the “Old St. Bruno Church” in Ottawa, located on the present parish cemetery property along Highway Z.

Because of the itinerancy of the early parish, photos and documents resided in various homes and hands, and Fr. John Schreiter, former pastor of St. Bruno, became concerned that much of the parish’s history would be lost when people moved or passed away. After reading an announcement for a parish archivist in a 1997 bulletin, Hendrick volunteered.

“I remember I was so excited, and perhaps a bit worried that somebody else would ask for the job before I could, that I drove home rather fast and called Fr. John immediately, she confessed. “I knew I would be good at a job like this, but I found out later that nobody else wanted the job, so all the hurrying was for nothing.”

Since beginning the project, she has compiled a written history of the parish, created four history books filled with pictures, stories, newspaper and bulletin articles, parish church and cemetery land grants, marriage certificates and a history of the Ottawa and Dousman area. 
One of Hendrick’s ongoing concerns is educating others about important documents so they are not discarded.

“Important items and information has been thrown out by well-meaning people in the parish because they did not know that these items are important,” she said, adding, “But information and pictures still turn up in drawers and boxes at church, and in parishioners’ attics and basements. A couple of years ago, a Fr. Kevin called me to see if he could talk to me about his own personal family history he was working on. He came to see me along with his sister, who actually was a (religious) sister and we shared information. He asked a lot of questions, which I was able to answer for him, but then he mentioned that he had a marriage certificate for one of his ancestors from a St. Bruno Congregation in ‘Altrua, Wisconsin.’ I asked him if I could see it, and much to my amazement, I showed him that it did not say Altrua, but actually said ‘Ottawa.’ So now, we have in our archives a copy of this certificate signed by Fr. Franz Spath and dated Oct. 26, 1868.”

With assistance from current pastor, Fr. Ralph Gross, Hendrick has pieced together additional information going back to Fr. Alphonse H. Foltz, the parish’s first parishioner to be ordained to the priesthood.

“The certificates ranged from his baptismal through testimonial and letter of his first assignments,” said Hendrick. “Some of these certificates date back to the 1920s. Fr. Ralph found these certificates in a drawer at church.”

Name: Debra Hendrick
Age: 50
Parish: St Bruno, Dousman
Occupation: Owner, operator: Debbie’s Day Care and Preschool
Book recently read: “The Ponds of the Scuppernong,” by Robert Duerwachter
Favorite movie: “Brigadoon”
Favorite quotation: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” 

­(Submitted photo courtesy Debbie Hendrick)

The research is ongoing and often the information is a surprising treasure trove of stories for the 50-year-old wife to Kurt, mother of three and grandmother to six children.

“One of the biggest things I learned, and what many people did not know prior to my research, is that St. Bruno Congregation first became a parish in 1865 with Fr. Lawrence Schreiner, the first pastor,” said Hendricks. “St. Bruno then became a mission of St. Mary in Sullivan in 1871, and remained a mission until 1957.”

Her decision to document parish history is a reflection of the love she has for her parish.

“I also serve as the Saturday evening Mass sacristan and coordinator and am a former religious education teacher,” she said, adding, “In the 1980s, I taught guitar and music at the school and created a children’s choir that sang for Mass and special occasions.”

When her family joined the parish in 1965, Hendrick became a member of the parish and attended the grade school all eight years. Her daughters also attended the school and two grandchildren are enrolled for the fall.

While her husband is employed as the maintenance supervisor for St. Bruno, Hendrick has run Debbie’s Day Care and Preschool in Dousman since they were married 27 years ago. Working more than 12 hours per day, it leaves her only evenings and weekends for research.

“I just really enjoy what I do,” she said, displaying a bit of occupational wit.  “In fact, in the archives I have recorded, ‘In 1965, Debbie Hendrick’s family joined the parish, and Debbie was enrolled in the first grade at St. Bruno’s School.’ So far, nobody has caught this bit of archivist humor.”

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