Project Canterbury

History of the Diocese of Fond du Lac and Its Several Congregations

By A. Parker Curtiss

Fond du Lac: P.B. Haber Printing Co., 1925.

Chapter III. The Old Catholics

In Green Bay there was a Belgian Presbyterian church, and in the early eighties its minister was a certain Rene Villatte, who had formerly been a Roman Catholic Religious. He did not feel at home in that church, for he was still a Catholic at heart. He was led in some way to approach Bishop Brown, and in case he was received into the Episcopal Church, he proposed to try to win back to the Faith, the Belgians, who had begun to drift in Door County. Mr. Villatte was sent to Nashotah and began his preparation for ordination. No better account of what resulted from these events, can be had than the Bishop's own account given in his Council address of 1886:

"The Rev. Joseph Rene Villatte, at the request of the Bishop of Fond du Lac, was ordained deacon and priest at Berne, Switzerland, by the Old Catholic Bishop, Herzog. In asking Bishop Herzog to ordain an Old Catholic Priest for Missionary work in this diocese, I was guided somewhat by the advice of several of the Bishops, and by the unanimous opinion of the faculty of Nashotah House. The spiritual condition of the Belgian immigrants to this state, so far as I could understand it, seemed to me dangerous and deplorable. I doubted much the possibility of making them understand quickly and thoroughly the Catholicity of the American Branch of the great Anglican Communion, or of winning their prompt adhesion to a ritual so strange to them as our own. It was my design to further the establishment of any old Catholic mission to French and German settlers in this diocese thinking that it would be sufficient for a while to render Episcopal offices to such of them as should accept the Old Catholic ministrations, on the general ground of our intercommunion with the Old Catholic Bishops, strikingly illustrated by the warm reception accorded to Bishop Herzog at the meeting of the General Convention at New York in 1880, and the reception at Old Catholic Councils of the Bishops of Maryland and Lincoln. But Bishop Herzog was not to be outdone in Catholic courtesy. I was astonished when Reverend Mr. Villatte [18/19] returned, to find that Bishop Herzog at his ordinaiton had pledged him to canonical obedience to the Bishop of Fond du Lac, and had sent him to me, not as a missionary responsible to him at Berne, but as a priest under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of this diocese. Hence I have inserted the name of the Rev. M. Villatte on the Clerical list of the diocese, and make this public statement of the peculiar circumstances of the case."

The Belgian population of Door County had to a great extent become disaffected with the Roman Church. The latter had practically abandoned the neighborhood generally known as Little Sturgeon. Mass was said once in three months. The people were drifting from religion.

The newly ordained priest went to the tiny settlement of Little Sturgeon, and secured a log house about three miles south, fronting on the Bay. This he divided into two parts. In one he lived, and in one he arranged a chapel. This he called the Mission de la Bon Pasteur. Here in the midst of indifference on the part of most and the bitter opposition of some still attached to the Roman Church, he began a work of hard labour, and bitter self sacrifice. Fr. Villatte was a tall, handsome man, of a winning personality, with an abundant sense of humor. He soon made friends, and progress marked his labors. In October, 1885, Bishop Brown visited him there, and was driven to a site chosen by Fr. Villatte, in the town of Gardner, some miles below his temporary chapel. The bishop approved of the site, and authorized the purchase of 40 acres of land from the Decker estate, and there subsequently the permanent church of the Mission was built under the title, of The Precious Blood. This name was chosen to emphasize the fact of communion in both kinds. A house was built at the same time, and a mission began at once at a point some fifteen miles south at a place variously called Dykesville, Riviere Rouge and Duvall. The first name was from the fact that Dykesville was the nearest village, Red River was so called from the fact that an Indian battle with white settlers had stained the brook red, and Duvall was settled on later as the name of the village that grew up about the Church, which when built was called St. Mary's.

Had men and money been available, many other Missions might have been founded. The Belgians generally wished to place themselves under Fr. Villatte, and the Bishop of Fond du Lac. But clergy, familiar with the French language were not available, except in the persons of men who had left the Roman Church. These usually were undesirable, and hindered rather than helped the work.

One exception was the Rev. Ernest De Beaumont, who came to help in the foundation of the College and Seminary [19/20] which was to provide education generally, and train young men for the priesthood. Land was given by the town of Sturgeon Bay, on a high point overlooking the city and Bay, and a start was made. In the appeal sent out and approved by Bishop Brown, the name of Father Arthur Ritchie of New York appears as the first subscriber, pledging himself to give $60 a year to the school.

This project never was carried out. Failing the building of the College the land returned to the givers. With the building of the church at Duvall, the necessity of another priest became imperative. The ex-Roman priest who at first took charge of the parish at Gardner was unsatisfactory, and left. In the summer of 1889, a friend of Fr. Villatte's, Mr. Jean Batiste Gauthier, a teacher in a Roman parochial school came to visit him. He became interested in the work, and repeated his visit in 1890. During the visitation of the Bishop (Graf-ton) he decided to throw in his lot with the work, and be ordained priest. The urgent necessity of a priest, and the two years wait at the least required by our canons led Bishop Grafton, after having tried to secure ordination from a Canadian Bishop, to send Mr. Gauthier to Berne, to be ordained by Bishop Herzog. This was done the same year, and Fr. Gauthier took charge of the Church at Gardner, in the fall of 1890.

Success and visions of a mitre stirred up the ambitious spirit of Fr. Villatte, and he sought first to be made a Bishop Suffragan to Bishop Grafton, and then sought consecration from various other sources.

There is no room in this brief history, for an account of the controversy that arose out of this unfortunate desire on the part of Fr. Villatte.

But in Bishop Graf ton's judgment, the time had not come for a separate jurisdiction for the work. There were but two congregations, and Fr. Villatte had proved to have along with notable gifts a want of settled policy, and lack of administrative ability. He could accomplish much in the way of winning people to him, and his work, but he could not consolidate his results. While at Duvall he started another mission a few miles distant, but the church was never paid for, and the congregation was later dispersed, and the mission came to an end.

After some time, a breach between the Bishop and the mission at Duvall was brought about, and an Orthodox Bishop took it under his jurisdiction. This arrangement came to an end, and finally Fr. Villatte was consecrated in Colombo by a Jacobite bishop, in July, 1892. This consecration was pronounced invalid by the General Convention, on the ground that it had been obtained by fraud. Certain representations made by Villatte to the authorities in Colombo were not borne [20/21] out by facts as to the Old Catholic missions. Any priests ordained by him, were reordained before they were accepted by the Episcopal Church, if they applied to it for work. Two, at least of his priests are now working in our Church, after re-ordination. There may be others.

It is not necessary to follow the fortunes of the founder of the Old Catholic missons in the Diocese, but it is enough to say, that the congregation at Gardner always remained faithful to the Church, and after some years, the one at Duvall returned to us, and is still under our care. Another mission was founded in Green Bay, and is now the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, and is flourishing under the charge of one of our clergy. The Book of Common Prayer has displaced the Old Catholic liturgy in all three of these missions, and they are now in entire union with the diocese. The missions in Gardner and Duvall are in an entirely rural district. The church at Gardner stands alone on a country road. Death, removal and other causes have operated to make the congregations small, and they can no longer support resident clergy. Services are maintained in them, especially at Duvall, and the little graveyards are well filled with the graves of men and women whose spiritual lives have been nourished by the ministrations of those who have been attached to the churches.

The story of these missions is a sad one of what might have been.

If Fr. Villatte had been more patient and faithful, he might indeed have been a bishop there, beloved and revered by those who were so strongly drawn to him in the beginning. He had a wonderful personality, but no staying powers.

But had the Church seriously taken up the problems of these foreign born people who looked to her, she might have carved out a stronghold in that region which would have endured. Many of those Belgian farmers are now wealthy and influential men. Their children are Americans, educated and successful.

There is one lesson which she ought to have learned. No work among the foreign born can be successfully carried on by the employment of lapsed Roman Catholic priests. It can be done by us, if we try to carry it on as we have work among the Indians. There must be parish schools, and the employment of interpreters in the teaching, as in sermons. This has never been done, at least not in our part of the world. In the case of Roman congregations coming to us, and some have so done, the Latin mass, with the sermon interpreted, and diligent teaching of the young, would solve the problem to a large extent. It would not then be necessary to seek for some priest who speaks French, German or Polish, etc., and so employ a lapsed Roman priest. Too often they have lapsed for good reasons connected with morals.

[22] It is not right to leave the subject of these missions, so dear to the heart of both Bishop Brown and Bishop Grafton, without mentioning Fr. Gauthier. Except for two short absences in Canada, where he ministered to Church of England parishes, Fr. Gauthier spent all his fruitful ministry in the three missions of Gardner, Duvall and Blessed Sacrament, Green Bay. Ordained in 1890, he died in the summer of 1922. He was well beloved by every one who knew him. His simplicity, generosity, cheerfulness and sincere Christian character was a beautiful thing to meet with. His name is a household word in hundreds of Belgian homes. It will smell sweet for many years to come. To many he was a tower of strength through his unfailing sympathy and strong Catholic faith. When he was taken from his people and friends, they felt a loss that can never be made up in this life.

In almost every Council address, Bishop Brown refers to the lack of men and money. In one, he says that clergy and interested laymen were needed more than money. But he appeals for the proper support of the clergy. Once he says that there is not a single parish in the diocese that is in easy circumstances. The gains in spiritual growth, and material prosperity are meager. He was carrying a tremendous burden. It did not become less as time went on. The hard times of 1892 were approaching. The Missions that he opened could not be manned. Clergy could barely be supported on the small salaries that were given. The laity had not begun, as they have now, to feel the responsibility of furthering the work of the Church with money. Too much was expected then as now of the clergy. They were too often expected to make bricks without straw. But with faith and hope the Bishop went on. There is no trace of fretfulness in the appeals he makes. But he was deeply wounded by the attitude of some of those to whose spiritual benefit he had made the sacrifice of his life. One senses the bleeding of an inward wound. But he never spared himself. Year after year we find him confirming in other dioceses.

But at last his strength proved unequal to the tireless energy of his spirit. The reading of his Journal is the record of a courage almost incredible. To begin with April 1, 1888 we find him engaged in taxing duties every day. That day was Easter Day. At nine he baptized a child. Celebrated the Holy Eucharist at 10:30 addressed the congregation in reference to the building fund. At three he officiated at the Knights Templar service and preached, and at night addressed the children of the Cathedral. Easter Monday he presided at the annual meeting of the Cathedral congregation. On the 3d, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th, he preached and confirmed, mostly in the Diocese of Milwaukee. On the 9th, his only record is "Very ill." On the 10th he returned home, but left the same day for Ashland, the most distant point in his diocese, in the evening. From the [22/23] 11th to the 22nd, he was preaching and confirming, mostly out of the diocese, and records himself as being very ill at Janesville, and on that day, although he abandons all appointments, he preaches and confirms. On the 22nd, though too ill to vest, he confirmed one person, and left for home. When he arrived, he was placed in his bed from which he never rose. Ten days later, on Wednesday, May 2, 1888, he died at one o'clock, a. m. Truly our first Bishop died in the harness. But it could hardly have been otherwise. "The zeal of Thine House hath eaten me up." He died a true Apostle, and a martyr. He founded the diocese as it were in his blood. Those of us who knew him, and his ideals will never yield up what was bought at so dear a price. The writer of this, a young layman, just admitted as a Lay Reader and Postulant for Holy Orders by the Bishop well remembers the day of his death. He was alone in the rectory at Plymouth, the rector, Father Gardner having gone to Fond du Lac in his anxiety about the Bishop. In response to a knock on the door, he opened it to Mr. J. W. Dow, weeping and hardly able to articulate, "The Bishop is dead!" He wished the bell tolled, and so all the parish which had been praying for their Bishop, knew he was gone.

His funeral was a memorable occasion. He lay in state in his robes in the Cathedral he had so loved, and the Office for the Dead was constantly said by relays of priests and laymen day and night until the burial. The Holy Sacrifice was offered for his soul many times, and at the funeral itself. His body was placed in a tomb beside what is now the Chapel of All Souls in the Cathedral garth, and a vast throng of his people wept, widowed of their beloved Father in God.

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