Fundraising support is warranted for work on the historic building that is the most dominant landmark in Ozaukee County
St. Mary’s Church, the soaring Gothic edifice on the hill in the heart of Port Washington, will soon get a new owner. In a legal sense, that is. By other measures, the church will remain in the possession of those who have “owned” it for more than a century, the people of Port Washington and the surrounding communities, regardless of their religious affiliation. More than a place of worship, it is the dominant landmark in Ozaukee County and perhaps the only manmade object in this area that truly inspires awe.
The official owner of the church will be the new Catholic parish to be created by the amalgamation of the two current Port Washington parishes and the Saukville parish. The move, which would have been considered radical a few years ago but is now common among Catholic communities, is necessitated by the inability of the church, constrained by gender and celibacy restrictions, to provide enough priests to serve all of its parishes.
One of the first challenges the new parish will face is the deferred maintenance of its marquee property; the church on the hill needs a new roof, and it’s likely to cost north of half a million dollars.
The parish doesn’t have that kind of money, so it will take a fundraising campaign to do what needs to be done to preserve the structural integrity of the building. That effort deserves broad support, for St. Mary’s Church represents a remarkable chapter in the county’s history.
The church has been listed on the National Register of Historic places since 1977. It deserves that distinction for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that a single small-town congregation found the courage and, somehow, the financial wherewithal to build what at the time might have been the most costly construction project ever attempted in the county. The fact that 134 years later the new three-parish organization is hard-pressed to find the funds to replace the roof puts that in telling context.
In 1882, the community contributed more than the funds needed to construct the building. It contributed manpower as well. Many local families can tell stories of ancestor-farmers who volunteered their wagons and horse teams to haul cut stone to the building site.
The church was built by professionals, of course, masons and carpenters mainly from Milwaukee, following plans drawn by Henry Messmer, a noted Milwaukee architect who was born in Switzerland.
The scale of the building was audacious, with a steeple that made the church the equivalent of 16 stories high. Viewed from Franklin Street beneath St. Mary’s Hill, the church was in effect a skyscraper.
There are older, larger and more elaborate churches in the world that were built before the invention of mechanized construction equipment, but still it is humbling to contemplate what those 19th-century workers accomplished on a hill in Port Washington without engine-driven cranes and electric elevators, raising and placing hundreds of tons of stone in walls reaching more than 100 feet from the ground.
What the church represents as a feat of human enterprise is part of its 21st-century appeal. Catholics have a special affinity for the church, but people of all religions, as well as those of no religious belief, can admire the building as a work of man that celebrates the faith of a community and the gift of nature that is the great hill overlooking Lake Michigan.
Now it’s time for some more human enterprise. A new roof made of steel could be installed for about $300,000. A roof made of slate like the one that has lasted more than a century would cost about $525,000. It would be, pardon the expression, a sin not to do it right and give this majestic structure the roof it was meant to have—a roof made of slate.