Old Saint Joseph Church, located on the Saint Norbert College campus in De Pere, Wisconsin, shares a long history with my dad’s French-Canadian side of my family. Rev. Charles Albanel, a French Jesuit, erected the first church in 1676 where it stood for over 200 years. In 1870 Green Bay Bishop Joseph Melcher established a parish at the site for the French-Canadian settlers who worked in the lumber mills along the Fox River. My great-great grandparents Louis and Pheilomen Colburn were among the first parishioners. The community was known as French Town and Saint Joseph’s Church as French Church. In recent weeks, this tranquil place of worship has served as my sanctuary.
Ron had surgery in July for a torn rotator cuff. All seemed to be going as planned until we noticed an abscess on his shoulder where stiches had been removed. We arrived at my sister’s and brother-in-law’s house in Green Bay on August 11 and immediately went to the emergency room. That night we learned Ron had an infection and over the next month he would endure painful procedures and a second surgery. Overnight our medical vocabulary and their significance grew exponentially: joint aspiration, synovial fluid analysis, debridement irrigation, arthroscopy of the intraarticular joint, debridement of the anterior portal, P. acne infection, intravenous antibiotic treatment, PICC line, occupational therapy.
Ron’s mental and emotional health deteriorated at a rate that matched the excruciating pain he was in. My sister Kelli and her husband Carl were gracious and took us in. The unknown plagued all of us. When was this going to end? Some nights, I made childish deals with God: If you let Ron live through this, I promise to….
Kelli often got me out of the house and out of my head by playing tour guide. The city of Green Bay is situated along a labyrinth of waterways including the Fox and East rivers that spill into the bay. Bridges connecting the east and west side make driving a challenge for people new to the city.
The drive along the Fox River is magical. In the 1870’s steamboats were replaced by railroads. Iron smelting, lumber milling, and paper production soared in Green Bay. Business tycoons built lavish Victorian, Tudor, American Craftsman, and Greek Revival homes on the banks of the Fox River that are still beautifully maintained today. As a little girl, I dreamed of roaming the halls of these gorgeous estates. And to be honest, I still do.
On our drives, weary and overwhelmed, I often asked Kelli to stop at Old Saint Joseph to steal a few moments in prayer. Each time I go, I sit across from the stained-glass window of Saint Patrick to remind me that my mother’s Irish side of the family is from this land, too. I am grateful for the strength and grit my mom’s clan has instilled in me.
In 1889 the original church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. After a donation campaign, Old Saint Joseph Church was constructed in 1890 and today serves as the first college parish in the United States. In 1898 Rev. Bernard Pennings, O. Praem, a Norbertine priest, arrived in De Pere and purchased the church from the Diocese of Green Bay. Abbot Pennings is credited with starting Saint Norbert College. My great-great grandfather Louis and Pennings were friends. Before Louis passed, the family home and land were donated to Saint Norbert College.
In 1870 Pope Pius IX named St. Joseph the patron saint of the Catholic Church. The National Shrine of Saint Joseph is housed in a chapel at Old Saint Joseph Church. 2020 is being celebrated as the year of Saint Joseph, and the shrine is designated the national pilgrimage site. People come and go to the shrine while I pray, and it is not lost on me that Saint Joseph watches over travelers.
Life’s journeys rarely begin at a starting gate or with a map. They are realized later when we have time and space to breathe and reflect. Old Saint Joseph remains my anchor through this storm. While praying the Rosary, my heart rate slows to focus on gratitude for all the blessings this journey has given me.
I spent time my daughter and met the lovely couple who adopted her. I also met my precious grandchildren for the first time. I have connected with my sister and come to appreciate her as a friend. My cousin Tracy stops by each week with a beautiful dinner for all of us. Carl, my nephews and their girlfriends make Ron and I laugh, reminding us there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Our pets are being loved and cared for by my mom back in Arizona. Ron’s family checks in often for updates and are a great source of encouragement. Old Saint Joseph Church and the land surrounding it are infused with the lives and blood of my family. This connectedness resides in my bones. My prayers are interrupted by big love, a gift the Blessed Virgin Mary has bestowed upon me. She gave of her only son so that I may experience the tremendous joy of family in my heart.
Ron finally got some good news last week. The infection is responding to the antibiotics. He still goes to the hospital each day for intravenous treatments, but we have an end date. He will meet with his doctors on October 1, and we have made plans to return to New Mexico on October 3. His range of motion in his shoulder is getting better each day, and he started driving again, which has given him some independence; something we both need.
It is the first day of autumn and the leaves are changing color. The seasonal shift is felt in the crisp morning air. Chatty dances of Sandhill Cranes fly low overhead while we hike the thick woods outside of town. They are making their way south for the winter, reminding me our time here is coming to an end. Preparing to return to the ranch in New Mexico feels more like planning a vacation than a trip home. I will miss my family and friends and the solitude of Old Saint Joseph Church. Part of any journey is recognizing when it is over and how best to say goodbye.
Prayer to Saint Joseph following the Rosary, especially during the month of October, which is dedicated to the Rosary:
To you, O blessed Joseph,
do we come in our tribulation,
and having implored the help of your most holy Spouse,
we confidently invoke your patronage also.
Through that charity which bound you
to the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God
and through the paternal love
with which you embraced the Child Jesus,
we humbly beg you graciously to regard the inheritance
which Jesus Christ has purchased by his Blood,
and with your power and strength to aid us in our necessities.
O most watchful guardian of the Holy Family,
defend the chosen children of Jesus Christ;
O most loving father, ward off from us
every contagion of error and corrupting influence;
O our most mighty protector, be kind to us
and from heaven assist us in our struggle
with the power of darkness.
As once you rescued the Child Jesus from deadly peril,
so now protect God’s Holy Church
from the snares of the enemy and from all adversity;
shield, too, each one of us by your constant protection,
so that, supported by your example and your aid,
we may be able to live piously, to die in holiness,
and to obtain eternal happiness in heaven.