St. Victor School History
As of September 2009
In the brand new village of Monroe in 1858, there were few Catholics. Monroe had been first settled by New England Yankee’s many of whom were Universalist Unitarians.. The nearest parish, St. Matthew’s in Shullsburg, was more than 30 miles away, so going to Mass required an overnight trip in those days. Responding to the needs of the people, however, pioneer priests often traveled to serve clusters of Catholics. It was later in 1858 that Father John Conroy, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Janesville, made such a trip and celebrated the Eucharist in Con Dillon’s home for the first time in Monroe.
Rev. Richard Sullivan, a member of the first ordination class of St. Francis Seminary on December 16, 1859, was assigned to assist Fr. Conroy. One of Sullivan’s duties was to serve the Catholics in Monroe, providing pastoral care as early as January 1860. Very soon Father Sullivan became St. Victor’s first pastor. There have been 17 resident pastors since the organization of St. Victor’s in 1860.
At one time Monroe had two Catholic parishes. St. Mary’s Parish in Monroe was established in 1861 by a small group of German Catholics. It was very important to German pioneers that they were able to worship in their own language and provide Catholic education for their children. It is common to find two Catholic churches in relatively small towns in Wisconsin today for that reason. St. Mary’s was attended by Rev. John M. Obermueller, pastor of Holy Redeemer Parish in Madison, until he moved to Monroe for a brief time as their first resident pastor in 1867. Five years later, St. Mary’s had both a church and a school. With the struggle to maintain their parish, St. Mary’s closed their school in 1876 and eventually was completely closed as a parish with the death of their pastor, Fr. Sebastian Rohr in 1918.
On November 1, 1891, disaster struck in the form of a fire that destroyed St. Victor Church. Some of the parishioners thought it would be too difficult to build a new church due to the poor economy, especially considering the hard times many farmers were facing. The pastor, Rev. Henry O’Brien (1883-1892), persuaded them; however, that merging with St. Mary’s would be a poor idea, since that mission church and congregation was far too small to accommodate all the Catholics in Monroe. A building committee was formed, and construction of our present church was begun on September 25, 1892.
Father Thomas Dempsey (1892-1930) had been assigned to St. Victor’s on July 12, 1892, replacing Father O’Brien. The building of our church in 1892-93 is a remarkable story of a dream come true. A congregation of a 100 plus families built a church that could seat nearly 400 people.
In 1916 St. Victor School was founded. Though there had been a Catholic School at St. Mary’s for a short time no school had been considered for St. Victor parish. It was at a meeting of the congregation held at the church after the late mass on February 2, 1915, that St. Victor’s voted to erect a parish school. However, it appears that several who were opposed to the school were not present for this church meeting. They proposed to defeat the plan. First, a call was made on Father Dempsey who advised this group that they were free to consult Archbishop Sebastian Messmer, if they chose, to see if he could be discouraged in his plan to erect the school in Monroe. Several members did go to Milwaukee to discuss the situation with the archbishop. They found there could be no compromise. The archbishop was determined that this school should be erected. The protesters were sent home and told to assist Fr. Dempsey to found the school. Probably no major enterprise since the founding of St. Victor’s had caused as much division of opinion among the members as did the building of the school. Several could not see the advantage of erecting and maintaining this school when they were already paying toward the maintenance of the public schools. Others believed that only those children of school age should bear the expense. Still others believed a Catholic School would further the anti-Catholic sentiment still rampant in the community.
Work was commenced in the early spring of 1916 and the entire school and the Sisters’ apartment located in the school was completed in time for the opening of school in September. The total cost was $17,000. In the meantime, Father Dempsey had asked the Sisters of St. Dominic, with motherhouse in Racine, Wisconsin, to furnish the teachers for the school. The school has been taught by sisters from that order until the late 1970s.
The first school was dedicated on Sunday, September 10, 1916 by Archbishop Sebastian Messmer. This was followed by solemn high Mass with Father Michael K. Norton, native of Monroe and its first priest son to be ordained, and then pastor at St. Patrick’s Church, Waukon, Iowa, the celebrant. (In 1917 Fr. Norton would baptize an infant named Cletus Francis O’Donnell in Waukon. In 1967 Bishop O’Donnell became the second Bishop of Madison. In 1979 Bishop O’Donnell ordained the present pastor, Fr. Michael E. Klarer – 100 years from the date that Fr. Norton was ordained to the priesthood). The sermon was preached by Archbishop Sebastian Messmer.
The opening day of school found 65 students in attendance. This was a surprise since only 40 had been expected. Since the two schoolrooms upstairs were not yet finished, the whole school was conducted from the two rooms on the first floor. The first year there were classes from the first to the seventh grade. The eighth grade was not added until the following year. Hence the first class to graduate was in 1918. In 1923/24 the ninth grade or first year of high school was offered at the school. This was an experiment, which was not continued because of scarcity of teachers. It is interesting to note that whereas 65 students attended the opening of school in 1916, the enrollment in the past few years has continually exceeded 100 and in 1942 enrollment reached 121. By 1942 the largest class at St. Victor School was in 1937 with 18; the smallest class was in 1926 with 4. In the early 1960’s enrollment would top out at nearly 400 with eight grades of 45 or more students in each grade.
In 1955 Father McCollow faced was the need for a new school. The old school was inadequate for an ever growing student population. Classrooms had to be rented in the nearest public school for St. Victor Students. The local architect and parish member John Steinman of Monticello who had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to design this building at Fr. McCollow’s insistence over the initial objections of Bishop O’Connor who had his own architect in mind. His original drawing of the school hangs today in the front entrance of the school.
Kramer Brothers Construction Company of Plain, Wisconsin was the general contractor. School closed in the old St. Victor School in April of 1956. During the early spring the classroom section had already been started. During that summer, Sister Julianna Dischler, OP arrived to oversee the building project as the new principal. She was a native of Plain and this year of 2006 celebrated her 60th anniversary of religious profession. By the end of September of 1956 the new school year opened with a partially completed building. Students walked on planks in the unfinished hallways and the new gymnasium was not yet usable. Students and contractors mingled for weeks of the new school year. School was formally dedicated by the first bishop of Madison, William Patrick O’Connor on August 15, 1957.. The Racine Dominican sisters ended over 70 years of service at St. Victors in the early 1970’s. In 1967 seventh and eighth grades were closed and moved to the new Monroe Junior High School. Kindergarten was added in the 1970’s to promote recruitment into the school.
In 1999 6th grade moved to the new Monroe Middle School. After several principals of short tenure, the present principal Joseph Peters was hired as the principal in June of 2001. 4 year old kindergarten was added to the school in the 2005-06 school year. Enrollment began to rise from a low of 72 to 130 in September 2009. Expanded programs in Spanish, Art, and Music have been implemented.
In 2003 the school building underwent major renovations. New high efficiency Dederich boilers and blowers were added to the heating system saving tremendously the amount of energy dollars spent at the school. All 364 of the windows were replaced at the school and new high efficiency lighting was added. The entrance sidewalks of the school were expanded and improved with new signage being added to the school and the parish center in 2006.
The commitment to Catholic Education remains strong in Green County and St. Victor School is seen as a tremendous asset to the county as a whole providing alternative Catholic Education. The over 90 years of support of the school is a testimony to the faith of the people of this 150 years old congregation.