Parish History


Many of the early settlers were Irish and German. If you were Irish you were Catholic.

If you were German you were Catholic or Lutheran. After your cabin had been built and you were somewhat settled on the land you began to worry about your faith on this frontier.

There was a huge enclave of Irish in the eastern Town of Lisbon section and an equally big concentration of Irish in the Western Town of Menomonee township. Homesteaders of 1836 and onward were  somewhat clannish. The Irish congregated along what is now known as Town Line Road.

Why were the Irish here in the Town of Menomonee and Lisbon? It was because of the potato. It was an important food source of the Irish. In old Ireland, a potato blight attacked the crop in the 1840’s, with a crescendo in 1845 to 1847, but  even prior to the disaster, the Irish had been leaving the British harshly controlled green isle in droves for a better life in the New World, where homesteaders could acquire land for $1.25 per acre.

Some of the families that were among the first parishioners were: Walsh, Mahoney, Boyle, Salmon, Guilfoyle, Pendergast, Ward, Keating, Clancy, Quirk, Sullivan, Gill, O’Neal, Flanagan, Lannon, Nellis, MaCarty, Cawley, Collins, DeLany, Murphy, McLaughlin, and Brogan.

Irishman Tom Gill, settled here in 1847 with his bride, Catherine. Four generations of Gillmen, of which Tom was second, married a woman named Catherine.

Priests were few and far between and came from the Diocese of Detroit. One missionary priest was Martin Kundig. He was called the “stuffed saddle bag” priest. He gets a lot of ink for his missionary work in South East Wisconsin but there was a pioneer priest before Kundig who gets very little credit.

His name was Father Thomas Morrissey. Morrissey spoke Gaelic and English and served this area going back as far as 1838. Records indicate that in the early 1840’s he stopped in this area several times. Mass would be said, confessions would be heard, marriages would be blessed and babies would be baptized and after a few days here he would go off to his next mission.

Records indicate that Father Morrissey attended the Catholic people in Racine, Lake Geneva, Brighton, Watertown, Whitewater, Cedarburg, East Troy, Lannon, Marcy, Monches, Mapleton and Fond du Lac. His Parish, if you could call it that, covered almost the entire present Archdiocese of Milwaukee  The records indicate that he may have lived for an extended time in Monches. The remarkable thing about Father Morrissey is that he did all this missionary work from the saddle of a horse when he was about 65 or 70 years old. He died in 1850 and was buried in Burlington. There was ethnic rivalry, real or imagined, over the founder of St. James: Fr. Martin Kundig of German-Swiss birth or Fr. James Marrissey of Irish birth. One must remember that it was common to build Catholic Churches back in the mid 1800’s for an ethnic group and since Morrissey represented the biggest ethnic group around St. James, he has become the favorite originator. The Missionary priest who gets all the credit is Father Martin Kundig. Kundig grew up in Switzerland and came over to Cincinnatti. He spoke German and English. He transferred to the Diocese of Detroit and came to Milwaukee in 1842.

He quickly realized that the Irish Catholic settlers were receiving the sacraments but the German Catholics had no priest that spoke their language. He covered the same mission territory that Father Morrissey covered but started urging the people to build log chapels in their communities.

Kundig realized that the Catholics in South Eastern Wisconsin were too far removed from the Bishop of Detroit. Wisconsin needed its own Bishop and he set out to do something about it. In early 1843 — 17 log chapels had been built and 12 more were being built in south Eastern WI (including the log chapel of St. James). If Wisconsin ever got a Bishop, the Bishop would live either in Prairie du Chien or Green Bay (at one time Milwaukee was part of Brown County) or Milwaukee. He knew that the Bishops of the United States were meeting in Baltimore and so he dreamed up a PR scheme to convince the Bishops to make Milwaukee a Diocese and not Green Bay or Prairie du Chien.

He decided to have a St. Patrick’s day parade (keep in mind he was German, but all the Bishops meeting in Baltimore were Irish). He got all the churches to send delegates to Milwaukee for big St. Patrick’s Day parade. 3000 Catholics showed up for the parade with the local banners from their log cabin churches.. St. James community went together with St.Dominics to Milwaukee for the parade.

The parade was held and Kundig saw to it that the newspapers wrote a big article about the St. Patrick’s Day parade. He then made copies of the newspaper article and sent a copy to each Bishop in Baltimore. The poor Bishops meeting in Baltimore read about all these Catholics in Milwaukee and made Milwaukee the Diocese. Father Henni from Cincinnati was named the first Bishop of Milwaukee on  November 28, 1843, all because of a parade.

In 1847, Father James Colton (ordained September 1847 in Milwaukee) was appointed as resident pastor. Young and vigorous, he immediately planned the erection of a church. He and his parishioners quarried stone from a field nearby and brought it to the church site.

Church precedent in those days said that the church be named after the saint’s name of its first resident pastor. No doubt that is the origin of our St. James Church, named in honor of Reverend James Colton.

St. James was dedicated in 1848, the same year Wisconsin became the 30th state.



The early settlers of this area came from England, Ireland and Germany. In Europe the farmers always lived in villages and walked out to their farms each day to toil. The end of the day would see their returning to the village. The village supplied the necessary needs of the farmer. The mill was in the village, the blacksmith shop was handy. The village fulfilled the social needs of the families. All this would change in the New World. The isolation and independence had certain drawbacks. Travel to Milwaukee took four hours. Not very convenient if you needed five pounds of sugar. The story is told of an early settler out here who broke his ax head  and had to travel to Chicago for a new one. As land was cleared more and more acres of crops were harvested. Before long the farmer had more crops than he could use.

Small villages began to appear. The farmer needed a flour mill for his excess crops. Saw mills began to emerge. Both mills needed running water to operate. If water supplies were not stable, villages came and went fast. The saw mill provided the much needed lumber. There was a need for a lime kiln for building purposes and people greeted with open arms the man who said he was a blacksmith and wanted to settle down. Isolation was a problem.