HISTORY OF HOLY REDEEMER
In 1846, Madison was incorporated as a village. As immigrants from Ireland and Germany began to arrive, the need for a Catholic church was felt. In 1848, the year of statehood for Wisconsin, several lots were acquired and a primitive frame church was erected on what would be the site of St. Raphael Church for many years to come.
The year 1856 saw Madison incorporated as a city with a population of nearly two thousand. The early membership of St. Raphael Parish was two-thirds Irish, with the remainder being mostly German and Austrian. As their numbers grew, German-speaking Catholics increasingly desired their own parish, where sermons, devotions and confession could be offered in their native language.
German-speaking members of the parish took the initiative to begin construction of a school for their children on the St. Raphael property – much to the consternation of the Irish parishioners, who went to court to get an injunction to stop the work.
On September 8, 1856, Bishop John Martin Henni came from Milwaukee to settle the dispute. He directed that the Germans should choose two new lots in the city for their own church and school, and that St. Raphael Parish should pay for these.
The present site of Holy Redeemer Church was chosen, and George Esser became the contractor. A church of red brick was built for $1000, with Mr. Esser and his men contributing their labor. On July 12, 1857, the church was dedicated with the title Holy Redeemer, and the first Mass offered by Fr. Michael Haider, founding pastor.
Fr. Haider was also the first teacher in the fledgling parish school, which was conducted in the church. A curtain was drawn between the altar and the pupils, who sat on the kneelers and used the pews as their desks. There were about 90 pupils. In 1858, a separate building for the school was constructed. A first rectory was also built during Fr. Haider's tenure, at the cost of $800. He served the parish for only five years before being transferred to a larger congregation in Sheboygan.
In 1865, the growing congregation decided to build a new and larger church. This is the current Holy Redeemer Church, which was completed in 1869 at a cost of $28,000. The church was designed by architect John Nader and built by James Livesey (who also built Bascom Hall and Grace Episcopal Church). A steeple was soon added; damaged in a storm in 1873, it was entirely rebuilt in 1880 in conjunction with the renovation of the church. A new rectory (the current one) was built in 1885.
Responsibility for conducting the parish school passed from the parish priest to a layman named Michael Zeimet in the early 1860's. In 1864, the School Sisters of Notre Dame arrived to teach. They staffed the parish school until it closed in 1965. Once the new church was completed in 1869, school was conducted in its ground floor. In 1892, a large new school was constructed just west of the church. As part of the same project, a new sanctuary was added to the church to increase its capacity.
In 1894, a new convent for the School Sisters of Notre Dame was constructed behind the church on Gorham Street. This building, now known as St. Paul House, is thus the newest of the four extant parish buildings! In 1895, three bells were installed in the church steeple.
In 1905, St. James was founded as the second parish to serve the German-speaking Catholics of Madison. Those who know Holy Redeemer well will notice familiar details in the style and decoration of the interior of this daughter parish.
By 1905 however, most of the German Catholics in Madison had been here for at least a few decades. In that year another milestone in the life of the parish was reached: the first English sermon at Holy Redeemer. It is said that Fr. Alois Zitterl (who had served the parish faithfully since 1877 and would continue to do so until 1911) wept on that occasion, seeing that the days of the old language were numbered.
Holy Redeemer continued to thrive as a parish well into the twentieth century. The neighborhood south of West Washington Avenue was heavily populated by Catholics of German ancestry. A limited number of new German immigrants arrived in Madison between the World Wars and made their home at the parish.
One beloved pastor of that era was Fr. Joseph Lederer, who served Holy Redeemer during the depths of the Great Depression, 1930-35. A kind and fatherly man who could always be counted upon to help those in need, he was affectionately known to many as "Daddy" Lederer. He was succeeded by a pastor second only to Fr. Zitterl in the length of his service, Msgr. Joseph Gabriels (1935-1966). Msgr. Gabriels was a man of strong faith. He was devoted to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and credited the weekly devotions in her honor for the fact that not one young man from Holy Redeemer lost his life fighting in World War II.
By the end of Msgr. Gabriels' tenure, the fading ethnic identity and changing demographics of Madison had caught up with Holy Redeemer. Holy Redeemer was the first Catholic school in the Diocese of Madison to close – it did so in 1965 on account of the few children living in the neighborhood of the parish. The school building was rented by the Diocese of Madison as the location for the diocesan offices for Catholic Schools and Religious Education. The old convent, rechristened St. Paul House, became the home of the priests staffing these offices and those assigned to St. Paul University Catholic Center.
The declining fortunes of the parish did bring one blessing – at least in part because the days of the parish were thought to be numbered, nothing was done to modernize the interior of the church during the 1960's. After the Second Vatican Council, the altar was cut away from the reredos and moved forward so that Mass could be celebrated facing the people. But otherwise the decoration of the church remained in tact. In this regard, Holy Redeemer is unique among the historic Catholic churches of Madison.
During the pastorate of Fr. Bruce Hennington (1984-1994), Holy Redeemer broadened its mission in two important ways.
There began an effort to welcome University students who lived in the neighborhood of the parish to be a part of its life. This was a particularly important initiative at the time, since it was an era of some confusion at St. Paul University Catholic Center (the parish intended to serve that population). In the context of this mission, Holy Redeemer has become a place where vocations to the priesthood are fostered, and has seen a number of new "priest-sons" ordained from its student population.
The other great change in parish life was the coming of a Spanish-speaking population. The Centro Guadalupano on the south side of Madison had been entrusted with a mission to Spanish-speaking Catholics. As that populaton grew in the 1980's and beyond, the very small chapel at Centro Guadalupano became inadequate for the congregation. In 1989, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe was celebrated at Holy Redeemer for the first time. On September 6, 1992, Mass began to be celebrated in Spanish weekly at Holy Redeemer. Initially, Holy Redeemer was only the borrowed site for the Mass, but by the end of the 1990's, the Diocese recognized Spanish-speaking Catholics as proper members of Holy Redeemer Parish. The consolidation of diocesan offices in the mid-1990's freed the old parish school for religious education classes for Hispanic children and sacramental preparation for adults.
In 2003, as the number of priests available to staff diocesan parishes declined, Holy Redeemer Parish was linked to St. Raphael Cathedral under the care of Msgr. Paul Swain. After St. Raphael was destroyed by arson in 2005, St. Patrick Parish was also added to the linkage.
Fr. (now Msgr.) Kevin Holmes, who had previously served as pastor of Holy Redeemer from 1994 until 1998, returned as pastor of the three linked parishes on the isthmus in the fall of 2006, after Msgr. Swain was named bishop of Sioux Falls, SD. In 2007, Fr. José Luis Vazquez was assigned as full-time parochial vicar to serve the very large Spanish-speaking population of the parish.
In October 2007, Bishop Morlino announced that Holy Redeemer Parish would be merged with the other two historic isthmus parishes to form a new Cathedral Parish community. This merger took place on July 1, 2008. The principal home of the newly merged parish will eventually be a new cathedral to be constructed on the West Main Street site of old St. Raphael. Pending the completion of this project, the Cathedral Parish utilizes Holy Redeemer Church fully, and uses its rectory as the residence for the parish priests.