History of St. Patrick

Madison received its first resident Catholic pastor (at St. Raphael Parish) in 1848, the year of statehood.  Within ten years, Holy Redeemer Parish was founded for the German-speaking Catholics of the city.  By the late 1880’s the growth of Madison necessitated another parish for English-speaking Catholics living east of the Capitol.  In 1886, St. Raphael Congregation purchased two lots on East Main Street from Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Regan for the sum of $7000.  On May 24, 1888, a new parish named in honor of St. Patrick was incorporated and thereupon the lots (including a small house at the corner of Main and Hancock that would be used as a temporary rectory) were deeded to the new parish for the sum of one dollar.

One singular aspect of the history of St. Patrick Parish is that for the first ninety-six years of its existence, it was under the care of only three pastors.  Most of the parish’s history is thus easily summarized in the pastorates of these three men.

The longest serving of the pastors was Fr. Patrick Knox, born in Ireland, who led the parish from its founding in 1888 until 1932 – an astonishing forty-four years.  His previous assignment has been at Holy Mother of Consolation Parish in Oregon (Wisconsin), where he had built a church.  In his years at St. Patrick, he showed himself a builder indeed.

Fr. Knox set out immediately to raise a church, which was ready for dedication in less than one year – on St. Patrick’s Day, 1889. That church is essentially the current structure, except that the side walls originally continued straight down from the ceiling, not taking in the small sections of pews beyond the side aisles that are seen today.  This widening of the church was also a project of Fr. Knox, in 1903.

In 1901, the old house just west of the church was replaced by a large new rectory.

For almost the first twenty years of the parish’s life, her children continued to attend school at St. Raphael.  In 1907, the first St. Patrick School was constructed on property fronting East Washington Avenue – property that had been painstakingly acquired piecemeal for the project.  The school opened with 108 pupils in six grades, taught by the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa.  Seventh and eighth grade were soon added.  The teaching sisters commuted to the school from the Edgewood property until 1920, when a house adjoining the church was purchased for their use.

Fr. Knox’s interest in education was not confined to the establishment of a parochial school.  From the late 1890’s, he was a chief promoter of the Catholic Columbian Summer Sessions, which brought well-known speakers to Madison.  Fr. Knox had an Irishman’s love of language.  He joined the Library Committee of the State Historical Society, and was admitted to membership in the Madison Literary Club – the only priest to receive this distinction.

Another of Fr. Knox’s intellectual interests was Irish history.  He chaired the Irish History Committee of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.  From 1914, he included a course in Irish history in the curriculum of St. Patrick School, and he urged other pastors to do likewise.

Fr. Knox also possessed of a love of athletics.  He was a boxer and horseman, and took a keen interest in the football team of the University of Wisconsin.  He bicycled and enjoyed the out of doors, promoting picnics and outings as a part of parish life.  He had a reputation for playing matchmaker for the young Irish Catholics of the city.

Nor did Fr. Knox ignore the commercial life of his city, in which he involved himself in the hope of fostering a better material life for his people.  In his early days in Madison, he encouraged small businessmen and contributed to their first enterprises.  He was one of the pioneer directors of the State Bank of Wisconsin, a member of the board of the Guardian Life Insurance Company, and on the Board of Directors of the First National Bank.

Fr. Knox was a notable presence not only in the life of St. Patrick Parish, but in that of the City of Madison.  In January 1932, on his way home from the parish school, he stopped to speak with a child at the corner of Washington Avenue and Franklin Street. He fell on the ice and broke his hip.  He died at St. Mary’s Hospital on January 29, 1932.

The second pastor of St. Patrick was Fr. Albert Grace.  A native of Highland, Wisconsin and a classmate of the man who would become the first Bishop of Madison, Fr. Grace had the daunting task of succeeding a man who had been St. Patrick Parish for 44 years.

The pastorate of Fr.Grace covered the difficult years of the Great Depression and the Second World War.  The limitations of those days combined with the natural frugality of Fr. Grace meant that there would be few building projects during his tenure.  In the area of physical improvements, the twenty-five year pastorate of Fr. Grace saw only the replacement of a dilapidated rectory porch and the redecoration of the church.

Fr. Grace was known for his devotion to pastoral work.  For twenty-five years, he was not absent from the parish on a single Sunday.  He was a tireless catechist, and baptized more that 250 adult converts during his service at St. Patrick.  He never had a priest to assist him as curate, and was constantly available to his congregation.  He won the hearts of his people.  On the occasion of his twenty-fifth anniversary as pastor of St. Patrick, they presented him with a burse sufficient for himself and a companion to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, Fatima and Rome.  Two months after his return from the trip (which he appreciated immensely), Fr. Grace was found dead in the chair of his rectory office.

The third of the long-serving pastors of St. Patrick was Msgr. Francis Doherty.  The early years of his pastorate were occupied with the modernization of the parish facilities.  The speed of his work was impressive.  Fr. Doherty took over the parish on December 2, 1957.  In 1958, extensive work was done to modernize the church (including its heating and electrical systems), and a brand new Parish Center – including the residence for the priests – built on the site of the old rectory.  In the following year, 1959, a brand new school was built on East Washington Avenue.  And in 1960, a new convent was dedicated for the Dominican Sisters.

Beginning in 1958, associate pastors were assigned to St. Patrick for the first time in its history.  In 1967, Fr. Doherty’s accomplishments were recognized by the Holy See when he was named a Prelate of Honor with the title Monsignor.

Msgr. Doherty’s achievements were indeed impressive, but St. Patrick Parish could not escape the demographic trends that were changing life in the isthmus by the 1960’s.  In 1967, a new parish dedicated in honor of St. Peter was opened on the northeast side of Madison. This deprived St. Patrick of many of the newer neighborhoods and younger families that had been part of its life.

In 1977, St. Patrick School was closed and sold to the Salvation Army. The former convent was transformed into a center for Religious Education, and subsequently rented to the Diocese as a service center for Catholic Charities.

Msgr. Doherty retired in 1984, having served St. Patrick Parish for twenty-seven years.  He was succeeded by Bishop George Wirz, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Madison, who was the well-loved pastor of St. Patrick from 1984 until 1989.

Fr. Raymond Maier arrived to lead the parish in 1989 and did so until his death in 1995. Fr. Maier was involved in the charismatic renewal, and was outstanding in his spiritual leadership of the parish.  He was an enthusiastic preacher, whose direct and challenging homilies were a notable feature of Catholic life in downtown Madison in the early 1990’s.

Msgr. Daniel Ganshert (1995-2000) and Fr. William Seipp (2000-2005) were the last two full-time pastors of St. Patrick’s.  It was during Fr. Seipp’s tenure that a new narthex was built to connect the parish center to the church, and the parish center itself was remodeled with the offices of Catholic Charities moving from that building to the former religious education center on the eastern corner of the parish property.

After St. Raphael Cathedral was destroyed by arson in March 2005, St. Patrick was linked to the Cathedral and Holy Redeemer under the care of Msgr. Paul Swain.  

The offices for the Cathedral were consolidated with those of St. Patrick in the parish center. After Msgr. Swain was named bishop of Sioux Falls, SD, he was succeeded by Fr. (now Msgr.) Kevin Holmes who took over care of the three linked parishes around the Square in October 2006.

In October 2007, Bishop Morlino announced that St. Patrick 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 St. Patrick Church fully, and has its offices at that site.