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Wisconsin's youngest Episcopal diocese could become a historical footnote

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
October 9, 2021

The Episcopal Diocese of Eau Claire is on the cusp of becoming a mere footnote in history, as are the dioceses of Fond du Lac and Milwaukee. They seek to merge and reconstitute the historic Diocese of Wisconsin.

In 2013, the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy also became a footnote in history when it was absorbed by the Diocese of Chicago. Quincy became the Peoria Deanery.

I was a part of the Episcopal Diocese of Eau Claire, then under the leadership of Bishop William Wantland (IV Eau Claire). I was the editor of twin weeklies in Chippewa County.

I landed at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Ladysmith because there were no closer Episcopal churches to my community newspapers.

Wisconsin was initially populated by Scandinavians and Germans. Therefore, there are a wealth of Catholic parishes and various Lutheran churches, but a dearth of Episcopal congregations in the Badger State. In fact, my little hometown, of 427 people, had two Lutheran churches, a Catholic church, a Baptist church, a Congregationalist church, and a Seventh-Day Adventist church, but no Episcopal church. We also had as many taverns in town as churches.

However, Wisconsin does have a rich Episcopal history. The famed Bishop Jackson Kemper (I Wisconsin) settled in Wisconsin. It was under his episcopal ministry, as the first missionary bishop for The Episcopal Church, that Anglicanism was firmly established in Wisconsin and spread throughout the state. Kemper was also instrumental in the founding of Nashotah House, the Anglo-Catholic seminary near Milwaukee. Today Nashotah House trains both Episcopal and Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) clergy.

I once met Bishop Kemper's granddaughter. Whenever I saw her, she never failed to remind me: "I am Bishop Kemper's granddaughter!" A fact she was very proud of.

As The Episcopal Church spread throughout Wisconsin, the Fond du Lac Deanery became the Diocese of Fond du Lac. It was carved out of the northern portion of the Diocese of Wisconsin in 1870 as the state's population moved north along the shores of Lake Michigan. The remaining part of the Diocese of Wisconsin was renamed the Diocese of Milwaukee in 1888, at which point the founding Diocese of Wisconsin was relegated to an asterisked footnote.

Then as Wisconsin's population spread westward from the Great Lakes region toward the Mississippi River, the Diocese of Eau Claire was formed out of the western portions of the twin dioceses of Fond du Lac and Milwaukee.

The original Diocese of Wisconsin was formed in the autumn of 1847, six months before Wisconsin received her statehood in May of 1848.

It was during the three-week long XXII General Convention, held in New York City, that the Diocese of Wisconsin was created.

The Convention was told that "with few loaves and fishes" and a "few widely scattered preachers, whom are ready to parish," that the harvest (in the Wisconsin Territory) has been great."

Convention also records that 22 clergy were serving 25 congregations in seven mission outposts including, but not limited to: the Nashotah Mission, the Scandinavian Post, the Territorial Mission, and the Oneida Mission.

The combined membership of all the Episcopalians on the Wisconsin frontier was 2,744 souls, of which 969 of whom were communicants. 407 children were attending Sunday school.

There are 1,123 total baptisms and Bishop Kemper confirmed 393 new Episcopalians.

Financially, $1,614 was given towards charitable works and another $28,400 was set aside for worship space construction.

General Convention was pleased with the report from the far-flung Wisconsin Territory, so Missionary Bishop Jackson Kemper, on behalf of the Standing Committee on the Admission of New Dioceses, moved to have Wisconsin admitted as The Episcopal Church's newest diocese. His motion was seconded by Bishop Philander Chase (I Illinois).

The motion to create the Diocese of Wisconsin was unanimously passed on October 9, 1847 by the House of Bishops and concurred with on October 11, 1847 by the House of Deputies.

As soon as the House of Deputies concurred with the House of Bishops about the creation of the new Diocese of Wisconsin, the new HOD deputies from Wisconsin were seated. These included: the Revs. Frederick Hatch, Samuel Mark's, Thomas Ruger and Solomon Davis in the clerical rank; and Albert Helfenstein, W.T. Ward, Hyatt Smith and Benjamin McVickar in the lay order.

In addition, Fr. Hatch, Fr. J.P.T. Igraham and Mr. Issac Ullham were named as General Theological Seminary trustees.

Bishop Kemper was already seated in the House of Bishops because in 1835, he was created the first "Missionary Bishop" in The Episcopal Church. As the first missionary bishop, he was sent to the original Northwest Territories, which was created by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Initially, the Northwest Territories included: Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and parts of Minnesota.

Ohio spun off in 1803 to became a state followed by the statehoods of Indiana in 1816 and Illinois in 1818.

When Jackson Kemper was sent to what was left of the Northwest Territories in 1835 only Wisconsin, Michigan, and a sliver of Minnesota remained from the original 1787 Northwest Territories.

The Episcopal missionary bishop probably tramped much of the same ground that his Catholic predecessor Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette did in the mid to late 1600s.

Bishop Jackson also became the first bishop of Indiana and the missionary bishop to both Missouri and Kansas.

The newly-minted Diocese of Wisconsin had its own stellar seminary, Nashotah House, which is situated not far from Milwaukee.

Bishop Kemper was instrumental in the founding of Nashotah House. Three deacons, all alumnus from General Theological Seminary, were coaxed by the good bishop to come to the wilds of the Wisconsin Territory in 1842 to set up a High Church seminary leaning towards the influence of the 19th century Oxford Movement.

Deacons James Breck, William Adams, and John Henry Holbert came to the Wisconsin frontier at the behest of Bishop Kemper to set up a center for theological work undergirded in monastic-style prayer. This is a tradition that Nashotah House maintains to this day -- 179 years later.

Gustaf Unonius is Nashotah's first graduate. He founded the New Uppsala, a Swedish-American settlement near Nashotah House, and ministered to the Scandinavians. He was born in Finland but raised in Sweden.

In 1844 Bishop Kemper consecrated Holy Innocents Cemetery for the growing Scandinavian community. Holy Innocence Episcopal Church grew up around the cemetery and merged with Grace Episcopal in 1962. 13 years later the congregation became St. Anskar Episcopal Church.

Nashotah's first graduate went on to found St. Ansgarius in Chicago. The church eventually closed in 1920, but it was an important spiritual center for Swedish-American life in the large bustling Illinois city.

Following statehood, Wisconsin continued to grow. When Wisconsin became a state in 1848 there were about 300,000 Wisconsinites. The state's population topped 1 million in 1870, 2 million in 1900, 3 million in 1940, 4 million in 1970, 5 million in 2000, and is now on the edge of 6 million with the newly-released 2020 census.

The Diocese of Eau Claire was carved out of the western portions of the dioceses of Fond du Lac and Milwaukee in 1928.

Through the years the Episcopalians in western Wisconsin have been under the leadership of several bishops.

Jackson Kemper became the first Bishop of Wisconsin in 1847. Other bishops of Wisconsin include William Armitage (II Wisconsin) and Edward Welles (III Wisconsin).

After the Diocese of Fond du Lac spun off from the Diocese of Wisconsin, the initial Wisconsin diocese was eventually renamed the Diocese of Milwaukee. The newly-renamed Milwaukee diocese still had spiritual authority over Episcopalians in western Wisconsin.

The bishops of the Diocese of Milwaukee which oversaw western Wisconsin include: Cyrus Knight (I Milwaukee); Isaac Nicholson (II Milwaukee); and William Webb (III Milwaukee).

In 1928, the Diocese of Eau Claire was created and the bishops of the Diocese of Eau Claire is replete with familiar names including: Frank Wilson (I Eau Claire); William Horstick (II Eau Claire); Stanley Atkins (III Eau Claire); William Wantland (IV Eau Claire); Keith Whitmore (V Eau Claire);
and Jay Lambert (VI Eau Claire).

Bishop Matthew Gunter (VIII Fond du Lac) is also now the first Provisional Bishop of Eau Claire providing spiritual leadership during the transition and the reuniting of the three Episcopal Wisconsin dioceses is into a single jurisdictional entity. It is expected that the reconstituted single Badger State diocese will reclaim the original name of the Diocese of Wisconsin.

My time in the Diocese of Eau Claire was the late '80s and early 90s.

I remember one time Bishop Wantland came to St. Luke's in Ladysmith for his formal episcopal visit. There were only 12 of us. There were no baptisms or confirmations. But Bishop Wantland did celebrate the Service of Holy Communion and preach. Then he, and his dear wife Jan, shared a potluck with us in the church basement.

To this day, more than 30 years later, Bishop Wantland's words stand out in my mind. His words were burned into my memory unto death or maybe even beyond.

The good bishop reminded us that Christ's Twelve Apostles evangelized the entire world. He said that if 12 men could spread the Gospel across the entire globe, that we 12 at St. Luke's in Ladysmith, Wisconsin could evangelize and change Ladysmith with the lived message of the Gospel.

Not only change Ladysmith with the Gospel, but Rusk County, then the Wisconsin Indian Head Country and the Northwoods, then the entire Diocese of Eau Claire, then all of western Wisconsin, then the entire state of Wisconsin, then the Upper Midwest, until the fire of the Gospel had spread through the entire land and eventually beyond. But that spreading of the fire of the Gospel would start with 12 Episcopalians in a small Episcopal mission in little Ladysmith, Wisconsin.

I caught Bishop Wantland's vision and I was so excited. I could see what could happen if we lived our faith passionately and shared that same passion for Jesus with others around us. Apparently, no one else saw what this descendant of the Apostles was describing. Sadly, St. Luke's is now closed and the Diocese of Eau Claire is teetering on the brink of extinction.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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