Dusting Off Some Local History: “Eau Claire’s Oldest Church”
By Greg Kocken, Archivist, UW-Eau Claire, Kockeng@uwec.edu
The following is a local history mystery which recently came my way, “What is the oldest church in Eau Claire?” I initially, and wrongly, suspected this would be rather simple to research. I turned to all my usual sources, including the wonderful Architecture and History Inventory from the Wisconsin Historical Society. While I thought I quickly found the answer to this question I found myself overanalyzing an image of another church, which led me down a fascinating path of discovery, and ultimately right back to the first answer I settled upon.
Significant church formation activities took place across Eau Claire in the 1850s and 1860s. Many of the earliest church services were performed in private houses or rented halls while funds were raised to construct churches. Many of the first churches, all now demolished, were constructed during these decades. First Congregational Church’s first structure, described as “a building 16x24 feet of green, rough boards, with board roof…” was never intended to serve as a church for a long period of time. Many of the churches whose spires currently rise in Eau Claire’s skyline date to the early 1900s.
A mission was established among the Catholics of Eau Claire in the early 1850s. The first Catholic Church, St. Patrick’s, was constructed along North Barstow Street, but a growing split between German and English-speaking Catholics led to the establishment of a new congregation, Sacred Heart. Both St. Patrick’s and Sacred Heart constructed new churches in the 1880s. Sacred Heart built a towering brick church along Dewey Street which opened in 1880, while St. Patrick’s dedicated a new brick structure at the corner of Fulton and Oxford in 1882. Neither of these two structures exist anymore. St. Patrick’s burned down in 1884, before the structure was fully finished, and the congregation set out to quickly replace the building with the magnificent 1885 Romanesque/Gothic styled structure that now stands.
The Sacred Heart Church building along Dewey Street lasted until the late-1920s when, due to problems with the foundation, the structure was razed and replaced with the current church building around 1928. The new church was constructed on the same spot as the previous structure. The nave of the current Sacred Heart Church and the previous structure are strikingly similar, a mystery that led me to overanalyze available images of the previous Sacred Hearth Church and question whether part of that structure dated to 1880. Ultimately, sleuthing in local newspaper archives, and consulting with a colleague at the Chippewa Valley Musuem, led me to realize that the entirety of the structure was razed and replaced with the current church building.
Although St. Patrick’s Church (1885) lays claim to being the oldest church in Eau Claire, it is far from the oldest church still standing in the Chippewa Valley. Chippewa Falls boasts several existing churches that are older than St. Patrick’s in Eau Claire. Is there a local history mystery or topic you want to know more about? Do you have a suggestion for an upcoming column of “Dusting Off?” Please contact Greg at the UW-Eau Claire archives. He would love to hear from you.