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Parish History

A Short History of the Parish of St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church

Portage, Wisconsin

Diocese of Milwaukee

"I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord'" (John 1:23)

We, too, are called as a parish and as individual Christians, to both point to Jesus and prepare for the coming of God's Kingdom. As we do, we need to recall our history at the parish level; to honor those who founded this parish and faithfully kept it as a place of worship during the past 150 years.

It all started in July of 1838 when Bishop Jackson Kemper, first missionary bishop of the Episcopal Church conducted the services at nearby Fort Winnebago and celebrated the mass. Then on July 1, 1850, the first entry in the parish register was made. The event was the baptism of Colonel. Henry Merrell and his wife, Helen M. H. Merrell, by Bishop Kemper.

The present parish was organized on June 8, 1853 with the dedication to St. John the Baptist. A vestry (church council) was elected and the Rev. E.A. Goodenough, a missionary of the domestic board, was called to become St. John’s first priest. Henry Merrell was to become the first Senior Warden (council president).

Land was donated by a church member, Richard F. Veeder, and a church was built at a cost of $5000. The debt was quickly removed and the church consecrated by Bishop Kemper on August 31, 1856. And in 1871, the parish built the rectory at a cost of slightly less than $2000.

But tragedy struck the parish on the evening of October 17, 1897. About 9:30 that night, a fire began. Since the structure was a wooden frame building, there soon was nothing left. It burned completely to the foundation. Immediately plans were made by the vestry to rebuild the church. In the meantime, services were held in the Columbia County Courthouse. Mr. J. Knapp, an architect from Milwaukee, was retained to build the church we see today. It incorporated a Gothic arch design and cost $6600. It was consecrated on March 9, 1899 by Bishop Isaac L. Nicholson.

The Rose Window in the back of the church was originally created for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. It was purchased by the parish for the sum of $135.85 and the manufacturer contributed $50 of that cost.

In 1906, an energetic young priest by the name of the Rev. Herman F. Rochstroh took charge of the parish. He was shortly thereafter married. Within two months of his marriage he suffered death from a ruptured appendix on Sunday morning, December 1, 1907. Immediately after morning worship the vestry voted to pay for the funeral expenses of the young priest and to face the presently uncompleted guild hall with brick and to name it "The Herman F. Rockstroh Memorial Hall."

In 1952, the parish prepared for its 100th year by refurbishing the church, guild hall and rectory. The church interior was completely redecorated and appears very much as it does today. It was during this renovation that the six-foot hand carved "Cristus Rex" was placed above the altar. 

In 1996, the parish once-again renovated the rectory and the church. A lovely memorial garden and columbarium now adorns the courtyard between the church and rectory. Rockstroh Hall was re-designed and extensively remodeled for teaching and hospitality ministries and re-named Couper Hall. A beautifully furnished library with a fireplace was named the Herman F. Rochstroh Memorial Library. 

While each generation perseveres in their faith, we must remember that we are part of but more than just an historical community -- we are a living community of the future because we know the hope to which we have been called in Christ. While we honor our past, we know that we are always on a journey forward -- making straight "the way of the Lord!"

Like our patron saint, John the Baptist, we both point to Jesus and prepare for God's coming of God's. And, like saints down through the ages, we both persevere and are faithful. 

[The above history was written for the Sesquicentennial Directory in January, 2003.]