St. John Nepomucene Catholic Community began in 1836 in a humble bark-covered wigwam along the Fox River in a place known at the time as “La Petite Chute” with the arrival of Rev. Theodore Vanden Broek. The church community is the second oldest in the Green Bay Diocese.
Father Vanden Broek was a missionary priest who had been working in the settlement of Green Bay for a year and a half when the bishop at the time appointed three Redemptorist Fathers to the area. In early 1836, Father Vanden Broek moved 24 miles up the river to an area named for its rapid water movement, La Petite Chute, or Little Chute. Members of the Menominee Indians built a wigwam (near the present draw bridge), which was used as the church, school and parsonage. Fifty-one Native Americans were baptized that first year.
The first frame church was built that same year near what is now the corner of Pine and Canal streets. The church was 30 feet long and 22 feet wide. The church’s first cross was made from runners of a sleigh and now hangs in the church’s gathering space. In 1839, a church addition and tower were added and in 1851 the church was expanded again. The church was torn down in 1871.
In 1847, Father Vanden Broek returned to his native Holland to settle his father’s estate. During this stay in Holland, Father Vanden Broek published a pamphlet in which he described the many opportunities that were available in Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley. As a result, when he set out to return to Wisconsin, he was accompanied by three ships filled with Dutch immigrants.
Construction of the present church began in 1860 and was completed in 1868. The stones for the church were hauled from the Fox River using stone-boats and teams of oxen. Construction was delayed when all the volunteers left to take part in the Civil War. Construction resumed upon the return of the soldiers. The restarting of the work is visible with different stone work on the side of the church.
In 1894, the sacristies, sanctuary, tower clock and stained glass windows were added. Additional renovations included a new pipe organ in 1937, a new front entrance in 1962 and a complete renovation of the church interior and new stained glass windows in 1966. In 2003, a $3.2 million renovation was completed that added the west wing of the church, a gathering space, fellowship hall, kitchen and multi purpose rooms. Air conditioning was also installed.
The parochial school has also been a major part of the St. John Nepomucene Community, beginning with Father Vanden Broek using the original wigwam to carry out his instruction. The first school was built in 1844 and attended by six pupils from the Menominee Indians. The school was closed for a period of time for financial reasons, but in 1889 a new school was built. Additional rooms were added in 1909. In 1928, the present brick school building was built to meet the needs of the growing population.
In 1940, an addition was built on to the west side of the school, which then housed 745 grade school and high school students. A new high school was built in 1957 across the street from the present grade school. In 1972, the high school was closed due to high operating costs.
A new parish center was built to the south of the present school building in 1985, adding a new gymnasium, classroom space and multi-purpose room for meetings and funeral dinners. The present office complex was built in 1959 and was designed to house the parish offices as well as provide living quarters for the parish priests. The growing needs of the parish required additional offices and meeting rooms, and in 1966 construction began on a new duplex to house the pastor and associate pastor.
Today, St. John Nepomucene Catholic Community continues to grow with 1,900 families. The community is served by Father Ron Belitz, Deacon Dave Van Eperen and Deacon Bruce Corey.
Photos courtesy of Little Chute Historical Society