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St James Catholic Church

St. James Catholic Church (10/5/55)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-35808

St. James Catholic Church

1905 marks the centennial of St. James Catholic parish.

Madison’s first Catholic church, St. Raphael’s, was erected in 1848, serving a congregation that was two-thirds Irish and one-third German and Austrian. In 1857 the German members, wishing to worship in their native language, founded Holy Redeemer. In 1888 St. Raphael's split again, with 250 of its Irish families departing to form St. Patrick's parish.

By 1905 Holy Redeemer was filled to capacity and its pastor, Reverend Alois Zitterl, approached the Ramsay family about building a new church. James Bowen Ramsay and his sister, Mrs. Sarah Ramsay del Frato, a resident of Rome, donated six lots in Greenbush for that purpose in April. The lots were part of the 56-acre estate along South Mills Street originally purchased by their grandfather, James Bowen, from Seth Van Bergen in 1852 (the Italianate sandstone Van Bergen-Bowen house at 302 S. Mills is a city landmark). Bowen, Madison’s first homeopathic physician, was elected Madison’s tenth mayor in 1871.

Reverend Zitterl named the parish after James Ramsay in honor of his donation (Ramsay was to found the French Battery Company in 1906, which he renamed Ray-O-Vac in 1934). The congregation was incorporated on May 20, 1905, and after many people pledged funds, the cornerstone was laid on October 8. Over the next six months a combination church and school was constructed. Within seven years, after the parish tripled in size, a new church was built.

Reverend Joseph Koester was St. James’ first pastor. Born on May 20, 1868, in Aplerbeck, Westphalia, he came to America and entered St. Francis Seminary, where he was ordained on June 21, 1891. His first assignment was as assistant pastor of Holy Trinity church in Milwaukee. He served St. James for sixteen years, supervising the erection of the rectory, church-school building, auditorium, and the lower part of the present church, as well as purchasing a home for the nuns who taught in the school. When he left after being assigned to a new parish, he donated $22,000 to St. James. He retired in 1942, and died on September 12, 1954.

Mark Gajewski