The Catholic Tradition
McDonell Area Catholic Schools have a long-standing Catholic tradition in Chippewa Falls by continuing to educate and guide our young adults along the path of faith in Christ. McDonell Central Catholic High School, which is the former Notre Dame and McDonell Memorial High Schools, has produced over 7,000 graduates since 1889.
The roots of Catholic education in our community go back to the mid-1800s, when a town sprang up where “a cluster of wigwams once stood and the silent forest gave way.” Catholics were in the majority among the first settlers. Reverend Gautheir, a missionary, began making semi-annual visits to the area. In 1856 he constructed a diminutive church near the location of the present Notre Dame Church. He called it St. Mary’s but it was also known as Our Lady of the Pines. It was recorded then as “the spiritual mustard seed which was to produce a tree goodly in size and fruit-bearing.”
How prophetic those words proved to be! Missionaries came and went before a special individual would arrive on the scene. Reverend Charles F.X. Goldsmith, sometimes called “the boy priest” came to Chippewa Falls in 1869 and would leave an indelible mark on both the spiritual and cultural map of this area.
He became interested in First Ward School, a three-room school building near St. Mary’s known by most as “the Catholic School,” and soon moved to expand the existing space to accommodate the ever-increasing number of pupils. In May of 1881, Rev. Goldsmith notified the Board of Education that he would take possession of the schoolhouse for the sole purpose of conducting it as a parochial school. This gave him the liberty of selecting the teachers and paying them with public school funds. The following September the doors were opened under the leadership of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
Reverend Goldsmith was also busy on the other side of town, organizing plans with Rev. Theodore Hegemann for the future St. Charles Borromeo Parish.
The church opened on “Stanley Hill” in October of 1883. By 1884, St. Charles Borromeo School was open as well. That left one more hill to conquer . . . and during the winter of 1885-86, Rev. Goldsmith was assisted by Rev. Edmund Sturm in raising funds for the construction of “Holy Ghost Church of South Chippewa.”
In 1871 the construction of Notre Dame Church was completed, built from Chippewa limestone in the Roman style. The mustard seed of St. Mary’s Church had come full circle and flourished even after Rev. Goldsmith’s passing. The Notre Dame school continued to prosper under the leadership of Rev. Phelan, recognized as one of the
leading and most scholarly educators in the state. Through Rev. Phelan’s wise and sympathetic guidance, Notre Dame school became accredited to the University of Wisconsin in 1894.
Enrollment swelled to the point that it became necessary to divide the primary department. In 1885, an addition was added at the High Street entrance to accommodate the growth and allow space for the high school. Four years later the first commencement exercises were held at Notre Dame School. Mary and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Jennings received their diplomas. The tradition of graduating young Catholics as faith-filled servants was born.
Shortly after, the Notre Dame Alumni Association was established, in accordance with the wishes of Rev. Phelan and Sister Mary Francis Xavier that “the graduates of Notre Dame should not sever forever their connections with their Alma Mater.”
As if an answer to the need for a separate building to house the growing high school program, a respected city leader and lumberman came forward to provide the funds. It was because of a personal tragedy, however, that Alexander B. McDonell wished to build a school building in memory of his wife, a former Notre Dame student, and their three young children, two of whom were students at Notre Dame (the other was a two-year-old). Following his letters to the Bishop of the La Crosse Diocese and to Notre Dame Parish, McDonell Memorial High School was completed in 1907.
A magnificent example of Greek architecture, the school was furnished with the best educational equipment available at the time.
For years it provided a strong faith-filled curriculum and a tradition of excellence in education, producing life-long friendships, instilling meaningful vocations and graduating enthusiastic students into the larger community of higher education, work and family. By the early 1960s plans were in the works for a new high school building on the west hill of Chippewa Falls due to increased enrollment and building needs. The Class of 1964 was the last to graduate from “Church Hill.”
McDonell Central High School opened its doors in September of 1964. Students were
taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame and the Christian Brothers.
Changing times, enrollments and population patterns dictated that the Chippewa Falls parishes consolidate their school operations under the administrative umbrella of the Chippewa Area Catholic Schools (CACS) beginning with the 1987-88 school year. The new system created St. Charles Borromeo Primary School, Holy Ghost Elementary School, Notre Dame Middle School, and McDonell Central Catholic High School.
This new consolidated approach allowed the parishes to carry on in the Catholic tradition, supplanting that tiny mustard seed with the support and cooperation necessary to fuel the mission of our Catholic schools well into the future.
This consolidated approach, after 30 years, still allows today the parishes to carry on in the Catholic tradition, supplanting that tiny mustard seed with the support and cooperation necessary to fuel the mission, of the now school district called McDonell Area Catholic Schools (MACS), well into the future.