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Historical Essay

Catholics in Wisconsin

Catholics in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


The earliest Europeans to arrive in Wisconsin were French fur traders, followed closely by Jesuit and Recollect missionaries devoted to the conversion of the Indian population. Rene Menard was the first Catholic missionary to reach Wisconsin but another Jesuit, Claude Allouez, was far more successful. Missionaries continued to travel throughout Wisconsin in the 17th and early 18th centuries but gained few converts: missionary activity had all but ceased by the 1730s. The character of Catholic life in Wisconsin since then has been overwhelmingly German. German Catholicism under Bishop John Martin Henni flourished and the Wisconsin diocese assumed a reputation for catering to the needs of German speaking settlers throughout the 19th century. In 1896, 172 of the 382 parishes founded in Wisconsin had German origins, with slightly more than half in Milwaukee. The increase in southern and eastern European immigration after 1900 led to the founding of more Italian and Slavic parishes. Catholics are distributed heavily across the state but are particularly strong in the eastern portion of Wisconsin, namely Green Bay and Milwaukee. La Crosse is also home to a sizable Catholic population.

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