Catholicism was brought to Wisconsin in the 1600s by early Jesuit missionaries and served the region until the early 1700s. When Fr. John Carroll was consecrated bishop of Baltimore in 1784, the first bishop of the United States, he divided the huge territory into dioceses. Eight subsequent territorial divisions governed our area until the Diocese of La Crosse was established in 1868.
On January 4, 1863 at a general meeting of St. Mary’s parish, the first Catholic parish in La Crosse, it was decided to organize a new parish to serve the German speaking Catholics of La Crosse. The log cabin church of St. Mary’s was simply too small to meet the needs of a growing population. Two days later, January 6, 1863, the trustees of the new parish dedicated it to St. Joseph. The so-called Horton Lot, on the corner of today’s Sixth and Main Streets, was purchased for the new parish at the price of $1,500.00. The first pastor of St. Joseph Parish was Father C. J. F. Schraudenbach. Finances were limited and the new congregation decided to build a school first to serve the educational needs of the children. The church foundation was partially laid, but the Civil War was taking its toll on labor and finances. The first Conscription Act in March,1863 included all men, between the ages of 20-45 to pay $300 to be released from the draft. The second Act in early 1864 lowered the age to 18 and raised the fee to $600. Despite the hardships of the War, the two parishes continued to grow and share the simple log cabin church for their liturgies.
When the Diocese of La Crosse was established in March, 1868, the decision was made to finish the church for the St. Joseph parish. Bishop Michael Heiss , the first bishop of the diocese, hired Charles I. Ross as the architect for the 62’ x 140’ brick and stone structure. Funds for the construction were those raised by parishioners ($2,000), donated by the French Society for the Propagation of the Faith ($2,500), and a personal contribution of Bishop Heiss ($500). The church was completed without a bell tower and dedicated on October 2, 1870 by Reverend Martin Kundig as Bishop Heiss was attending Vatican I. The bell tower was completed in 1884. The bells that were hung in 1884 are the ones that still ring out from our present tower. There are three bells: St. Joseph, St. Boniface, St. Agnes. Each are tuned and together weigh 7.2 ton.
The diocese, parishes, and the schools continued to flourish under Bishop Kilian J. Flasch (1881-1891).
Under the leadership of our third bishop, Bishop James Schwebach (1891- 1921) the diocese grew in the number of schools and parishes established. In 1905, the Diocese of Superior was erected reducing the La Crosse diocese by 15,000 square miles. And still, the parish grew through two world wars— WWI and WWII and the Great Depression.
Bishop Alexander McGavick (1921-1948) succeeded Bishop Schwebach. During his reign Bishop McGavick founded the first diocesan high school— Aquinas, in La Crosse; the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women in 1934; and the first issue of the diocesan newspaper (La Crosse Register) was printed in 1936. With the need for a larger church building and the toll that age and weather were taking on the existing cathedral, Bishop McGavick signed the first contract with Edward J Schulte in August 1944 to build a new cathedral. However, Bishop McGavick’s health was failing and limited funds and materials after WWII prevented new construction.
Bishop John P. Treacy (1946-1964) contacted Schulte to build a seminary (1951-now known as the Holy Cross Diocesan Center) and in 1956 announced the construction of a new cathedral. The original cathedral was razed and construction began on the new. The new cathedral is a contemporary interpretation of the gothic architecture of the original cathedral church.
On May 1, 1961, the bas-relief statue of St. Joseph was in place for the 6th celebration of the patronal feast of St. Joseph the Workman. The new cathedral was finished and dedicated during the week of May 14-19, 1962.
At the time of its dedication on May 14, 1962, the cathedral was given the title of Saint Joseph the Workman. This new title of Saint Joseph corresponded with the new feast established by Pope Pius XII in 1955 to honor Saint Joseph, to restore dignity to the worker and his labor, and to be celebrated each year on May 1. In contrast, Communist bloc countries used May 1, “May Day,” as a way to hail the product as supreme while the worker is only regarded as a tool of product output.
On May 9, 1969, the Cathedral of Saint Joseph the Workman was consecrated by Bishop Frederick W. Freking, the sixth bishop of La Crosse, at the conclusion of the yearlong celebration of the centennial of the Diocese of La Crosse.
There were some problems that plagued the new cathedral that Bishops Fredrick Freking (1965-1983) and John Paul (1983-1994) would have to deal with: the sound system, doors that would not stay shut, leaky roofs and the steeple. In January 1973, a passerby noticed stones at the top of the spire were protruding and the mortar was missing. During the course of repair, the steeple was shortened about 10 feet.
About 8 years later, it was noticed that the cross was rotated and required another repair. Repair and restoration of the steeple has been a continuous maintenance project.
Bishop Raymond (Cardinal) Burke (1994-2003) dedicated the addition of the gathering space to the cathedral in December 2001. This space provided a ground level gathering area for small receptions and an elevator. The music department, library, and meeting room are in the lower level.
Bishop Jerome E. Listecki (2004-2009) instituted a diocesan wide program to individualize and incorporate parishes.
On May 6, 2012, the Cathedral Parish celebrated the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the present cathedral and began a year long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the parish.
Bishop William Patrick Callahan (2010-) began the diocesan wide Christ Our Cornerstone Campaign to raise monies to begin the restoration of our current cathedral. The restoration will address the steeple, lighting, roof repair, floors, broken stained glass, cosmetic cleaning in the cathedral and rectory repairs.
Like those who have gone before us, we recognize our responsibility to care for what they have given us and for those who will come.