The first Catholic priest to visit the area known as Kilbourn City (now Wisconsin Dells) was Father J. Bondue in 1847. The organization of the Catholic church began in 1850. The parish was known as Saint Simon the Apostle. Included in the organization were Catholics who resided in the towns of Easton, Quincey, New Haven, Dell Prairie and Lyndon Station. Mission stations in Olin, Point Bluff and White Creek were served by priests in Kilbourn City. In 1851, Father Anthony D. Godhardt arrived in Kilbourn City from Fort Winnebago (now Portage) and completed the organization of the parish. In 1855, the parish was re-named Exalation of the Holy Cross.
In 1866, Father George Strickner became Pastor and started planning the erection of the first church on the corner of Bowman Road and Wisconsin Avenue. His successor, Father Reindle saw the program through to its completion and dedicated it to Saint Cecilia in 1868. Under the direction of Father Thomas Keenan, the parish continued as a mission of Lyndon Station and later Portage.
During 1871-1873, Father William DeKelver was appointed the first resident Pastor of Saint Cecilia Parish. During his pastorate, the first rectory was built and it remained the rectory until February, 2005, when it was demolished to make room for worship space expansion.
Calvary Cemetery was established during his tenure. Calvary Cemetery Association was formed July 27, 1869. Land for the cemetery was purchased August 6, 1869, for $30.00.
Fathers Gallweiler, Gonthyn, Scholter, Hackle, John Ryan, Henry Siner and William Rice served as Pastors from 1873-1882.
On January 20, 1882, Father Martin Smits became Pastor until his death on February 27, 1897. His successor, Father John Holzknecht, became Pastor and oversaw the planning and building of a new church and school. The next Pastor of Saint Cecilia, Fr. Kobe, assisted Father O’Brien, delegated by the Bishop of Green Bay, in the laying of the cornerstone. The July 10, 1902 edition of the Dells Reporter carried the following story: “The greatest attraction of this Fourth of July celebration was laying of the cornerstone of the new Saint Cecilia Church; the ceremony by Reverend Father O’Brien of Green Bay, delegated by the Bishop, assisted Father Kobe, who was Pastor at that time. The hundreds who witnessed this step in God’s cause bowed their heads in deep reverence, and all who were gathered about the foundation of this beautiful structure in progress were brought more within God’s teaching, and the reverence bestowed upon the faces of the innocent and all alike during these services must have been an hour of rejoicing to the angel in Heaven as they looked down with heavenly love upon the scene.” The old church, which has been abandoned, was torn down on August 3, 1903. At this time, the beautiful main altar and two side altars were acknowledged as gifts of Mrs. Thomas Sexton of Chicago and two sons, Thomas and Joseph Sexton of Chicago. The stained glass windows were also gifts or in memory of Mrs. D. M. McMannon, Martha and James Baggot, Thomas and Margaret Breshnahan, John and Catherine Lynch, Mrs. and Mrs. William Stanton, Jilia and John Hines, Charles Krieger, Tim O’Connell and Patrick Baggot. The Stations of the Cross of the new church were subsequently donated by charitable persons.
It should also be mentioned that through persistent efforts, the church went from a $600.00 investment in 1859 to about $3000.00 property value in 1871. A new parsonage was built at a cost of $1600.00. The church built in 1902 cost over $20,000.00. On August 12, 1902, the tolling of the 2,200 pound bells in the tower announced the blessing of the bell ceremony at Saint Cecilia Church. Saint Cecilia’s was officially dedicated on June 22, 1903, by Bishop S. G. Messmer of Green Bay.
The shrine of “Our Lady of the Dells” was erected due to the efforts of Father L. F. Strofer. Presiding at the dedication ceremony on August 28, 1955 was Bishop William P. O’Connor, the first Bishop of the Madison Diocese created in March, 1946.
In September, 1963, with Father Joseph Dreis as Pastor, Saint Cecilia School opened and was staffed by Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa. Ten years later, the school closed because of financial difficulties. The parish rented the facilities to the Wisconsin Dells School District until 1991. Then a day care center opened and operated until June 2000. The building is currently used for Religious Education classes. The gym was used as a chapel in the summer and on special religious holidays.
In November, 2004, following major renovation, the Parish Offices moved across the street to 603 Oak Street, our former school building, now known as the “Parish Office Center.” The former nuns quarters in the school were remodeled into the new office space. Most work was done by volunteers. The former school main office has become the Religious Education Office. The priests living quarters have changed to a home built circa 1992, purchased by a few parish members and gifted to Saint Cecilia Congregation.
The membership of Saint Cecilia Congregation has grown and with the increase in summer tourist business needed the Parish Center gym to accommodate well over 800 persons attending a given Mass. In 1999, Father Felix G. Oehrlein was appointed Pastor. Under his leadership, the Parish started a fund raising campaign to fund the expansion of our worship facilities so that we may have a single church that would accommodate the large number of persons attending Mass. This had become extremely important as the number of available priests was declining. On November 25, 2011, Monsignor Felix G. Oehrlein passed away. In February, 2012, Father Michael C. Richel was appointed Pastor of Saint Cecilia Catholic Church. On August 24, 2014, Father Michael C. Richel passed away. On August 21, 2014, Father Eric Sternberg was appointed Parochial Administrator and on January 28, 2015, became our Pastor.