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'Friends of St. Thomas' fight to save site of oldest congregation in Winnebago County

Church of Saint Thomas stained glass
Posted at 8:16 PM, Jul 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-31 21:16:47-04

WINNEBAGO COUNTY (NBC 26) — Since 1860, St. Thomas Church has stood in Poygan. That's the same year that President Abraham Lincoln was elected.

The church was also host to the oldest of three original congregations in Winnebago County. But now, its fate is uncertain. But there's a group that is looking to do something about that.

“There's so many people that still come to this church and worship here because they've got family that's buried here,” said Donna Wicinsky. She is the co-chairman of the group Friends of St. Thomas.

Friends of St. Thomas was a group that started in 1999. The old church was in serious disrepair after nearly 140 years, and the diocese of Green Bay were interested in shutting it down.

"We got wind of that, and [my husband] and I being history buffs and love old buildings, we just decided we needed to start something, and it started a movement,” Wicinsky said.

The group formed and fundraised to purchase a 25-year lease on the property and afford much-needed repairs to the stained glass and internal structure.

interior of St. Thomas Church in Poygan
interior of St. Thomas Church in Poygan

The historical significance of the site extends beyond its walls.

Next to the church is a cemetery. Among the civilian graves are 65 fallen soldiers from major wars — from the American Civil War to Vietnam.

The Friends of St. Thomas lease ends in January of 2024, and Wicinsky said she's worried about raising the money to renew it.

“We need to get at least $25,000 to keep it up,” she said.

St. Thomas Cemetery Association President Mike Jordan lives across the street and is also a member of Friends of St. Thomas.

He said he's seen the impact that the building and its cemetery can have on visitors.

“It's always amazing that people that come in, and they, ‘say my grandma and grandpa were married in this church,’ or ‘I was baptized here.’ I mean, it was a very vibrant parish community,” said Jordan.

Wicinsky and Jordan are worried because many of the original group members of Friends of St. Thomas have died, and the average age of the remaining members poses a challenge for fundraising efforts.

"We really need to build on our membership and be able to have younger people involved in it so they can help out with the pie socials that we have had here and the pancake breakfast and get the word out," said Wicinsky.

She said that there is a lot of work that needs to be done. The stained glass windows need to be releaded, the protective Plexiglas needs replacing, plaster is coming off of the walls... and all of the repairs add up to thousands of dollars in cost.

“We got some of the damage the first time around," Wicinsky said. "[But] the glass is very fragile. And so whenever there was strong winds, hail, branches and stuff, they had a tendency to damage the windows. So, that's why when we got them restored; it was important to get some kind of covering for it. So, we had the coverings made. But they need some help. We need some help.”

The importance of the history behind the location is a reason Wicinsky and Jordan aren't giving up without a fight.

More than anything, they just want to ensure the church is never razed.

St. Thomas Church in Poygan
Front of St. Thomas Church in Poygan, with its original doors and working bell tower.

"I have a special place in my heart to make sure that we keep this thing going," Jordan said. "I love my church."

“Now it's just a matter of trying to maintain that historical importance for all the families that started this whole thing,” said Wicinsky.