Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Abandoned St. Ambrose Church in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin

St. Ambrose church and monastery in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin
There's something mysteriously romantic about old, abandoned buildings, and when that building happens to be a Catholic Church, the mystery and romance increase.   So many questions come to mind:  Who put their heart and soul into building it?  How many thousands of faithful worshiped here, their prayers embedded within the walls like the smell of incense? How is it that this holy space is no longer used for worship?  How many hearts were broken when the decision was made to close the church and no longer use it for the honor and glory of God?  How could it be put to use today? These questions and more came to mind when my family and I recently visited St. Nazianz, Wisconsin and were able to venture inside the abandoned St. Ambrose Church on the old Salvatorian Seminary grounds.
Fr. Ambrose Oschwald
St. Nazianz in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin was founded in 1854 by Fr. Ambrose Oschwald, a German immigrant who brought a group of lay faithful with him from Germany.  Together they lived a communal life and thrived in St. Nazianz (named for St. Gregory Nazianzen).  Fr. Oschwald died in 1873 and the community he built fell apart shortly afterward.  

The property was purchased by the Salvatorian Fathers in 1896, fifteen years after the order was founded in Italy.  The Salvatorians built a beautiful seminary that was very successful.  The property was continually built up through the 1920's and 30's to accommodate all of the seminarians who studied there.  Then, in 1968 with enrollment at an all-time low, the seminary was converted to JFK Prep School, named for our only Catholic President.  By 1982 enrollment at the  high school was dwindling and the school closed.  Unfortunately, all of the empty buildings were severely damaged by vandals throughout the years, and stories of ghosts haunting the building served as encouragement for curious youth to explore the property, now in dangerous condition due to the excessive vandalism.

The Seminary Gate

Entrance to the Seminary/JFK Prep
In 2008 the property was purchased by United Ministries which hopes to create a Christian summer camp program for troubled youths.  To raise funds, United Ministries has opened a thrift store in the former gymnasium.

Having grown up in Manitowoc I was familiar with St. Nazianz but had never actually been there and only remembered vague stories about JFK Prep which closed two years before I graduated from high school. Nostalgia for my youthful days in the area of my hometown piqued my curiosity about this Catholic space with such an interesting history and so I was eager to visit.

On the day we arrived we happened to be the only visitors to the property and the only shoppers in the thrift store.  After purchasing a few trinkets we noticed that the doors to St. Ambrose Church were open.  A caretaker on the grounds told us that the church is open every day until 4 pm so those who want to stop inside and pray may do so.  What we found inside the church was heartbreaking to see. A holy worship space that had obviously been stunningly beautiful at one time, and which still retained much of its beauty despite its long history of neglect, was in ruins.  We were fascinated as we marveled at the beauty that still existed here and mourned what was no more.  

The cornerstone of St. Ambrose Church

An open door inviting us inside.
Notice the tree branch growing underneath the statue of St. Ambrose?

The pews were all covered with tarps

Still beautiful even though it's crumbling

The Agony in the Garden

St. Michael the Archangel has a hole in his armor

I have these same pictures in my living room!  They were heirlooms from my parents and used to enthrone my family and home to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  I was so surprised to find these here!

We happened to visit on the Feast of St. Bonaventure

Leaving the church we wandered to the back of the property and found a very well-maintained cemetery for the Salvatorian Fathers.  Some of the grave markers were dated as recently as last year. Just behind the cemetery we discovered the quaint little Loreto Shrine Chapel, the original church of Fr. Oschwald's community which was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and is maintained by the St Nazianz Historical Society.

Part of the cemetery of Salvatorian Priests some buried here as recently as this past year.

Mausoleum burial place of Fr. Ambrose Oschwald

Loreto Chapel
Inside the Loreto Chapel.
Inside the Loreto Chapel

Former Station of the Cross
The only Station of the Cross that was still standing

Close up, so beautiful!

Does that say Boss on the bottom of the statue?  The red sunlight rays are like Divine Mercy.

Today, St. Gregory Parish, not too far from the seminary, is the current church for St. Nazianz' Catholic Community, and a beautiful Orthodox monastery, Holy Resurrection, can also be found in St. Nazianz.

St. Gregory Parish

St. Gregory

St. Gregory

The Sacred Heart of Jesus at St. Gregory


  1. What a treasure! Thank you so much for sharing this, Anne. Great to see you blogging again! You have been sincerely missed!

  2. Thank you for sharing! I heard there was a lake there too ? Do you know the location of that from the church?

    1. The little lake is literally a stone's throw west of the monastery chapel in town, not on the old seminary grounds. The monastery had been the motherhouse of the Salvatorian Sisters. It is about two blocks east of Saint Gregory Nazienzen Church in the village.

  3. The 'Orthodox' monastery mentioned above is orthodox in theology, liturgy, tradition, and monastic rule. But it is an Eastern Catholic monastery under the patronage of the Roumanian Catholic Church, the eparchy of Canton, Ohio and all of North America, John Michael Botean, Bishop. The Roumanian Church and the monastery are Byzantine Rite, united in full communion with the Church of Rome.

  4. Anne
    Thank you for sharing the story and pictures of the Salvatorian Seminary in St Nazianz. I graduated from the school in 1962 and enjoyed the experience. What moved you to write about this place?

  5. "Today, St. Gregory Parish, not too far from the seminary, is the current church for St. Nazianz' Catholic Community." Anne, St. Gregory parish has always been the villagers' church. St. Ambrose Church was for the monks (priests and brothers) and seminarians who lived on campus.

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  7. To Unknown and Joseph Radanovich regarding lakes:

    There are several "lakes" on or near the old seminary campus. Joseph R mentions the little one (a pond, really) west of the monastery. South of that there's a slightly larger lake within the seminary campus that we used to play ice hockey on in winter. It had a tire swing hanging from a tree over the water when I studied there. Two more lakes (we called them "twin lakes") are west of where Bartel Road comes into Hwy A. These were on the south end of what was once a 1600-acre property (later mostly sold off). It was a long hike through the woods to get there. I remember a group of us galloping through the snow one icy day, snapping dead tree trunks as we went.

    I don't think any of those lakes/ponds had names then, but Eaton Twin Lakes are now named on Google Maps. --Joe Meyers, Class of 1962

  8. By the way, lovely article, Anne. Brings back memories. Many of my teachers (including some from Mt St Paul College in Waukesha) are buried in that little cemetery below Loreto Chapel.

  9. Hi Joe. Thanks for your added info. Twin Lakes or Eaton Twin Lakes were distant lore I heard, but never saw. The two lakes between the town and the seminary did have names, though I was not much aware when I was there, two years after you. The larger lake where some of you played hockey in winter, is just north of the seminary campus and has the name Lake Ochswald. The smaller lake, north of Lake Ochswald near the edge of town, was the "mill pond". I used to walk the winding path, past the lake and the pond, as village buyer, on the way from the seminary to the village. The mill pond was across the path, from the convent and terraced lawns with vineyard. In the fall, the pond had a view that deserved to be painted more than any scene by Van Gogh. I wonder if any local artist ever drew it. When the water was calm, a barn on the west side of the pond reflected nicely. Some days I'd see a pair of ducks, or a goose, or maybe a swan also in the reflection. In the fall, one or two maple trees on the barn side of the pond would turn glorious colors - tho mostly gold, and reflect in the pond. It was not an easy view to photograph. The lily pads in the pond interrupted the reflections during the time of year they grew the most.