Early Religious Gatherings

Early settlers sought to practice their religions just as they had before leaving on their western adventure. Catholicism and Protestantism were the area’s two most prominent religions in the 1800s. No records or references are found for eastern or middle eastern religious practices in the area.

Development of churches in Waterford are closely related with the development of the secular society. Religion was an essential part of most pioneers lives and the edifice in which they worshiped was not the defining element of their belief system. Therefore, they met in homes, outdoors, and in public buildings, whenever they could get a spiritual leader to engage them. As the groups grew, they eventually pooled their resources and built permanent church building. This section of the webpage will take us through the establishment of permanent structures now known as the Christian Churches of Waterford.

Excerpt from Ruth Albee’s, A Brief History of our Waterford Area’s Churches, Waterford Public Library.

The Birth of the Protestant Tradition

Considering that Levi Barnes, co-founder of Waterford, was of a religious background, the protestant group would be the first to establish worship meetings in Waterford.

The earliest protestant immigrants attended worship services in the log cabin erected by village co-founders Samuel Chapman and Barnes, his father-in-law. It was a larger pioneer log cabin since it was the “headquarters” of sorts for incoming immigrants, many of whom shared their first days at “The Ark”. Its location was on the south side of Racine Street, two lots west of River Street.

Remnants of the 1836 Chapman and Barnes “Old Ark” Cabin ca. late 1800s, Courtesy of Burlington Historical Society.

Back of “Old Ark” Photo, Courtesy of Burlington Historical Society.

To authenticate its location, Chapman’s original cabin lot was sold to Nicholas Mollzen in 1882.1 A property transfer deed in on file at the Racine County Register of Deeds office. This notice appeared in the Waterford Post, November 9,1882.

Levi Barnes was 62 years old when he arrived and lived for another 13 years before he died in 1849. Not much is known about his personal life except that he was an itinerant preacher, known as an “exhorter” in the era, who traveled to the area’s protestant churches to proclaim the Word and warn of the evils that would befall them if they did not pay attention. Pioneer writer, L.O. Whitman published an article describing Barnes peculiarities.

L.O. Whitman Remembers Levi Barnes,2 Burlington Free Press, September 18, 1906.

Records show that Barnes sold off most of his land holdings within a few years of settling in Waterford and that his roots are still firmly entrenched in the Village.

New Englanders were the predominant group of early settlers. As a result, there was a strong presence of Congregational and Methodist-Episcopal faiths.

A law was passed by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature on April 30, 1845, adopting public education for its residents which provided for authorized and tax supported schools.

Shortly thereafter, on September 22, 1845, Chapman deeded a 30 by 40 foot piece of property, for ten dollars, to be used as a schoolhouse site. It was further defined to be built of red brick and have a footprint of 26 feet long by 22 feet wide – to be become known as – “the little red-brick schoolhouse.3 Today, the location would be on the northeast corner of Waterford Union High School grounds. For further detail on the school building and its uses, click HERE.10

Chapman Deed for School Property, September 22, 1845, Racine County Register of Deeds.

Location of First Grade School and Congregational Church Buildings on Racine County Historical 1858 Map.4

Waterford’s Protestant Church history is one of evolution through the years as the village grew with a diverse set of immigrants. There were several ethnic-based protestant groups that preferred to worship within the norms of their immigrant culture. However, it takes a considerable number of parishioners with similar spiritual needs to financially support and maintain the clergy, while calling the worship headquarters a church.

Congregational Church

The origins of the Waterford Congregational Church date back to 1851 when the Waterford church was organized. For the first two years, meetings were held in the Chapman home. In 1853, Chapman again donated land, this time for a church, in the area known as the Village Green (located at the current High School site). The church was completed in 1857 at a cost of $3500. Rev. Snow was the first pastor for 10 years, followed by Rev. Stevens in 1867, various others over the next six years, followed by Rev. Clapp in 1876 for two more years. By 1879, the society had dwindled and could no longer afford the services of a pastor.10 Today, the closest Congregational Church is in Rochester, established in 1841.

1857 Congregational Church. Photo retouched by R.E. Gariepy, Sr. from 1955 Waterford High School Yearbook.

A description of the church follows and was located just west of the brick schoolhouse – see map insert above.

Congregational Church Description by Ruth Albee.5,p.35

C. 1870’s Picture of West Main Street with Insert Enlargement. Wisconsin Digital Collection.

The Congregationalists held their services on Sunday morning and the Methodists in the afternoon.

Early Methodist Episcopal Church Development

Exact dates for the formation of the Methodist Society are unknown but Albee states that they met in the brick schoolhouse built in 1845. The Methodists continued to meet in the brick school for a few more years even after the Congregationalist’s offered use of their new church facilities. Over time, the Methodist attendance fell off and services were discontinued.

According to Albee, who wrote a brief history on local churches,  “the light of the Methodist Society in the brick school house had flickered and gone out. For four years no religious services were held.”

Further details of the revival and historical development of the ME Church in Waterford continues HERE.

The Birth of Catholic Tradition

In the early 1840s, a few Irish and German Catholic families started to arrive in the Waterford area. By mid decade, considerably more had arrived. To follow their religious traditions, St. Mary’s, located in Burlington was the closest church available to them, and, they were obliged to attend Mass on Sunday.

It was a long arduous trip at times when considering traveling eight to 12 miles during the cold and snowy winter months with a horse and wagon, or sleigh – then to return home afterwards.

As mentioned earlier, the protestant facilities or the schoolhouse was readily available for them to use as a worship location. But, they were steadfast against the use of a public building for worship under any circumstances. An excerpt from “The Letters of Edwin Bottomley” describes an incident of such an altercation. The incident occurred at The English Settlement United Methodist Church a few miles southeast of Waterford.

Altercation of the Catholics and Methodists at the English Settlement ME Church.6

The following are paraphrased excerpts from a translation of a St. Thomas archival document written in old German by Fr. Schumacher in 1886. “By 1844, Missionary priests from Franklin would minister to their needs at private homes. But they still had to travel to Burlington on Sunday to attend regular Mass”.

“In June of 1846, the first Catholic service was held in the newly completed, but not yet used, C. Klunkefort cooperage shop, [a barrel making facility which was located on the southeast corner of First and Main Streets, formerly aka. Martini Mo’z]. From then on, every two or three months during a work day, services would be held in Waterford, usually at that location. They were still obliged to go to Burlington for Sunday Mass.”

Site of first Catholic services in Waterford, Wisconsin Digital Collection.

By the late 1840s the Catholic population had grown considerably which prompted the visiting priest to encourage Waterford parishioners to build their own church. Plans were set in motion to decide on the structure, placement, financing and a name, which came to be St. Thomas Aquinas. “There was debate over the name until the Burlington priest offered a painting of St. Thomas Aquinas.” 7,8

Celebration of the first Mass was on Corpus Christie Sunday, June 22, 1851 in a shell of a stone building without doors or windows and a makeshift altar made of wooden planks.7 Due to delays in getting the Bishop to Waterford, dedication of the new church didn’t take place until September 8, 1853.

St. Thomas Aquinas Church built in 1851, Restored Photo by R.E. Gariepy Sr., Wisconsin Digital Collection.

Further details of the historical development of St. Thomas Church continues HERE.

Early Lutheran Church Development

The last of the pioneer churches to develop in the Waterford area was St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Most of the substantiating information for this chronicle was gleaned from the archives of St. Peter’s.9

The developing community of Waterford was being populated with a variety of immigrants from New England and some European countries. By the mid 1840s, German immigrants started to populate the area – both Catholic and Protestant. St. Peter’s German Lutheran Church, as it was first called, starts its early history in 1857.

A small group of the Germans of the Lutheran faith started meeting with Rev. Goldhammer, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Burlington. The exact meeting place is in question since it could have been at a home or at the public schoolhouse as other Protestant groups had been doing.1

If it was in the public school, it may have been in the little red-brick schoolhouse, mentioned above. Rev. Titze replaced Rev. Goldhammer and the worship services were relocated to the “commodious” stone church built by the Congregationalists in 1857 and described above.2 It is the same church that the Methodists were meeting in at alternate times.

Services were held once or twice a month, but only in the German language. Over the next few years, the group grew and on January 25, 1864 a committee met and decided it was time to build their own church edifice. On February 22, 1864, two lots, number 21 and 22, Block 21, were purchased for $90 in the Bemis and Whitney subdivision which are on the southwest corner of Third and Division streets with construction starting in early spring.

Further details of the historical development of St. Peters Lutheran Church continues HERE.

Researchers: Robert E. Gariepy, Sr., Liz Gamble

NOTE: Should the reader have further documentation to enhance the content of this web page, please contact the Lead Researcher through director@ExploreWaterford.com  We are particularly interested in pictures or historic artifacts that may be shared.  Credit will be given.


  1. Waterford Post Clipping November 9, 1882.
  2. LO Whitman Remembers, Burlington Free Press September 18, 1906.
  3. Racine County Register of Deeds, Vol. 27 p. 289.
  4. Racine County Register of Deeds, Vol. 27 p. 289.
  5. History Community United Methodist Church Waterford, Wisconsin. 108 ppgs. http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/WI.HistComUni
  6. A Pioneer Settler in Wisconsin, Letters from Edwin Bottomley, ppg. 117-118, Burlington Library.
  7. Waterford: Stories of our Business Places Waterford Post 1923.
  8. History of the parish of Holy Thomas von Aquin, St. Thomas Aquinas Archives, Translation by Kathrin Gariepy. Racine County Register of Deeds, Vol. 27 p. 289.
  9. St. Peter’s Lutheran Church of Waterford, Archives.
  10. Waterford: Stories of Our Village and Its Busy Life, Waterford Post, 1923. http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/WI/WI-idx?type=article&did=WI.WPLStories.i0029&id=WI.WPLStories&isize=M