The statue of St. Joseph in its original setting upon the high altar of pre-renovated Old St. Joseph Church.The statue of St. Joseph in its original setting upon the high altar of pre-renovated Old St. Joseph Church.

History of the Shrine

Statue of St. Joseph Returns to Original Shrine Site

In the spirit of a rekindled interest in the figure and role of St. Joseph in the life of the Church, especially among a generation of young men and women who are excited about the rich heritage of Catholic culture and history, the Norbertine Community of St. Norbert Abbey returned the crowned statue of St. Joseph to Old St. Joseph Church on the St. Norbert College campus.

During the 1969 architectural renovation of Old St. Joseph Church, the crowned statue of St. Joseph, which had been located upon the high altar, was placed at St. Norbert Abbey, where a sacred location was created in the abbey crypt. At this site, the weekly novenas first started in 1888 were continued.

Returning this devotion to the original site of the St. Joseph novena is not only a response to a renewed enthusiasm for deepening the spiritual life of the college and parish communities, but also a rich opportunity to collaborate with others in reimaging the figure of St. Joseph within 21st-century Catholicism.

Implicit in the return of this devotion to Old St. Joseph Church is the time-honored belief that the life of St. Joseph can inspire all people more actively to discern the dignity and value of:

  • manual labor
  • craftsmanship
  • rights of workers
  • adoptive and foster parenthood
  • fatherhood
  • faith and devotion
  • end-of-life expectations

St. Joseph is the traditional patron of these and many causes that continue to challenge and inspire the human spirit.

By returning the crowned statue to Old St. Joseph Church, the Norbertine Community of St. Norbert Abbey is hopeful that more people will have easier access to this historically significant practice of honoring St. Joseph’s important role in Salvation history. Furthermore, the Norbertine Order is confident that by more generously sharing this beautiful work of art and ritual with others within an academic setting, a productive and challenging conversation about culture, faith, and life will be better encouraged and facilitated.


The statue of St. Joseph in the St. Norbert Abbey crypt.

The statue of St. Joseph in the St. Norbert Abbey crypt.

French Canadian Catholics came to the De Pere area in the mid-19th century to work in the lumber mills. A parish, named in honor of St. Joseph, was established to serve them. In 1888, Fr. Joseph Durin, a Missionary of the Sacred Heart, became the second pastor. He brought with him a strong personal devotion to St. Joseph, which he fostered in his parish and the diocese. He asked Green Bay’s diocesan Bishop Frederick Katzer to conduct a solemn blessing of the statue of St. Joseph. He then initiated a weekly novena to St. Joseph that would be conducted every Wednesday of the year. A bolt of lightening caused the old church to burn down in 1889. With the assistance of Dan Kidney, owner of a boat factory on the Fox River, Fr. Durin designed a new and unique church having the architectural shape of the inverted hull of a ship. The new church was completed in 1890 and today stands as St. Norbert College Parish at Old St. Joseph Church on the St. Norbert College campus.

The Solemn Crowning of the Statue of St. Joseph

Encouraged in his work by His Eminence James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, Bishop Katzer of Green Bay, and by more than 20 other bishops, archbishops, and prelates, Fr. Durin made plans for the solemn crowning of the statue of St. Joseph. Bishop Messmer, the fourth bishop of Green Bay, affirmed Fr. Durin in his efforts and one of his first official acts as bishop of Green Bay was to officiate at the solemn crowning ceremony, in which hundreds of devotees and clergy participated.

The Norbertines Assume Responsibility of the Shrine

When Fr. Durin passed away in 1896, the diocese began a search for one to take over future operation of the shrine. The search was to end in 1898 with the Norbertines, who had arrived from Holland in 1893 to do missionary work and start an educational institution in the United States. The Shrine of St. Joseph has been under the directorship of the Norbertines since 1898, which is also the year the Norbertines founded St. Norbert Priory (now St. Norbert Abbey).

Abbot Pennings and St. Joseph

Abbot Bernard Pennings, O. Praem.

Abbot Bernard Pennings, O. Praem.

The arrival of Fr. Bernard Pennings, O. Praem., and his Norbertine confreres was the beginning of a lasting bond between the Norbertine order and The Shrine of St. Joseph. Fr. Pennings (later to become Abbot Pennings) was the moving force that cemented this kinship.

As founder of the first permanent establishment of the Norbertines in the United States, he constantly nourished his devotion to St. Joseph, along with an undying zeal for St. Norbert and the purposes of his order. The intercessory power of St. Joseph always inspired him. “Nothing I have received or accomplished in life has come to me without St. Joseph’s help,” he used to say.

In 1870, when devotion to St. Joseph reached a high level of acceptance in the Church, Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph “Patron of the Universal Church.” Abbot Pennings had acquired a devotion to St. Joseph in his youth and retained this devotion until his dying day on March 17, 1955. Still alert in mind and full of wit at 93 years of age, the final words on his lips were, “Jesus, Mary, Joseph…”

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