Fr. Maximilian Gaertner, O.Praem.

Fr. Max Gaertner, 1801-1877 (Photo courtesy of St. Norbert Abbey)

Rev. Maximilian Gaertner, a Norbertine priest from the Premonstratensian monastery in Wilten, Tyrol, Austria, came to America in 1846. He followed another Norbertine, Rev. Adalbert Inama, who built the first Catholic Church in Dane County at Roxbury in 1845. Fr. Gaertner had a deep love for the German and Irish immigrants who started moving to southern Wisconsin in increasing numbers in the 1840s and 1850s. Like the handful of other missionary priests of Wisconsin in the 1840s, Fr. Gaertner traveled by horseback, wagon, sleigh and on foot to reach the far-flung and scattered pockets of Catholics. His name must be mentioned among the great 19th century missionary priests of Wisconsin, including Inama, Rev. Samuel Mazzuchelli, Rev. Martin Kundig, Rev. Thomas Morrissey, Rev. Florimond Bonduel, and others.

Fr. Gaertner developed a special relationship with the family of Johann and Theresia Kalscheur, who settled in Pine Bluff in 1852. When he came to the Town of Cross Plains, Fr. Gaertner often stayed with the Kalscheurs. He set up an altar for Holy Mass at their home many times before the first St. Mary church structure was built. The Kalscheurs often sent their son Jacob to Madison with a wagon or sleigh to fetch Fr. Gaertner so he could administer the sacraments and educate the children around Pine Bluff. Fr. Gaertner consecrated the first St. Mary church in Pine Bluff on Aug. 15, 1854.

The cover page of Fr. Gaertner’s first journal describing life in North America.

Fr. Gaertner could be brought to tears, as he was at the dedication of St. Mary of Pine Bluff when John Kalscheur rose to give him tribute. He was also very hearty, traveling the wilds of Dane County in bitter cold and deep snow. He gave rebuke when needed, such as the lecture delivered to Hugh and Celinda Campbell when their unruly toddlers made a scene during their baptism.

Rev. Dr. Joseph Salzmann witnessed Fr. Gaertner’s street smarts, although he preferred a less confrontational approach.

Gaertner was downright pugnacious when the need arose. Once while walking the streets of Milwaukee with Rev. Dr. Joseph Salzmann, founder of St. Francis de Sales Seminary, the pair was blocked off the sidewalk by a gang of ruffians. Harassment of Catholic clergy was common in Milwaukee at the time. Salzmann cautioned that they should go far around the thugs, but Fr. Gaertner would have none of it. He strode up to the group, grabbed the boldest of them and tossed him yelling into the road. “No street loafer has the right to block the walks on an American citizen,” the priest said. “If he does, he will be thrown into the gutter, where he belongs.” A nearby saloonkeeper came outside and, after sizing up Fr. Gaertner, told the ruffians:

“There is no fooling with a backwoodsman of that type. He knows how to take care of himself.”

Salzmann did not approve of the approach taken by his fellow Austrian, but Gaertner stuck to his belief that you can’t browbeat a Tyrolese.

One of Fr. Gaertner’s lasting legacies is a set of journals he kept, describing his life as a missionary priest. Those 10 volumes, digitized by St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, provide incredible details about Wisconsin pioneer life in the mid-1800s. The full set has not yet been translated from the old German script used by Fr. Gaertner, although sections have been translated to English (including descriptions of the founding day at St. Mary of Pine Bluff). He wrote details such as how many confessions he heard each day, missionary trips, Holy Masses, weddings and more. The journal pages include some incredible color sketches Gaertner created during his travels. The image atop this article shows his depiction of Sac Prairie, near where St. Norbert’s Catholic Church was established at Roxbury. He also sketched the original St. Francis Seminary in 1856.

Fr. Max Gaertner sketched the Salesianum (St. Francis de Sales Seminary) in 1856. (Image courtesy of St. Norbert College)

When Fr. Inama came to Dane County, his hope was to establish a Norbertine abbey at Roxbury. When those plans had not come to fruition by 1858, Fr. Gaertner was recalled to Stift Wilten near Innsbruck, Austria. He kept in contact with his fellow missionaries in Wisconsin, especially Dr. Salzmann. In September 1865, Salzmann visited Fr. Gaertner at the latter’s parish in Völs, Austria. Salzmann preached a sermon on the life of a missionary priest. Instead of taking up a collection from the poor parishioners to support the Salesianum, Fr. Gaertner offered a sizable donation, causing Salzmann to cry out for joy.

Fr. Gaertner died at Wilten on May 22, 1877. It would be difficult to overstate the impact Fr. Gaertner had on the developing Catholic Church in Wisconsin. Very Rev. Joseph Rainer, rector of the Salesianum, once called Gaertner “one of the best and most deserving of the early pioneers of Wisconsin.” His missionary efforts yielded great fruit, and the faithful of Wisconsin owe him a incredible debt of gratitude.