Between Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin is a region along the bay which is heavily populated by people of Belgian origin. It is the largest rural settlement of people of this nationality in the United States and covers an area 20 miles wide and 50 miles long in Door, Kewaunee and Brown counties.
Walloon-speaking Belgians began to arrive in Door, Kewaunee and Brown counties in the 1850s, establishing communities with names from their home country ie. Namur, Rosiere, Brussels, and Luxemburg. Belgian customs and traditions remain to this day.
Father Louis Hennepin
The first Belgian known to penetrate this region was Father Louis Hennepin, a missionary who was born in Ath in the province of Hainault, Belgium. He came to America in 1675 and took a prominent part in exploring this region. As he traveled by canoe on the waters of Green Bay he stopped at a site where the Village of Dyckesville now stands. After returning to his native country, not a Belgian set foot in this region for almost 175 years.
In order to better understand what motivated the Belgians to leave their mother country for the New World, we must move ahead to 1853.
The First Emigrants
The first emigrants came from the province of Brabant, located in the center of Belgium. It was a crowded and thickly populated area.
In early 1853, a young and small farmer by the name of Francois Petiniot from the commune of "Grez-Doiceau" made a trip to the City of Antwerp to transact business. Upon reaching his destination Petiniot was thirsty and stopped at an inn. While drinking a beer he saw a pamphlet nearby that told of the fertile land for sale in America. When Petiniot read that this land could be purchased from the American government for $1.25 an acre, his interest was aroused to a high pitch. To own land, to cultivate it, plant it and reap the harvest for himself was the most coveted hope of most every European peasant for centuries. He tucked the pamphlet into his pocket and headed home.
Soon Petiniot spread the word amongst his neighbors in the commune of “Grez-Doiceau.” They learned that a sailing vessel, the “Quinnebaug,” was scheduled to sail from the port of Antwerp about the middle of May and that the fare to America was $35.
On May 18, 1853, the vessel sails were hoisted and the creaking ship slowly moved out of the harbor, making its way into the North Sea. As it did so, men, women and children stood on deck watching the receding shore line, some with heavy hearts at the thought of leaving the home of their birth. By leaving their homeland they became the predecessors of more than 15,000 Belgians who came the following 10 years.
Sister Adele Brise — The Apparition
Among the exodus of pioneer Belgians who emigrated to Wisconsin was the Brice family. Lambert Brice and his wife, Marie Catherine, left Belgium on June 9, 1855, with their four children, Esperance, 27; Adele, 24; Isabel, 20, and Vital, 5. They landed in New York and immediately headed westward for Wisconsin where Lambert and his wife purchased 240 acres of land in Red River.
Marie Adele Joseph Brice was born January 30, 1831 in Dion-le-Val, Brabant province, in Belgium. At a young age, an accident blinded her in one eye. She was regarded as a pious young girl who loved God, the Blessed Mother, and everyone she met.
In October 1859, Adele claimed that the Blessed Virgin appeared to her on three occasions. In the final encounter she was given a message and a mission. On the way home from Mass, with her two friends, she encountered the same "beautiful woman, clothed in dazzling white, with a yellow sash around her waist. Her dress fell to her feet in graceful folds. She had a crown of stars around her head, and her long, wavy, golden hair fell loosely over her shoulders." Kneeling, Adele began a conversation with the Blessed Virgin Mary that would change her life forever. The Queen of Heaven departed, lifting her hands as if giving a blessing. In a matter of minutes, Adele, received her vocation: to teach young people their catechism, how to make the sign of the cross, and how to receive the Sacraments.
Less than a decade after the apparitions, Adele had already established her mission in the Bay Settlement. She continued to devote her life to teaching children in the Belgian settlement and was an inspiration to many faithful followers.
In 2010, the apparition was decreed worthy of belief by the Catholic Church, one of about a dozen such sites in the world and the only one in the United States.
St Mary of the Snows Cemetary
St. Mary of the Snows Cemetery is located between the Belgian Heritage Center and the Old Schoolhouse in Namur, Wisconsin. Many years ago they discovered that the pine boxes had caved in; the cemetery was in disarray and dangerous. As a result, headstones were moved and grouped together in one location off the grave sites. There have been many stories over the years about the deceased being buried under the asphalt parking lot. In fact, they are buried in the grassy area between the parking lot and headstones. It is a very unique little cemetery!
Civil war begins!
By 1860 the Belgians in Brussels, Wisconsin were beginning to forget the hardships which befell them in earlier years. Their little fields were producing good crops; they were optimistic for the future.
Lincoln’s call for 75,000 men affected them. Men were called into service and Brussels filled it’s full quota of soldiers.
During those days it was not uncommon to see Belgian women driving a yoke of oxen when harvesting or plowing a field. At last, after four years of fighting, the surviving soldiers returned home.
The Great Fire
On the evening of October 8, 1871, a tornado of fire swept through northeastern Wisconsin and the Belgian Community. Many months of extreme drought combined with the land-clearing practices of the time ("slash and burn") caused many small fires to be whipped into a huge forest fire causing a cyclonic storm.
Suddenly, this terrible tragedy was upon them. Little snow and rain had fallen, and there had been an unusual drought. Forest fires had raged in many localities in August and September; the heat was oppressive, and the smoke so dense that vision was seriously obscured. The roar and crackle of the flames could be heard from a long distance. Fire raged for days in the woods on both sides of the bay, coming nearer and nearer. Finally, on the afternoon of October 8, the atmosphere became unbearable; clouds of smoke and flames were everywhere. Many people believed the world was coming to an end; families ran in terror.
The greatest loss of life in our area was at Williamson’s Mill, near Brussels. At Williamsonville, now known as Tornado park, sixty persons were burned to death.
In Robinsonville, Adele Brice gathered with a group of people to pray at the wooden Chapel of Our Lady of Good Help. The Sisters, the children, area farmers and their families fled to the Shrine’s chapel for protection. The area surrounding the Shrine’s grounds was destroyed and desolate. Although the fire raged around them, it stopped at the chapel fence which was charred, but the chapel grounds remained untouched.
In southern Door County, the fires meant the end of lumbering and shingle making, and became a a catalyst in the transition to agriculture. Rebuilding gave rise to a distinctive architecture of 2-story homes with brick and dolomite veneer, arched-brick lintels and a bullseye window (full or half) under the roof peak. Materials were reminiscent of their homeland and provided extra protection from fire. Many of these buildings are still in use today.
St Mary of the Snows Parochial Schoolhouse
After the original school and church burned in 1892, parishioners were able to raise enough money to rebuild the church in 1893. They had no immediate funds to rebuild the convent/school. To finance the school’s rebuilding they contributed sacks of grain according to their means. These were sold and the new school was erected in 1894.
The building remains much the same as when the Sisters taught there. The blackboards in the front of the main schoolroom still roll back to reveal the altar that Rev. Pennings used to say mass to early settlers. From this site Rev. Pennings started the order of the Norbertine Fathers. The school was discontinued in 1925.
For many years the school was vacant and falling into disrepair until the Bishop gave it to the Belgian-American Club.
The Peninsula Belgian-American Club was started for the first time on July 6, 1964. Officers were Kenneth DeDecker, President; Harry Swoboda, Vice President; Wallace Charles, Secretary; and Leonard Lampereur, Treasurer. After a period of time the group became inactive.
Peninsula Belgian American Club Re-Organized
In 1968, several people approached Harry Chaudoir about re-organizing the club. Officers for this newly formed club were Harry Chaudoir, President; Austin Allard, Vice President; Laurence Chaudoir, Secretary; and Leonard Lampereur, Treasurer. The club began their first year with 12 to 20 members with the purpose of honoring their forefathers, to salute their efforts and recreate that era in history when good fellowship was prime, to promote social and charitable functions, and to communicate and assist all incorporated Belgian Clubs that included Canada and Belgium.
Other people who filled the position of Secretary after Laurence Chaudoir were Irene Conard, Grace Lemense and Mary Ann Defnet.
St Mary of the Snows Parochial School Moved
In 1969, George Baudhuin donated $4,000 to the Peninsula Belgian American Club to pay the cost of moving the schoolhouse a short distance to its present location and to cover a few basic repairs. When the building was moved, Ralph Baudhuin contributed a supply of paint, and the white school was painted yellow, Belgium's national color.
The Peninsula Belgian American Club owns and maintains the school, and uses it once a month for meetings during April thru October.
First Trip to Belgium
In 1972, Harry Chaudoir met Dr. Joseph Binnard, a doctor in Manitowoc and with his help, the first trip to Belgium was started. At that time they had about 150 members in the club. While traveling thru the Walloon region in Belgium, friends and relatives they met wanted to know why they were not staying with them. There was much excitement and happiness when many of the Belgians realized there was a large group of people living in Wisconsin who still spoke Walloon, just like them.
In 1974, with the help of Lucien Leonard of Namur, Belgium, members of the Peninsula Belgian American Club went on their second trip to Namur. The Walloon people were overjoyed to see them and many were excited about meeting their relatives for the first time. They had approximately 170 members on this trip that was organized by Austin Allard and Harry Chaudoir. Their number increased to 180 for the 1976 tour.
Belgians Visit Wisconsin
Members from our sister club, the Wallonie-Wisconsin Society, began coming to Wisconsin for the first time in 1975 with approximately 200 people, making it necessary for them to travel on two planes. Mr. Lucien Leonard was the first President of the Wisconsin-Wallonie Society and he also organized the trips to Wisconsin with his officers.
This tradition of biennial visits continues to this day.
Namur Historic District
The Namur Historic District is located in southwestern Door County, Wisconsin, adjacent to the waters of Green Bay. Walloon-speaking Belgians settled the region in the 1850s and still constitute a high proportion of the population.
A variety of elements attests to the Belgian American presence: place names (Brussels, Namur, Rosiere, Luxemburg), the Walloon language that’s still spoken today, common surnames, unique foods (booyah, trippe, Belgian pie and jutt), the Kermiss festivals, and architecture. Many of the wooden structures of the Belgian Americans were destroyed during the Great Fire of 1871. A few stone houses made of local dolomite survived. More common are 1880s red brick houses, distinguished by modest size and gable-end, bull’s-eye windows. Some houses have detached summer kitchens with bake ovens appended to the rear. And the Belgians, many of them devout Catholics, also erected small roadside votive chapels like those in their homeland.
Other buildings in the historical district are the 1891 St Mary of the Snows Catholic Church (currently the Belgian Heritage Center) and Cemetery; St. Mary of the Snows Parochial School (now owned by the Peninsula Belgian American Club), the 1910 Fairland school, and the 1916 William Struck store (aka Delwiche building).
Historical Site Designation
The former St Mary of the Snows Parochial school is located in the Namur Historical District. It was designated a historical site in 2003.
The old school is the Birthplace of the Norbertine Fathers and currently owned by the Peninsula Belgian American Club. It is located adjacent to the Belgian Heritage Center (formerly St Mary of the Snows Catholic Church).
Behind the school is the “Chapel of St. Roche”, a small Belgian chapel. It is one of several chapels that were moved for preservation. Both the school and chapel are maintained by the Peninsula Belgian American Club.