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Southwest Wisconsins Catholic church-builder
Mazzuchelli 150th death anniversary to be commemorated
mazzuchelli woodcut
The 150th anniversary of the death of Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli will be commemorated this year. Mazzuchelli started 30 churches in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan, as well as the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters. - photo by Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters

On Feb. 23, 1864, people in the Tri-State area and throughout our country were shocked when they learned that Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli unexpectedly died.

In an obituary published in 1864 in the San Francisco Monitor and in New York’s Metropolitan Record, his friend Judge Charles Corkery summed up Fr. Samuel’s life with the words “He was a good man.” Like Jesus, he went about doing good.
Another obituary published in Dubuque and in the Cincinnati Catholic Telegraph spoke for many when it said, “Whoever knew him but loved him?”

As a newly ordained priest, Fr. Samuel worked with the Indians. When they were moved westward, he moved to the thriving mining region of the Tri-State area. He assisted Bishop Mathias Loras during the first few years after the founding of the Dubuque Diocese and worked extensively in what would eventually become the Diocese of Madison.

He founded more than 30 parishes and designed and built over 20 church buildings, along with a number of civic buildings. Three of those parishes were named after the three Archangels: St. Raphael in Dubuque, St. Michael in Galena, and St. Gabriel in Prairie du Chien. He also founded St. Thomas in Potosi, St. Augustine (originally near the Wisconsin–Illinois state line, eventually moved to Sinsinawa), St. Dominic in Sinsinawa, St. Francis de Sales in Hazel Green, St. Rose of the Prairie in Cuba City, and St. Matthew in Benton. In 1848, he founded St. Clara Academy (now Dominican University), a frontier school for young women.

In 1847, he founded the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters.  His vision of American Dominican life was realized by them. At the Benton Female Academy, sisters and students enjoyed sharing discussions, laughter and sleigh rides with him.

Many contemporaries remembered Fr. Mazzuchelli as a kind and gentlemanly priest. He was able to break down the cultural barriers that existed at the time and appeal to many different ethnic groups. The Irish he ministered to called him “Father Matthew Kelly.”

In the poetic words of Rudyard Kipling, he could walk with kings, yet not lose the common touch. Corkery wrote that “today he was found in the mansion of the affluent and tomorrow in the hovel of the poor. There he is high upon the scaffold of a church, industriously at work in brick and mortar. In the evening you see him in the pulpit, and tomorrow he lectures before the governor, judges and legislators.” In some ways he reminds me of Fr. Mathias Wernerus, who built the Dickeyville Grotto.

Fr. Mazzuchelli died at 57 of pneumonia that he contracted during a sick call. He died as he lived, serving those in need.
During 2014 we will celebrate the sesquicentennial commemoration of his death. It will begin on Feb. 23 and end on Nov. 4, his birthday. During the year, there will be pilgrimages, special Masses, and many other activities. For more information email Sr. Betty Kugi,, or call the Sinsinawa Dominican Archives, 748-4411.

In an old Benton St. Patrick’s pictorial directory, someone wrote, “Father Samuel was a man of great sacrifice. We marvel at his commitment to God and people. He came. He stayed. He gave his life for them. My God what a man.” (What a man of God!)