Long before the Diocese of Superior was established in 1905, the same year that Catholic Extension was established, Catholic missionaries had forged a dynamic presence along the shore and riverbanks of northern Wisconsin. In fact, French Jesuit missionaries were among the first Europeans to trek through the wilderness, by canoe and snowshoe, seeking to introduce the Christian faith to Native Americans who inhabited the fertile land. The diocese’s 16 counties presently have 105 parishes, 15 elementary schools and 30,000 Catholic families comprising nearly 80,000 Catholics.
Franciscan Sister Phyllis Wilhelm is a Catholic leader who has served this population, primarily Native Americans, for more than 40 years.
A Sister of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate, she ministers to Ojibwe Native Americans in the farthest north of Wisconsin. For 21 of those years, she was the principal of the small Holy Family Catholic School in Bayfield, with about two thirds of the students coming from the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe. She works to build communities and maintain a Catholic presence, despite the closing of her school and the consolidation of parishes.
Since 2008 she has been serving as the pastoral associate of St. Mary Parish, a historic church in Odanah that is part of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe. Catholic Extension has helped to sustain the parish by subsidizing her salary there. In this role, she has pastoral, administrative and fundraising functions. She has also increased lay involvement in the parish and has inspired parishioners to help with repairs to the building and to become lectors, Eucharistic ministers and ushers. She encourages them to be part of the parish and finance councils.
Sister Wilhelm has a special place in her heart for the Ojibwe. She has incorporated their traditions into the liturgy and has fostered a group of Native women who are reclaiming the traditional beading craft. “The Native American traditions are so much like those of St. Francis,” she said. “Their love of nature, God’s presence and each other have enhanced my own faith. I pray that my presence among them has given the gift of Christ in my words and actions.”
She has learned so much from them. “I have come to lead them in prayer and to let them lead me in prayer,” she said. “I let them teach me their native spirituality and see how that fits into our spirituality. The gifts they bring are invaluable.”
At 77 years old, Sister Wilhelm is a trusted, hardworking, valued member of this community and continues to shed light on the extraordinary talents and contributions of the Ojibwe as she tirelessly accompanies them in their daily lives.