Posts Tagged ‘Belgian immigrants’

Roadside Chapels

November 20, 2018

Belgian immigrants brought many religious traditions to North East Wisconsin. Signs of faith are still visible among their descendants, such as this shrine in front of a home…

Just off DK in Brussels, on Z

Just off DK in Brussels, on Z

…and this beautiful grotto in the St. Francis and St. Mary parish cemetery north of Brussels, WI.

#27 - St. Francis & St. Mary Parish cemetery

St. Francis & St. Mary Parish cemetery

St. Francis & St. Mary Parish cemetery

Most of those who arrived in the 19th-century were devout Catholics. Some of the newcomers built a small chapel on their property, continuing an Old Country tradition. The chapels might be dedicated to a particular saint, or commemorate a loved one. They might be constructed as an expression of gratitude for a blessing received.

#23 Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel

Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel

The earliest chapels are gone. Some burned in the Great Fire, and some were demolished as roads were widened.  But there are still some chapels sprinkled through the settlement areas in Brown, Kewaunee, and Door Counties. You may have driven by one without realizing it.

#26 Little chapel of the Sacred Heart.

Little chapel of the Sacred Heart.

These are little chapels,” explained Mary Baudhuin, who for sixty years has tended the little shrine of the Immaculate Conception, across from her farm home…  “People build these prayer-houses because of a promise to God if freed of some hardship or disease.  …If we were nearer to the churches we would not need our little shrines.  But in our hours of worry and sorrow we have a place close at home to speak our heart and lay our burden.”  (Fred L. Holmes, Old World Wisconsin:  Around Europe in the Badger State, 1944).

Some chapels were built even after easily-accessible churches were established. They continue to provide comfort and a quiet place to pray for the property owners…and sometimes passers-by as well.

#24 St. Roch Chapel

St. Roch Chapel

The chapels I’ve visited all contain a small altar,

Belgian Chapel

#26 Little Chapel of the Sacred Heart

and religious statues, artwork, and candles arranged with great care.

Belgian Chapel

Belgian Chapel

Belgian Chapel

Traditionally these wayside chapels were always ready to welcome any passerby in search of a moment of quiet contemplation or prayer. Some property owners today continue that tradition.

This chapel originally owned by Joe and Odile Le Mieux was built in 1925. Odile wanted a peaceful place to reflect and pray. Joe, a stonemason, worked with Odile’s brother to build the chapel from local limestone.

Le Mieux Chapel, Cofrin Arboretum, UW-Green Bay

The chapel was used for many years by the family and neighbors.  The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay acquired the property in 1984 as part of the Cofrin Arboretum. A partnership between the UW and local descendants and friends keeps the chapel open to all.

The chapel was dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua.

These chapels are sacred spaces…and a quiet reflection of the devout faith that the Belgian immigrants brought with them.

By Le Mieux Chapel, Cofrin Arboretum, UW-Green Bay

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Chapels played a role in The Lacemaker’s Secret.   Visit my website to learn more.


Why Belgians and Lace?

September 3, 2018

The 9th Chloe Ellefson Mystery, The Lacemaker’s Secret, is set in Green Bay and southern Door County, Wisconsin. It features the Belgian immigrants who arrived there in the 1850s.

The primary settings are Heritage Hill Historical Park in Green Bay, where a gorgeous Belgian-American farmhouse has been relocated and restored, and the Belgian Heritage Center in Namur, a wonderful history and cultural center.

Readers often ask how I choose locations, historical topics, and (in most cases) ethnic groups to showcase in each new Chloe Ellefson mystery. This isn’t always easy, as I have a long and ever-growing list of historic sites and museums I want to write about.

So how did Belgians and lace rise to the top of the list?

First, I only write about places I think readers would enjoy hearing about, and perhaps visiting. Heritage Hill Historical Park has preserved some phenomenal buildings, and my favorite is the Belgian Farm.

Massart Farm, Heritage Hill

The lovely Belgian Farm at Heritage Hill Historical Park previously belonged to the Massart family in Kewaunee County, WI.

Also, the Belgian Heritage Center in Namur is an incredible example of what a group of dedicated volunteers can do to preserve and share their history and cultural heritage. I first considered the Center a research stop, but decided I wanted to feature it in the book itself (even though I had to fictionalize its time of establishment to do so.)


The Belgian Heritage Center is located in the former St. Mary of the Snows Catholic church, located in the community of Namur, in Door County, WI.

The other critical factor is how well the setting/topic of a new book can help reflect the personal journeys that main characters Chloe Ellefson and Roelke McKenna are taking in the series—together and individually. I think a lot about where they are emotionally at the end of the previous book, and where I want them to be by the end of the new book. I try hard to make the place and mystery plot reflect that.

One of the first things I learned about Belgian immigrants was that faith played a big role in their lives and communities.

Le Mieux Chapel, UWGB

It was common for Belgian immigrant families to build small chapels on their properties. This is the Le Mieux Chapel, in Green Bay, WI.

At the end of the previous book, Mining For Justice, Chloe and Roelke needed to consider what “having faith” meant in their relationship.

Despite all this careful thinking and planning, sometimes pure serendipity plays a role in book development as well. While attending a mystery conference a couple of years ago I met Bev, an avid mystery reader who knows a lot about lacemaking, and works with the lace curator at the National Museum of American History. She asked, would I be interested in touring the collection? Why, yes, indeed I would.


Karen, lace curator, shows me one of the many fabulous pieces in the National Museum of American History’s collection in Washington, DC.

I knew nothing about Belgium’s bobbin lace industry before my visit. The pieces of lace I saw were amazing. The stories I heard were compelling. Ideas about how bobbin lace might be featured in a future Chloe book started taking shape in my mind.

I hope The Lacemaker’s Secret might serve as a quiet tribute to the courage and tenacity of the early Belgian immigrants. Many of their descendants still live in northeast Wisconsin.

During the coming weeks I’ll share more behind-the-scenes information about the book, and its topics and themes. I’m excited about readers finally getting the chance to dive into The Lacemaker’s Secret

To learn about the book’s launch events, see my online Calendar.

Abandoned Farmhouse

April 14, 2010

I often photograph abandoned old houses.  I map them in my mind, and the next time I drive by, I always look to see if something has changed.  Every once in a while, I’m enormously cheered to find that someone is fixing up some once-lovely place.  More often, I discover that one wall has caved in, or that someone has razed the place altogether.

A few weeks ago I packed my laptop and my cat into the car and headed to Door County, Wisconsin, for a weeklong writing retreat. I’ve been driving this route periodically for almost thirty years, now, and I always look for a couple of special houses.  I’m a bit worried about one of my favorites.

This house must have been spectacular when it was new. (Of course, in its own way, it still is.)

The original owners must have been good farmers, for even with the red bricks produced locally, these homes weren’t quick and easy to throw together.

Whenever I see such a place, I am reminded of the poignant poem “Abandoned Farmhouse,” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser.  I’ll reproduce just the first stanza here:

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn

Mr. Kooser interprets his abandoned farmhouse in the same way curators hope museum visitors interpret artifacts carefully chosen to help tell a story.  If you love history but haven’t discovered Mr. Kooser’s work, I recommend Delights and Shadows, or any of his other volumes.

I am interested in historic architecture.  Still, like Mr. Kooser, I think mostly of the people who once lived in these abandoned farmhouses. Who proudly stepped inside for the first time?  What joy and anguish did the house once hold?  How did the last occupants feel when they moved out?  Did they know the house would sit empty, and perhaps crumble into the landscape?

I pass this one when I drive toward Lake Delton. Don’t you love the gingerbread trim?

Say the phrase “historic site” and most of us think first of a place formally preserved; a place we now need an admission ticket to explore.  But historic sites surround us, every day.  All we need is a little imagination to bring them to life.