St. Mary's Visitation Parish towers over Elm Grove, but one of the most important rooms is no bigger than a toolshed. In that small, bright room, barely big enough for more than a few chairs, people come to pray in front of the holy sacrament. Many of those who come have been doing so for decades.
Twenty-five years ago this week, Don Riemer came up with the idea to have constant Eucharistic adoration at St. Mary's in a tiny chapel near the back.
"It's twice as big as the old one," Riemer joked as he explained the original site is now a storage closet. It was Riemer, along with the now deceased Monsignor Joseph Emmenegger, who started the adoration on Oct. 7, 1985. For a quarter century parishioners have come to the chapel to pray, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"The problem wasn't from midnight to 7 a.m." Riemer said. "It was Sunday afternoon. People would say 'I'll sign up' until the Packers started."
Building a chapel
Riemer hasn't been a member of St. Mary's this millennium and yet he still gets choked up telling stories about the hundreds of people who signed up for slots at all hours of the day and night to keep the adoration going.
Riemer and Emmenegger built the original altar themselves. That altar now sits in Riemer's attic because the church created a new space specifically for the adoration.
That new room features marble from the main altar in the sanctuary when Emmenegger presided over St. Mary's. The crucifix Emmenegger bought in Rome as part of his personal collection still hangs in the chapel's new location. It's a fitting tribute, Riemer said, because his good friend Emmenegger practically lived in that chapel.
He remembered the two would sit and talk during Riemer's adoration time, and when he would insist he should be praying, Emmenegger would say, "The Lord understands."
Keeping the tradition
When Riemer and his wife, Carole, left St. Mary's, Mary Schwarz was midway through her 43-year tenure as a member of St. Mary's. Seeing an opportunity to help their church, Mary and her husband, Joe, took over the management of the adoration.
"Once you experience being there, you're drawn back," she said of the chapel. Schwarz points to the number of people still coming to adoration as proof.
When the program started more than 400 people were involved, Riemer said. That number has dwindled to only about 200, but every hour still is covered.
Parishioner Kay Eberle said the routine is easy.
"It becomes so much a part of your life," she said.
And in the last 25 years it has been part of the lives of hundreds of people, who come at all hours to sit in a tiny room to pray.
"We knew we had to get people involved to keep it going," Schwarz said. And when someone had to miss a slot, it was she who often stepped in, no matter what else she had going on, no matter how late.
Schwarz had been running the program for a decade when it simply became too much. A stewardship program now helps keep the adoration organized, ensuring there is a person coming at every hour of the day. A parishioner may handle the schedule for a day or a week and make sure all the slots are filled.
"We need more young people getting involved," Schwarz said, noting that the church is starting to see a resurgence of younger people wanting to be a part of this rich history, something that doesn't surprise her.
"I think 25 years tells the tale," she said.
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