Polish immigrants to the United States are best known as urban settlers, but St. Peter Catholic Church shows that Poles also sought out rural areas. Wisconsin’s first distinctly Polish settlement—Poland Corner or Polonia, founded in the 1850s—lay about six miles east of Stevens Point. Settlers came from German-ruled parts of western Poland, drawn primarily by the prospect of independent landownership. Though other rural Polish enclaves sprang up later, most notably in Trempealeau County and in the farm areas northwest of Green Bay, they never reached the size of those in Portage and Marathon counties—about fifteen thousand Poles by 1905. Not all Poles in the area were farm dwellers; fully one-third clustered in Stevens Point, where this church became the focus of community life.
When Poles first arrived in Portage County, they attended German Catholic churches, but they were required to sit in segregated areas, and the growing Polish community wanted its own priests who could preach to them in their language. St. Peter’s parish was founded in 1876 to serve fifty Polish families. After fire destroyed the first church, the parish built this one. Designed by Kolpacki of Milwaukee, it was built by Joseph Hutter.
St. Peter’s handsome brick exterior incorporates Gothic Revival windows and soaring lines, yet the broad facade and the heavy corbeling along the eaves compress the composition. A domed cupola marks the apse. The most striking feature is a four-stage tower, which ascends through the center of the facade to two sets of triple lancets, a clock, and a faceted dome, which was clad in copper tiles in 2006. A pinnacled gablet once pierced each face of the dome, and slender pinnacles rose from each corner of the facade. Like the exterior, the interior has experienced changes over the years. The nave is covered by a vaulted Gothic ceiling, and three Gothic arches frame three altars. The retables behind the side altars (1910) and behind the main altar (1915) shelter statues of Christ, Mary, and other holy figures beneath a profusion of crocketed pinnacles. In 1915, builder and parishioner Frank Spalenka expanded the sanctuary and sacristies, and artist Victor Prais redecorated the nave, though his work was mostly erased in successive renovations. A foliated frieze runs just below the vaulting, and the vaults are decorated with paintings of biblical scenes and liturgical symbols.