Visitors to St. Hyacinth Church on Milwaukee’s South Side will find themselves at the intersection of the historic Lincoln Village and Mitchell Street neighborhoods, a densely populated area that was once the home to tens of thousands of Polish immigrants who arrived in Milwaukee in the years between the 1870s and 1880s.
Originally, the Polish community was served by St. Stanislaus Church (524 W. Historic Mitchell St.), which has the distinction of being the third Catholic parish in the country built specifically for the Polish community and the first in an urban area. However, as the waves of immigrants continued to make a home in Milwaukee, it quickly became apparent that a new parish would need to be established to meet ever-increasing needs.
In response, St. Hedwig Church (1702 N. Humboldt Ave., now part of Three Holy Women Parish) was founded in 1871. By 1881, both churches were overwhelmed by increasing numbers and Archbishop Michael Heiss decided to divide both parishes, creating a third church for the Polish community. In response, Fr. Hyacinth Gulski, the pastor of St. Stanislaus, appointed his associate pastor, Fr. Hippolyte Gorski, to organize the new parish. The new parish was named St. Hyacinth in honor of an early Dominican missionary to Poland and as a mark of respect to Fr. Gulski.
Construction on the church began in the spring of 1882. A harsh winter caused a number of setbacks and part of what was built had to be dismantled and yet, despite these challenges, the still-incomplete building was blessed on April 1, 1883. At the time of the dedication, the church had no pipe organ or pulpit and the altar was only partially completed.
In August 1883, Fr. Hyacinth Gulski was appointed pastor of St. Hyacinth at his request and the parish was formally established as a corporate entity.
Only one month later, work was begun on a school for the parish and Archbishop Heiss blessed the new building on Easter Monday in 1884. The church’s two side altars were dedicated the same day. Because there was no rectory, Fr. Gulski lived in a room in the school. The convent for the School Sisters of Notre Dame was blessed May 3, 1884. St. Hyacinth School opened with 505 students. A new rectory was finally built in 1886.
Much of the early history of St. Hyacinth Church is marked by the activities of Fr. Gulski, a celebrated leader in the still-growing Polish community. Ultimately, three more parishes would be formed from St. Hyacinth, including St. Vincent de Paul (2100 W. Mitchell St., 1888), Ss. Cyril and Methodius (1547 W. Windlake Ave., 1893), and St. Adalbert (1923 W. Becher St., 1908).
In 1909, Fr. Gulski — by then a monsignor — ended his time at St. Hyacinth. The new pastor was Fr. Boleslaw E. Goral, a young priest who had served as pastor for the new St. Vincent de Paul Church and as a professor at St. Francis Seminary. Later named a monsignor, Fr. Goral would remain at St. Hyacinth until 1960, guiding the parish through the Great Depression and three wars.
The late 1960s saw enormous changes in Milwaukee’s Near South Side as civil rights demonstrations, including the Fair Housing Marches, forced the tightly-knit community to confront difficult questions of race and equality as demonstrators marched across the 16th Street viaduct and gathered in nearby Kosciuszko Park.
The 1970s and 1980s was a time of difficult transition for the parish. As populations shifted, residents also faced financial challenges as many of the city’s factories and warehouses closed their doors. Unemploy
ment rates rose and many of the families who had called St. Hyacinth’s home moved away. St. Hyacinth School closed its doors in 1988 and the parish was forced to sell its parish hall on 14th Street to help cover mounting debt.
At the same time, St. Hyacinth became home to a new immigrant community, arriving primarily from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Today, the Spanish-speaking community at St. Hyacinth forms the basis for a thriving parish that seeks to provide a faithful witness to the South Side.
Fr. Hugo Londoño, who serves as pastor of St. Hyacinth and St. Anthony Church (1711 S. 9th St.), sees the parish as an important part of the community.
“St. Hyacinth has always been an immigrant church,” Fr. Hugo said. “The Polish people who came to this country built this beautiful church and we Hispanic people inherited it. Ever since the Polish people came, St. Hyacinth has been a central point for the neighborhood through the work of the food pantry, which has been serving more than 100 years.”
The former convent is now a city-run home for those with mental disabilities.
“We now have a mixture of cultures and have different races and skin colors around,” Fr. Hugo said. “Yes, there are challenges, but we are trying to make a good impact by providing a sense of family, community, and being a help for those who don’t look or speak or talk like we do. We want to serve others no matter what.”
The parish also works with the city of Milwaukee and local police to help promote safety and security in the neighborhood.
Parishioner and staff member Martha Andrade became a parishioner at St. Hyacinth 33 years ago. She serves as business administrator to the two parishes. She celebrates the presence of young, involved Hispanic families and the life they bring.
“As part of a medium-sized church, like St. Hyacinth, you can truly feel as one family, knowing all the faces and finding it to be like a second home,” she said.
Andrade noted the presence of volunteers enables the parish to thrive.
“The pride is evident in the energy of those volunteers involved in the day to day activities of this vibrant parish,” she said. “From the day-to-day groups of worship, study groups, and fundraising activities, to the larger efforts like the parish festival, large celebrations, and the food pantry, St. Hyacinth is a welcoming and active community embedded in the surrounding neighborhoods.”