“We always met at St. Jude Church, in the basement. In the late 1970s we had over 2,200 members. It was elbow to elbow, and packed. Our last meeting was in the basement, too. We had seven there. We didn’t even fill a table” said Michael Ziems.
Ziems, of the Milwaukee Fire Department, has been president of Milwaukee’s St. Jude League for 11 years, and has even taken on finance secretary responsibilities, too, of late.
Because of falling membership numbers, last year the league dissolved.
“We’re donating the monies that we still have invested to the seminary,” said James Kerstein, a St. Jude League past president, and longtime member. “We also gave money to St. Jude Church – which has been our headquarters since the organization was founded.”
A statue of the saint, dedicated to the league, still stands in the Wauwatosa church’s main courtyard.
“We’ve always been honored to have them,” said Lynn Musolf, the parish’s administrative director.
Ziems attributes the demise of the St. Jude League – a Catholic organization of law enforcement and firefighters – to a larger national trend of withering fraternal organizations of all stripes. Organizations like the Elks, Moose and Lions have long faced declining numbers and diminished membership. In the local Catholic Church, other fraternal organizations – including the Knights of Columbus, Holy Name Society, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the St. Thomas More Society – have met with varied successes of late.
“Unfortunately, many fraternal organizations have gone out of vogue, and (have) really seen their memberships drop,” said Kerstein. “Blame it on maturity and attrition, as well as few new members joining up.”
The Milwaukee chapter was one of three in the country, survived by Chicago’s and Racine’s.
Despite its decline, the league was large and prominent in Milwaukee for more than seven decades.
“The league started here (in Milwaukee) around 1935, when six guys went down and visited Chicago’s chapter,” Ziems said. “They took note of how they ran it, what they did, who was there. Then they came back up here. There were six of them. But by the time word got around, the first meeting had 400.”
“Officially, it formed when Milwaukee archdiocese law enforcement and firefighters banded together under the patronage of St. Jude Thaddeus, to promote true Americanism and foster vocations to the priesthood,” he said, even, or maybe especially, in the heart of the Great Depression. The league also counts as goals personal sanctification, and promotion of devotion to the apostle.
St. Florian is the patron saint of firefighters, Ziems noted. Yet St. Jude – patron of hopeless causes – was selected league patron.
“Well many firefighters and police certainly fit the criteria,” Ziems laughed. “No, no. In all seriousness, these are professions that see so much hopelessness on the job. It does get to the point where you need all the help you can get.”
The local chapter’s ethnic makeup has traditionally been “pretty much the same as Milwaukee’s Catholic community: Italian, Irish, German and Polish,” Ziems said. “There were more Polish here, but all those groups were well represented. We had the police and fire departments from West Allis, Cudahy, Greenfield, and Greendale, as well as FBI agents and INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) officers.”
The cornerstone and lifeblood of the chapter were its monthly meetings.
“We’d have 10 a year – off in the summer, June and July,” Ziems said. “That was just what men did – especially in the years after World War II. They raised families, worked and that (meeting) was their night out. They met with friends, talked business. They drank beers, maybe had a sandwich and played cards for hours.
“Folks might belong to a few,” he added. “Many of our own undoubtedly belonged to the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars). Even among the fire and police, there are American Legion chapters. There is the League of Martin for African American police and firefighters. A lot of people already belong to union chapters, too.”
The St. Jude League is unique because membership is exclusively law enforcement and fire fighters, “plus obviously it’s Catholic, and it is strictly devoted to raising aid for seminarians.” Ziems said. “In the olden days, the league gave out money to anyone headed for the priesthood. Now we just give directly to those in the major seminary. In years past, members who had sons in the priesthood were automatically directed grants. We have given to as many as 10-12, and there were years where a couple priests got a bunch of money.”
To raise the money, the league sponsors various fundraisers. In Milwaukee, these included breakfasts, dances, golf outings, picnics, Christmas parties and entertainment and shows. But the bulk of monies arrive via annual membership dues and fees, plus personal contributions.
“Over the years, we developed a pretty good pot of money, which was invested,” Kerstein said. “And each year, seminarians could apply for grants. Depending on the number of requests, the surplus and investment profits were divided. Even when there were 10-12 young men who applied, they would all get grants ranging from $400-600.”
Ziems puts the grand total at “around $350,000 over the years, all given directly to seminarians. There are literally dozens of priests floating around the archdiocese right now who we’ve helped,” he said.
In addition to meetings and fund-raising events, the league also centered itself around Catholic rituals, sacraments, tradition and prayer – infused with police and fire culture.
“At our breakfast meeting in October we’d put together a Mass for the blessing of fire equipment, sheriff’s equipment, police squad cars and motorcycles, and all that,” said Kerstein. The annual celebration was known as the Corporate Communion Mass.
The league also has unique ways of honoring departed members, especially those fallen in very dangerous situations and professions.
“We still do a St. Jude funeral vigil for members who pass,” Ziems said. “We gather, say the rosary and offer prayers before the wake.”
“For a long time, we had a memorial Mass for all those who passed, too,” he said. “During Mass we would ‘Call the Roll.’ We lit candles for everybody in the ranks. Then we called roll. Most responded: ‘Present.’ But when someone called out ‘Absent,’ we’d blow out one of the candles.”
“But we’ve since rolled that into our Corporate Communion,” he said. “During the prayers of intercession we now list the names of those who’ve passed. For each, we ring a fire bell,” provided by the fire chief.
The Milwaukee chapter’s last Corporate Communion was held Oct. 31, 2010 at St. Jude Church, and was presided at by Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Sklba.
“Our average age is now well above 70,” Ziems said. “Many have passed, some are floating around. It’s really a social change. People today have more activities. There are so many more social obligations, kids in sports, all that.”