The 1950s was a time of great growth in the Catholic Church in southeastern Wisconsin, and across the United States, in the aftermath of World War II and in the midst of the Baby Boom.
From that period of population explosion and urban sprawl was birthed Good Shepherd Parish in Menomonee Falls.
Opened in 1957, Good Shepherd is located in the middle of a dense area of Catholic communities, including three others in Menomonee Falls (St. Mary, St. James and St. Anthony), two to the north in Washington County (St. Boniface and St. Gabriel) and three others in the western suburbs that are within quick driving distance to Menomonee Falls residents (St. Agnes in Butler, and St. John Vianney and St. Dominic in Brookfield).
“It’s inherent with the history of this parish as to why we do not just survive, but are now thriving,” said Deacon Sandy Sites, the parish director. “Fr. Fran Eschweiler was the first pastor. The decision at the time by the Arch — this would have been the early to mid 1950s — is St. Mary’s is busting at the seams, there was an expansion going to the west of Menomonee Falls; we need another parish out there. So, they bought land and installed Fr. Fran.”
At the time, most parishes had designated boundaries, but Dcn. Sites said Good Shepherd was one of the first “destination parishes” in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, with community’s 240 families coming from 27 zip codes. The way the parish was set up, it was supposed to serve people who lived west of Appleton Avenue and had a Menomonee Falls address. Those east of Appleton Avenue were to attend St. Mary.
Fr. Fran was part of the draw.
“Fr. Fran had a justice heart, and at the time, the issue of the day was affordable housing,” Dcn. Sites said. “He was a good friend of Fr. Grappi’s and they participated as partners in some of the movements, the marches, etc.”
Justice is one of the main calling cards of the parish.
“We were a destination and we still are,” Dcn. Sites said. “I sense the two main reasons folks come to Good Shepherd — I know this from a recent survey — is that we’re welcoming and that we’re committed to justice. Every parish you mentioned is unique and has profound and good characteristics. Ours are welcoming and committed to justice. That’s the goodness of the Catholic Church, I think: We have our unique charisms and we should all as Catholics go where we’re fed. I respect all of (the other local parishes).”
Those local parishes serve to help feed the faithful at Good Shepherd and vice versa. The parish always celebrates the Mass of Anticipation the day before Holy Days of Obligation, so it doesn’t directly compete with neighboring parishes. During Advent and Lent, the parish participates in communal Reconciliation with multiple parishes and multiple priests.
“We take advantage of the larger Catholic presence,” Dcn. Sites said.
The various neighboring parishes do tend to complement each other, and the resources at each other’s disposal are invaluable.
“The Catholic identity in a town of 35,000 is incredible,” Dcn. Sites said. “I think it’s 15 or 16,000 Catholics in the parishes you mentioned. That’s (almost 50 percent) of the population. I hope to bring this sense of being Catholic in all of its positive attributes. I feel we can all feed off each other and feed to each other. I look at it as a huge positive.”
The sense of cooperation dates back at least 40 years, as Dcn. Sites said the parish’s school closed in the late 1970s to support St. Mary’s, which operates a strong Catholic school just a mile to the east.
The parish has developed a reputation of championing causes in line with Church teachings that could be seen as progressive. It’s something that has drawn parishioners dating back to the days of Fr. Fran, the first of just four pastoral leaders in the parish’s history.
“The words I use are progressive and traditional,” Dcn. Sites said. “There’s roots in this parish today of both progressive and traditional. I marvel. This parish has had some remarkable folks. We have members who have been Republican state legislators, we’ve had those who have led justice causes. We love each other. We are able to talk respectfully. We have adult education courses that kind of skew to both, and all come, and all have healthy dialogue and learn. I think there’s some of that, but I think the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee understands the call to Christ’s need to serve all – the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, and the rich and the powerful. I would hope as pastoral leader here that if you sit in a pew here, you’re not gonna get a sense of one and not the other.”
To feed the flock, the parish offers more than 70 different ministries, and rents space to five different organizations that in line with Church teachings, including Hartfel House, HOPE Network, Menomonee Falls Preschool Co-op, the Northwest Alano Club and Catholic Charities.
In addition to its commitment to causes related to justice, Dcn. Sites is very proud of the parish’s hospitality.
“I am told that people who join here, join primarily for one of two reasons,” Dcn. Sites said. “We are welcoming. What does that mean? When you come to the doors at weekend Mass, somebody’s going to be there saying, ‘Welcome. We’re glad you’re here.’ If they don’t recognize you, they’re going to ask your name. Before the beginning of Mass every weekend, we stand up and welcome the visitors. The way we proceed in our ministries, we push ourselves to not just be reactive to when people come to us, but to go out and meet a need or concern. I would say maybe not justice, but adult formation.”
Dcn. Sites moved to the Menomonee Falls area in 1977 and attended Good Shepherd, St. Anthony and St. Mary before becoming a member at Good Shepherd in 1984. He was ordained as a deacon in 2005 and was appointed as parish director in 2012. He is the shared parish director with St. James on the far west end of Menomonee Falls, bordering the town of Lisbon. He splits his time between the parishes 50-50, and that includes celebrating Mass every other weekend at each parish.
“I’ve been overwhelmed with the sensitivity and the support,” Dcn. Sites said. “There’s a concern, though, because what I’ve noticed is they don’t always want to come to me because they say, ‘Oh, you’re too busy.’ I’ve got to work on that because I don’t want to project that image.”
He said the parish’s ultimate message is one of inclusion and hospitality, and the ethnic and geographic diversity in the pews is a testament to that.
“In your desire to live your faith, we have something for you,” Dcn. Sites said. “We are, in fact, a diverse community. If you feel that is something you need to nourish your faith journey, yes, you’re going to find that here.”