Throughout Lent, the Catholic Herald will highlight Where WE Worship, a weekly feature on parishes within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, by featuring parishes of some of the Catholic Herald staff. This week’s parish feature is St. Eugene Parish in Fox Point, home parish to Colleen Jurkiewicz, Reporter for the Catholic Herald.
When the cornerstone of the St. Eugene church building was laid in November 1958, it contained a list of all charter parishioners’ names — a fitting homage to those individuals and families who would, in some cases quite literally, help to build the new congregation that was taking shape on the corner of Port Washington and Calumet roads in Fox Point.
Founding pastor Fr. William H. Mackin would write years later that, since the community “started from scratch” together in 1957, “we became a family.”
Sixty years later, some members of the family may have changed, but several of those original parishioners remain, and their sense of filial dedication to the parish has translated to their newer counterparts.
“I feel like at St. Eugene, the people demonstrate real ownership of the church,” said Jeanette Lambrecht, director of child ministry at the parish. Lambrecht’s parents joined St. Eugene in the early 1960s and she was educated at the parish school. Though she joined a different parish later in life, when Lambrecht became a mother in 1993, she knew that there was only one faith community in which she wanted to bring up her daughter.
“It sounds trite,” she said of returning to her roots at St. Eugene. “But it was like coming home.”
That’s a sentiment frequently expressed by those who worship at St. Eugene, whether they are recent arrivals or charter members: for many of her parishioners, the St. Eugene community represents an intersection of home, religious and community life.
“It has that sense of people who are connected in those subtle ways of daily life — they see each other at the store and the dropping off of kids at activities,” said Fr. Paul Hartmann, who has been the shared pastor of St. Eugene and nearby St. Monica in Whitefish Bay since June. “It’s a neat little thing, that it fills a niche within a community by being a community.”
“It’s always been like a family,” said Barbara Desmond who, along with her husband Harry, joined St. Eugene in 1959. That was just two years after Archbishop Albert C. Meyer commissioned Fr. Mackin to form a parish in Fox Point, to be located upon 7 acres of former farmland purchased in the 1920s by Fr. Peter Dietz, then-pastor of St. Monica. In the 1950s, the North Shore of Milwaukee was growing fast with young Catholic families like the Desmonds, and the need was acute for a church in Fox Point to join the existing local parishes of St. Monica, St. Robert and Holy Family.
Fr. Mackin began offering Mass for his new flock of 377 families in the old Fox Point Meeting House in a field adjacent to the current church site. Money was low but enthusiasm was high; parishioners formed work crews to renovate the meeting house (filled to standing room only for Sunday Mass), while raising more than $500,000 to break ground on the new church in June 1958.
That 800-seat church would be completed in time for the Easter Vigil in 1959. Featuring walls of soft, red brick and glass windows depicting the Seven Sacraments and the tenets of the Faith, the space was intentionally modest in design, due to Fr. Mackin’s desire to be financially prudent with his congregation’s donations. A 1982 renovation would bring, among other changes, the addition of a 1,217-pipe organ and new stained-glass windows on either side of the church, representing events from the life of Christ — most prominently, a large rendering of the Transfiguration that presides over the rear wall.
One of the earliest groups to form at the new parish was the Legion of Mary, who visited area homes to conduct a census and evangelize devotion to the Rosary and the Sacred Heart. Other early parish initiatives included the Men’s and Women’s clubs as well as the “$100 Clubs,” an idea borrowed from nearby St. Monica that involved 10 couples or singles getting together socially, each donating $10 for a specific parish need. “We got to know a lot of other members that way,” said
Desmond. “We just found everything to be very friendly, even though a lot of (the charter members) were from St. Robert’s and already had a circle of friends and everything. We still all made new friends amongst us.”
The variety and dedication of parish organizations and ministries has endured to the present day, said Fr. Hartmann. “It’s impressive that a parish kind of tucked away into a neighborhood, like it is, really has a big footprint of activity.”
Included in that activity is a variety of service initiatives — a St. Vincent de Paul chapter, involvement in St. Ben’s Meal Ministry as well as a 16-year twinning relationship with Our Lady Queen of Apostles Parish in Nkokonjeru, Uganda, which Fr. Hartmann describes as “one of the key things the parishioners are proud of.” Since 2002, the twinning project has helped promote sustainable agriculture in the subparishes of Our Lady Queen of Apostles, and the relationship has been one of fellowship as well, with visits between the parishioners and pastoral staff of the two communities.
Soon after the completion of the church building, the Sisters of Mercy opened the St. Eugene Parish School in September 1959. Today, the school has 164 students in grades 3K through eighth, and has been honored in recent years by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee with three Exemplary Recognition awards in Mission and Catholic Identity, Academic Excellence and Innovative Programs.
That sense of ownership is what attracted Kate and Luke Junk to the St. Eugene community in 2014. Recently transplanted to the North Shore, the new parents were looking for a good local Catholic school and not necessarily a parish home, already belonging to another parish in their former neighborhood. However, slowly but surely, said Kate Junk, “St. Eugene pulled us in.” Then-associate pastor Fr. Jacob Strand greeted them personally after Mass and invited them to a BOOYA (Blessed Order of Young Adults) event; youth minister Meaghan Turner helped them find a babysitter, and before they knew it, the Junks were joining committees and volunteering around the church. “They’re very, very thoughtful about how do we engage young families and how do we make sure that they can participate?” said Junk.
“I’ve been in a lot of phases in my life here, and whatever your phase of life, there’s something for you — and there are people to help you discover it,” agreed Lambrecht.