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. Mary’s Visitation Parish in Elm Grove, home parish to Madeline Zukowski, Reporter for the Catholic Herald.
From the moment Fr. Peter Berger stepped foot on the grounds of St. Mary’s Visitation Parish, he knew what the community’s priorities were.
As the vocation director for the archdiocese, knowing as of June 2012 he would be the administrator of St. Mary’s Visitation, he celebrated the last Mass of the religious education year at the parish. One of the parish’s regular petitions included praying for their new priest.
“I was up there at that Mass, knowing exactly who that next priest would be — it was me — but I couldn’t say anything at that point,” Fr. Peter said.
A few months earlier, when he was touring the parish, he noticed a sign on the perpetual adoration chapel that read, “Please pray for our new priest.”
“I remember when I saw that sign on the door of the adoration chapel thinking, ‘That’s a community I want to be a part of,’” Fr. Peter said. “‘A community that’s already praying for someone they don’t know.’”
A parish community certainly devoted to prayer, as well as to the sacraments and the development of its individual’s spiritual lives, St. Mary’s Visitation is located in the village of Elm Grove, which is a blend of the old and new, much like the parish. On a nice day, you can see kids walking to school, riding their bikes to get ice cream, and every year there’s a Memorial Day Parade.
The small-town nature of Elm Grove, said Fr. Peter, lends the parish to serve two demographics: parishioners who have been there for 50-plus years and new families, sometimes younger generations of long-time parishioners.
The parish has been a part of parishioner Joe Puchner’s life for the past 46 years. As a child, he attended both St. Mary’s Visitation Parish and St. Mary’s Visitation School. “There are a lot of old people here and a lot of very young people,” he said.
“We’ve had a bumper crop of baptisms, but it’s also not uncommon to see people who have stayed in the parish forever.”
Parishioner Mary Magnor, whose family moved from Chicago to the area 25 years ago, was told by a friend to explore St. Mary’s Visitation. “We went to Mass here and we felt right at home,” she said. “Right away, there was no question that St. Mary’s was a good fit.”
The area was a good fit for 16 farmers back in 1847, a year before Wisconsin became a state. The 16 farmers from Bavaria, Germany, asked visiting priests to celebrate Mass in their homes while they made plans to construct a church. Five years later, a 24-foot-by-34-foot log structure was built on land donated to the Diocese of Milwaukee. The parish was called St. Ambrose.
Around the same time, a group of dedicated nuns, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, built their convent, rest home and orphanage nearby, with the determination to teach Catholicism to the children of immigrants.
The parishioners of St. Ambrose outgrew the log structure and the School Sisters allowed the parishioners to attend Mass at their chapel until they were able to build a bigger church. The chapel was blessed as the parish church, named the Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on the feast of the Assumption of Mary, Aug. 15, 1859. In 1891, the church was expanded to fit 90 families.
In 1913, St. Mary’s School was moved from the sisters’ convent to a two-room schoolhouse, which housed two classrooms and an auditorium.
The School Sisters’ chapel served as the parish church until after World War I, when the convent was expanded. The church moved into the auditorium of the school while the “Triangle Church,” built on the triangle of land between Watertown Plank and Juneau Boulevard, was being built.
In the following years, both the parish and the school grew. In 1924, more classrooms were added to the school and by 1954, the school served 900 students. A new wing was added to Crescent Street to bring the total amount of classrooms to 24.
The amount of parishioners grew to 600, twice the size of the room in the Triangle Church. A new church opened in the basement of the Crescent Street building, and both the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church and School were dedicated Nov. 21, 1954, by Cardinal Albert Meyer.
In 1963, a new church was built in the spot where it still stands today, on the corner of Church Street and Juneau Boulevard. At that point, the Church had 1,250 families and 1,100 students were enrolled in the school.
In 1985, perpetual adoration began and has lasted to this day. Fr. Peter called the adoration chapel the heart of the parish.
“I think of what happens, what God does in that chapel, everything from people getting engaged, to people accepting a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life in the silence of their hearts in that chapel, all of the blessings, the healings, the consolations and the strength that has come through prayer there,” Fr. Peter said. “I don’t know how, if a parish has somebody praying before the Blessed Sacrament every hour of every day for 32 years, how God would not open the floodgates of his grace there. I think that’s what you see.”
And what does the future of St. Mary’s Visitation look like? Fr. Peter seems to think the community is, and will continue to be, focused on building spiritual lives and less about building buildings.
“I really think of (St. Mary’s Visitation) as a light shining in the darkness,” Fr. Peter said. “I just think our culture is getting very dark. I think there will be places where people can go and find some of the light of God shining forth.”
Although the parish may be one of those places, it doesn’t come without sacrifice, said Fr. Peter.
“God has been so good to this parish community, and it requires something of us,” he said. “A seriousness on our part to respond to those graces and live them out. I do think this parish is very unique and it’s a blessing to be here. I do think God has been very good to it. I think we constantly have to keep in mind that with great gifts, come great responsibility. I hope we always live up to that. I hope that we as a parish live up to the graces that God has given us, because they’ve been abundant.”