At times they joked with their customers, many of them priests who stopped by for a break in their day to see the latest in vestments or looking to replenish parish supplies. Other times, they assisted godparents in choosing meaningful gifts for baptisms, first Communions or confirmations.
For the past century, T.H. Stemper Co. has outfitted parishes, seminarians and priests in the Milwaukee area and around the country with chalices, statuary, candles, altar breads and more.
In 1911, Thomas H. Stemper purchased the bankrupt European Statuary & Art Company, a manufacturing company of statuary and altars. Two years later, he bought the struggling H.E Schwartz religious goods store. In 1946, he combined both businesses under his name.
Currently owned and operated in the same location by his five grandsons, Daniel, James, Joseph, John and Peter, the company remains an essential supplier of religious gifts and supplies and, according to those who have worked with the Stempers, a knowledgeable resource as well.
Childhood friend became consultant
Fr. John Richetta, long time pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, Kenosha, now a senior priest, fondly remembers working with childhood friend, Jean Stemper, in helping select statuary and other parish supplies.
“I knew Jean from my neighborhood and we became pretty good friends,” he said. “She was the one I would deal with the most at the store, and later, with her boys.”
When Mount Carmel Parish was looking for a Medjugorian statue of Our Lady of Mercy, Stemper’s found exactly what Fr. Richetta had in mind.
“They have always been such good business people and very respectful to me,” he said. “I hope that they do another 100 years as they serve a real need for us.”
During the 18 years that now-senior priest, Fr. Tom Wittliff, served as pastor of St. Augustine Parish, Milwaukee, he relied on Stemper’s for everything from candles to imported statuary.
“We got two gorgeous statues of St. Therese the Little Flower and St. Anthony, both were wood carvings from Italy,” he said. “They have such a caring attitude – and I have watched them in action as to how they take their time with customers. Whenever I am biking in the area, I stop by and screw around with them – they are a lot of fun. I still purchase things from them, but nothing like it was when I was pastor of a parish.”
Close friend to the late Daniel Stemper Sr., Fr. Wittliff witnessed marriages, and celebrated other milestones in the lives of the Stemper children.
“When Danny died, he left a powerful legacy in his children and I am not surprised that this business has thrived for so many years,” he said. “You can just see their passion in the overall presentation in the stores and in their catalogs.”
More than 10,000 items are for sale, and nearly anything can be specially ordered. More than 35 percent of the store’s sales are from candles. They also carry an impressive array of liturgical garments, many imported from Belgium and Holland.
Enjoys international reputation
When Fr. Phillip Bogacki, associate pastor of St. John Vianney Parish, Brookfield, attended the seminary for five years in Louvain, Belgium, he had frequent contact with the Slabbinck Company, a designer of custom, high-quality vestments, based in Bruges, Belgium.
“I was proud to go to the Slabbinck factory and be treated like a king because I was from Milwaukee, ‘the home of Stemper’s,’” he said. “The Slabbinck family travels regularly to Milwaukee to meet with the Stemper’s store as Stemper’s, of anywhere in the world, is one of the largest distributors of the Slabbinck vestments. The ability to have vestments and clothes personally measured prior to ordering is something that should not be taken for granted,” he said.
Stemper’s ‘to the rescue’
Ed Kovochich, principal of St. Joseph Academy, Kenosha, remembers many of the Stempers from the years he served as principal of Dominican High School. While the school didn’t require as many religious items as a parish, one purchase is forever embedded in his mind.
“The fire marshal came out one day to do an inspection of the school. He told us that we couldn’t have any free standing vigil lights due to the fire hazard, and that we had to blow them out,” said Kovochich. “I thought our chaplain was going to have a coronary arrest. So, I went to Stemper’s and, thankfully, found a wall-mounted device that worked.”
Throughout his priesthood, Fr. Brian Mason, moderator of Three Holy Women Parish, Milwaukee, has purchased numerous altar breads, candles, vestments, chalices and other religious items, but one purchase stands above the others.
“The most significant item I purchased from Stemper’s was in 2001 or 2002,” he said. “They assisted me with designing and installing a new ambry for St. Mary Church in Waukesha. It is a beautiful piece that fits in very well with the design of the church.”
As secretary of St. Martin Parish, Ashford, Chris Bolek places numerous orders for parish supplies to Stemper’s, and is always pleased with the products purchased, but especially the great service.
“We have done business with them for a very long time,” she said. “Fr. Neil (Zinthefer) goes down there quite often to buy supplies. Our kneelers were purchased from them when we remodeled the church a year or two age.”
Popular place for seminarians
As one of the archdiocese’ newer priests, Fr. Sean O’Connell, associate pastor of St. Dominic, Brookfield, remembers frequent visits to the store as a seminarian.
“I joined major seminary in the fall of 2004, and quickly learned that Stemper’s was a popular place for seminarians to go looking for vestments, artwork, chalices and all the things we needed,” he said. “They had so many things to offer us and are a wonderful store.”
Among the items purchased for St. Dominic were chasubles, candle stands for shrines to St. Gerard and St. Jude, votive candles for the Blessed Mother statue and liturgical candles.
“My parents bought my chalice when I was ordained, and Peter Stemper was a wonderful man to work with – he is an expert on any types of liturgical metalware. He is the guy I go to to talk with about chalices,” said Fr. O’Connell.
Known for remembering the names of all the priests in the archdiocese, staff members at Stempers are quick to return a phone call, solve a problem and help in a variety of charitable ways, including the annual archdiocesan priest golf outing.
“I helped organize this with two other chairpersons and (the people at) Stempers were very generous, and have been especially this year with the prizes and for help in funding this outing,” said Fr. O’Connell.
Despite a difficult economy and the shortage of priests, Fr. O’Connell is certain Stempers will survive.
“I think that because vocations are beginning to increase, and with the onset of the new Roman Missal, that Stempers will be providing altar covers, liturgical books, Advent candles, statuary, beautiful icons and everything else forever,” he said.
Was main consultant for new St. Jerome
When St. Jerome Parish, Oconomowoc, built its new church in 2007, they called upon Stempers to outfit their new sanctuary.
“We used Stempers as our main consultant for all of our interior furnishings in the new church,” said Fr. John Yockey, pastor. “They were just spectacular and so knowledgeable in their trade, and professional in their field.”
Working primarily with Joseph Stemper, Fr. Yockey relied on his expertise for statuary, Stations of the Cross, mosaics, woodcarvings and bronze sculptures.
“They really helped us decide which of the two sets of 14 Stations of the Cross would look best in our church,” he said. “We had colorful stained glass windows that celebrated the Communion of Saints, and he helped us choose the white marble design as a beautiful and complimentary combination.”
Among many Stemper influences, the life-size crucifix, statue of Mary as comforted by the beloved disciple while both beheld the cross in the adoration chapel, and the Holy Family statue in the narthex are exceptionally striking.
“We also had our tabernacle from the old church that was so very tarnished,” explained Fr. Yockey. “But they refurbished it with such gleam that everyone thought it was brand new! Their expertise that they brought to the starting line with us showed how experienced they are, accentuated by an artistic sensitivity that represents the entire family.”
Store is part of Milwaukee’s heritage
Whether it’s through their booth at Festa Italiana or through the store or catalog, Stempers provides religious items and statuary for priests, parishes, schools and the general public. According to Fr. Tim Kitzke, pastor of Three Holy Women Parish, Milwaukee, the store and family are an integral part of the Milwaukee heritage.
“They know what they are doing and do a good job doing it,” he said. “We recently received a donated statue that came from Stempers of St. Gerard – it is very beautiful and we are just getting ready to place it in the church.”
According to Peter Stemper, the three-foot tall statue was a custom made piece based on photographs and an older model.
“This was done by a manufacturing company in Peru, a new company that we have started working with,” he said. “They do a wonderful job and are less expensive than a similar custom piece from Italy.”
This consideration for costs, quality and service is a primary reason that Fr. Kitzke expects that Stempers will remain in business for a long time.
“I would recommend them to anyone in the diocese, or anywhere, for that matter,” he said. “Oh my gosh, they are just so helpful to all of us.”