On Nov. 28, 2018, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee will be 175 years old. It shares this honor with the dioceses of Little Rock, Arkansas; Bridgeport Connecticut; and our neighbor to the south, the Archdiocese of Chicago. Our diocese at that time included the entire state of Wisconsin (and even a little of Minnesota). Today, it has been reduced to the 10 southeastern counties of the state. This moment offers an opportunity to consider the accomplishments of a remarkably effective and durable institution. It would be hard to imagine Wisconsin without the Catholic presence. Viewed through the lens of faith, it is a testimony to God’s Providence for his people. The local church provided the means and the resources for literally millions to serve God’s people.

Above: School children at Holy Redeemer School, circa 1910. Right: Members of the Catholic Interracial Council marching in an Open Housing March in Milwaukee in September 1967.

Pondering the history of the archdiocese has been a wonderful experience for me over the years. As time passes, overarching themes and lines of continuity and discontinuity come more sharply into focus. Here are some themes I have found worth pondering.

Walls and Bridges

Figuratively speaking, when Catholics first came to Wisconsin, they built walls. They deliberately distanced themselves from the surrounding community and marked out sacred spaces in the cities, villages, and rural locales. These holy sites reflected the priority they gave to the worship of God, the veneration of Mary and the saints, and service to God’s people. These redoubts included churches of great beauty — including a cathedral (which became an icon of Milwaukee’s downtown), a seminary, substantial convents, and religious houses, hospitals, service agencies and schools. Catholics marked their own seasons by the liturgical year. They kept time with church bells which rang out the hours of the day, called people to prayer, mourned the dead and rejoiced in new life.

Within these sacred spaces, they attempted to create a strong Catholic sub-culture — not an easy task in such a religiously diverse country as the United States. Early Catholic leaders were intensely concerned that the faith would be lost or watered down in this new American environment. Catholic organizations, sorted by age and gender, were formed (especially in German parishes) to educate and mobilize Catholics and to help them ward off the evils of the world. Catholic schools also did the same. Catholics learned the articles of faith, their particular customs and rituals, and what differentiated them from other religious traditions. Catholic leaders developed ethical and moral boundaries for their members. They discouraged marriage with people outside the Catholic fold.

But even as she built protective walls to sustain and preserve the faith, the Church also had to make its way in American society where various forms of Protestantism dominated. Since the American government provided no direct support of churches — Catholics had to engage in the affairs of finance and commerce. Many (not all) church leaders — women and men — became astute business people, raising funds, borrowing money, buying and selling properties, and meeting payrolls. They often tapped European sources for financial help who generously provided money and also the instruments of worship (missals, chalices, vestments, sacred art). Catholics entered the public square when it was necessary: both challenging and affirming local culture, engaging in local politics, and defending their institutions and communal existence when threatened by outside forces. Catholic sisters, priests, and bishops were public figures — recognizable on the street and often valued for the prestige and stability they brought to the cities.

Catholics could not ignore the world around them. They lived near and worked with people of other faiths (or no faith at all). Sometimes, to the dismay of church leaders, individual Catholics chose partners outside the fold (mixed marriage). Others even joined other churches or walked away from formal religion altogether.

The wider society could not easily ignore the Church. She had too much invested in land, buildings, educational and social institutions, and its leaders had a significant sway over their flocks. In fact, before the creation of public institutions, they often used

Catholic service agencies — hospitals, schools and orphanages — to serve wider community interests. The point here is that there was never an impregnable wall between sacred and secular in our past: the walls at time became more permeable boundaries that allowed both sides to go back and forth. Catholics were both city builders and devoutly sectarian.

How Do We Understand Our Past?

It is a tempting to write church history (or any history for that matter) as a story of uninterrupted progress: of a resilient institution that has survived the worst and come out on top. There is more than a grain of truth to this when writing about the history of the Universal Church and also our local church history. After all, the Church has existed a long time and there is a strong argument for the persistence of its mission and institutions over many years. In the end, some might argue, that the church exists at all is a tribute to its divine foundation — because some of its leaders have been anything but exemplary.

The Catholic story is not always an account of “glory to glory,” and our past has had its share of scandalous episodes and problematic people (sinners). Painful as it may be to face these things, as a faithful Catholic and a professional historian, I always take heart from the saying attributed to Pope Leo XIII when he opened the Vatican Archives (where I write this text): “The Church has nothing to fear from the truth.” I often linger over the words from the preface of martyrs: “You choose the weak and make them strong in bearing witness to you.” Examining the past honestly, warts and all, is a test of faith and can be discouraging. But the reality is that we have made grave mistakes and also have done marvelous things. The wheat and the tares still grow together.

Likewise, it is important to remember that Catholic history in Milwaukee has had many pivotal (contingent) moments when a different turn of events might have changed the outcome of an episode in a significant way. It is perilous to play “what if” with historical events, but sometimes there are plausible reasons to think events could have gone another direction. For example, suppose the demands of a cadre of Milwaukee priests for an English-speaking bishop had prevailed at the passing of Swiss-born Archbishop John Martin Henni in 1880-1881? (It was a real option at the time.) What if American-born John Lancaster Spalding rather than Bavarian Michael Heiss had become our second bishop? In another instance, when civil rights issues bubbled to the forefront of American consciousness in the 1950s, church leadership was hesitant and sometimes unsure of the right thing to do and say. Had there been a more forceful and consistent stance (as there was in other dioceses) in favor of equal housing and the concerns of Milwaukee’s African American community, might conditions in the church and the city might have been different?

Likewise, it is important to see ourselves as subject to the change over time. Even though Catholicism puts a great deal of emphasis on the perennial and enduring: things change — often for the good, but sometimes for the bad. For example, in 1925 or even in 1950, the numerous parishioners at the majestic St. Anne’s Church at 35th and Wright would never have imagined that their well-attended church and thriving school would close, or see their precious church windows repositioned at St. Lucy’s Church in Racine. But unforeseen demographic trends produced another outcome. The first great historian of Milwaukee Catholicism, Monsignor Peter Leo Johnson, authored a small work called “Ghost Parishes of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” which tracked down many parish foundations created in the great church building period of the mid-19th century, but had ceased to exist. Someone will need to do a follow-up volume for events in the last 25 years in the archdiocese.


We are an immigrant church. Our Catholic ancestors were from foreign lands and brought with them the faith of their ethnic communities. Foreign money was critical in church and institution building in the formative years of archdiocesan life. Sisters and priests from Europe provided the needed labor to make churches, schools and hospitals work. The church was at once an agency of accommodation for newcomers — helping some transition to American society and a transnational touchstone for the disoriented who needed the rituals and practices of the homeland to adjust. And, sadly, immigrant Catholics met opposition and disdain from elements in society who questioned their retention of native tongues, their “un-American” values, and suspected that they were a drain on public finances and harmful to social order.

But the story of the various nationalities who created various ethnic enclaves in the archdiocese is far more complex and diverse. These nationalities reflected the “transnational” nature of Catholicism — a Western European religious system that reproduced itself in and adapted to other cultures, languages, and thought-worlds. As St. Paul tells us: “What do you have that you have not received?” (I Cor. 4:7) Milwaukee Catholics even to this day draw from a rich cultural/religious which includes ancient tradition, medieval theology, missionary expansion, 19th century devotionalism, and a major ecumenical council in the 1960s.

Milwaukee (and U.S. Catholics, in general) are part of a dense network of multiple religious traditions that were not born here, but carried over and adapted. Diversity reigned, especially in the large industrial centers of the U.S., where millions of Europeans migrated to work in the factories, mills, sweat shops and service providers of large cities. But it also grew in the mines, along the railroad tracks, and in the sea ports of the west coast.

We need to study our immigrant heritage more on its own terms. Immigrant Catholicism is more than a sociological phenomenon and the church more than a social institution which was involved in community life and politics.
Much more could be said about this rich history. One hundred seventy five years is an eye-blink in the wider history of the church. But every anniversary provides for a moment of retrospection and to pose the question: How have we arrived at our current moment? This question continues to inspire curiosity and hope.