MILWAUKEE — The parish that never closed its doors on anyone, is preparing for the day the locksmith arrives. By July 1, someone else may hold the keys to Blessed Trinity Parish, 4717 N. 38th St. The final Mass was celebrated on Trinity Sunday, June 19, and for the first time, no Catholic church will be present in the immediate neighborhood.
Inside Blessed Trinity, the signs of a working parish are vanishing. On the walls of the foyer, sanctuary and small chapel, ghostly outlines mark the places where religious artwork had hung. The candlesticks, statuary, monstrance and other sacramentals have been donated or taken down and boxed up.
Hoped to remain open until 2012
Despite the aging and dwindling membership of the parish, Blessed Trinity hoped to remain open until July 2012, but less than two months ago, parish staff learned it would merge with St. Catherine Parish, 5101 W. Center St., explained Barb Wardius, office manager of Blessed Trinity.
“The information was shared with our parishioners from our pastor, Fr. Mike Barrett, as well as from our parish council,” she said. “It felt, and still feels to me, like a death, and while not unexpected, we didn’t realize it would be so soon. It was very sad in that we celebrated many ‘lasts,’ such as last Christmas, Lent and Easter without even knowing they were our last. We were not, in my opinion, given sufficient time to prepare and now to mourn our loss.”
St. Catherine and Blessed Trinity are included in the 2009 plan to merge 80 of 208 parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and to address the issues of declining enrollments, the priest shortage and financial setbacks.
Potential buyer sped up process
While the parish’s original plan was to merge the parish with a neighboring one in June 2012, the process was fast-forwarded, according to Mark Kemmeter, director of the archdiocesan Parish Mission Office, because a buyer stepped forward to purchase the entire parish complex immediately.
According to Kemmeter, the prospective buyer, Resurrection Ministries, had been leasing the school.
“It’s not uncommon. We’ve seen this in other parishes that lease their school; part of the lease agreement says if the buildings ever go up for sale, the lessee would have the first right to purchase. That’s not uncommon. What is uncommon is that the same group was also interested in the church building. Very often the church buildings are the hardest to sell. This was just an unusual sale and an opportunity for the community that was planning to merge in 2012; it just speeded up the purchase.”
The sale is not going through as we had hoped, noted Fr. Michael Barrett, but he stressed that the parish is a “very motivated seller. The sale committee is very motivated to get the campus sold. We have no reason to hold onto the place at this point.”
Making the decision to sell was not easy, stressed Fr. Barrett, yet the timing of the buyer coming forward coincided with the fact that the priest’s six-year term at the parish was ending. That, along with the shortage of priests in the archdiocese, made the timing right for the merger.
Membership had dropped, aged
Parish membership had dropped considerably in the last 20 years, according to figures kept by the Parish Mission Office. Kemmeter lists 350 members in 2009, down from nearly 1,700 in the early 1990s, and nearly 700 in 2000.
According to Fr. Barrett, recent membership was closer to 180 people, he said, noting it was the smallest parish in the archdiocese.
Blessed Trinity is an older and aging parish and, according to Wardius, the archdiocese has a rule that a parish cannot receive more than 50 percent of its income from rental sources – which it does.
“Our convent has been leased for more than 15 years to the AIDS Resource Center of Milwaukee and our school building has housed many different schools over the years,” she said. “It was determined that we could not continue on this path.”
The decision to meld the two parishes is not unfamiliar to Blessed Trinity members. In 1991, the parish was formed following a merger with St. Albert, St. Nicholas and Holy Redeemer parishes.
Mood is somber
While Wardius and nine other employees will lose their jobs at the end of the month, the deepest loss is in losing their close-knit parish family, where children were baptized, couples were married and the funerals of loved ones were celebrated.
“The overall mood in the parish is of extreme sadness,” said Wardius. “We, as a church community and family, have certainly been depending upon each other for strength and for someone else to vent to during these past couple of months. When the first merger happened, many mistakes were made by the archdiocese and a great number of parishioners were lost to other parishes or they simply stopped attending Mass. Folks that were here at that time still remember how badly it was handled and now we are suffering again.”
Grief is natural
The grieving is natural, agree Fr. Barrett and Kemmeter.
“The important thing to realize is the grief is real,” said Kemmeter. “Most of the mergers we’ve done — there’s been such good preparation and it’s been done gradually and there tends to be less a sense of loss. But in this particular case, where the church is going to be sold, and the parish is already a product of a merger of three parishes, there is going to be a sense of loss.
He added that healing would come in time.
‘Smile because it happened’
As Fr. Barrett copes with his own emotions during this transition, he said he is comforted by a quote from Dr. Seuss illustrated by former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial cartoonist, Stuart Carlson, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
And he does smile when he looks back on the Milwaukee parish he’s called home for six years.
Describing the parish as comprised of hard working, good people with a Vatican II vision of where the church needs to go, he said the parishioners, most of whom commuted to the church, had a “can-do attitude.”
“Our only weakness was a lack and loss of numbers,” he said.
As plans for the sale of the buildings progressed, the parish council weighed the merging options. After considering nearby Our Lady of Good Hope Parish and St. Catherine, the council felt that St. Catherine was a better fit.
St. Catherine is ‘good fit’
It’s not geographically the closest, noted Kemmeter, but he said they selected it because the parish “shares their vision of an urban community committed to the neighborhood, and it’s also a parish where they felt liturgically at home.”
Fr. Barrett said the council felt that it’s is a good fit, “theologically, liturgically and ecclesialogically for our parishioners to be with the people at St. Catherine, and Fr. Jack Kern, (pastor of St. Catherine) has managed and overseen a number of mergers.
“This is the best case scenario,” concluded Fr. Barrett. “While this is not easy for any of us to make that change or to move off that site and spot where we’ve worshipped and prayed and grieved and held hands and hugged, it’s not easy to move away from that. But I think the best case scenario for all involved was to merge with St. Catherine.”
Sacristan has lived through merger
Since she was 2 years old, Josetta Berg attended Holy Redeemer parish and school with her siblings. She stayed on as an adult and made it through the tumultuous days when the parish merged into Blessed Trinity. This time, she isn’t sure she will stick it out – and at 72, it’s just too painful to think about doing it again.
“I’ll go to St. Catherine’s on June 26 for the welcoming Mass, but I’m not sure if I will stay – it just feels like the death of a whole family, you know? We were a small parish and if someone wasn’t there at Mass, we knew it and worried about them until we found out if they were OK,” she said. “I will miss the people and the closeness we shared together.”
As a sacristan and member of the prayer and worship committee, Berg worries about the religious artifacts that mean as much to her as the friendships she cherishes. Like her friends, she wonders where they will go, and if the items will be appreciated.
“We are in the process of finding homes for all of these sacred objects,” she said. “After all, we just can’t put them out for a garage sale.”
Outreach efforts to continue
Additionally, Berg worries about the community she loves. She wonders what will happen to those who have come to depend on the parish for the food pantry, the St. Vincent de Paul ministry, the AIDS Center, the Urban Center for Sustainability to promote environmentally sustainable practices to help residents learn about weatherization, and energy assistance programs, as well as the Reach program for the area’s youth.
“The Reach program is wonderful and we have sponsored field trips at least six times during the summer, ball games, horseback riding, and water park visits for the kids,” she said. “The things our parish does for the community just runs the gamut and, despite being so small, it was our mission to reach out to all. It has always been a working class parish for all the years I remember.”
Her initial reaction to the merger was anger, but Berg has shelved that and is concentrating her efforts on praying for all who are affected by the changes.
“We have had so many wonderful priests at our parish, and I have wonderful memories growing up here – Blessed Trinity has exceeded my expectations because of the people and our priests,” she said. “I am over the anger, but I am still very sad. I am hoping that the new community will be as welcoming to our community as ours was when we merged. Time will tell.”
Hopes to maintain Catholic presence
Choking back tears, School Sister of St. Francis Regina Maibusch had hoped and prayed for at least another year to serve the parish she loves, but since the news, she has been scrambling to find a way to maintain a Catholic presence in the neighborhood.
“This area is very needy and one of the biggest conferences for St. Vincent de Paul,” she said. “We will continue to serve them through St. Catherine because the ministry cannot operate without a parish.”
She would like to see the food pantry continue as so many have come to rely on it to get through the month, and for the free blood pressure screenings that Sr. Maibusch performed twice a month.
“There were a number of people who came here to work who are not of our parish,” she said. “It was a good crowd and we would like to keep the pantry here if possible. We have an attorney who volunteers here who is hoping to find a way to keep it going if the new owners will allow it. It is so needed here.”
The parish was once served by more than 25 School Sisters of St. Francis who ran the elementary school.
“I wasn’t there because I was a nurse and took a position at St. Michael Hospital,” she said. “But I have enjoyed all of my years at Blessed Trinity and will miss it very much. It is so hard; for the past couple of weeks, we saw all the Catholic things in the chapel being taken down and it was difficult to attend daily Mass when you didn’t know what would be gone the next day.”
According to Fr. Barrett, proceeds from the sale of the parish will be used to continue outreach efforts to the neighboring community through organizations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Thankful for ‘good farewell’
Since 1959, Norm Steinacker helped in the food pantry, served as acolyte for funerals and helped wherever needed. At 86, he finds the thought of relocating to another parish difficult, especially since he and his wife, Terri, rely on others for transportation.
“I have enjoyed being part of this community and volunteering my time,” he said. “We have been very fortunate here to have excellent pastors and a caring community.”
With no Catholic presence in the neighborhood, Steinacker is also concerned about the poor who have come to rely on them for help.
“It wasn’t totally unexpected that we were going to close,” he said. “We are a small parish, people are getting older and dying – but I do hope we can still have something in place to help those who need food each month.”
Although quickly organized, Sr. Maibusch was pleased that Blessed Trinity hosted a farewell party at the Radisson Hotel in Glendale a couple of weeks ago, as it gave the members some closure.
“The overall feeling is like a death,” she cried. “But the parish paid for us to have a wonderful dinner and there were 200 of us who came. Members of each of the parish committees spoke; some of it was funny, and we gave thanks to a lot of people. We had former pastors come – and I was surprised at how many came. They must have really liked our parish. So, it was our chance to have a very good farewell.”