MILWAUKEE — Fr. Jeffrey Haines, newly appointed pastor and rector of Milwaukee’s Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, has taken up residence in the rectory of the downtown church, yet he’s still unpacking boxes.
“My first couple moves, I definitely had a lot less stuff. But I still managed to get it all up in the rectory here,” he said.
Fr. Haines assumed the leadership of the cathedral on Tuesday, June 21, after an extended stint at St. Frances Cabrini Parish, West Bend. He replaces Fr. Carl Last, who served as rector for 11 years.
“I’ve already noticed – there’s certainly more noise here,” Fr. Haines said. “It’s sort of quiet up (in West Bend). Here, I’m in the heart of it. Train whistles, car horns and motorcycles; sirens and traffic. People are … up later at night, let’s say.”
“But I’m not too concerned,” about the transition, he said. “This is a remarkably friendly, warm, embracive parish. They’re proud of their church and its beauty and role. They work hard at making it a welcoming place.”
He said he is surprised by how the cathedral is viewed in one way from the outside, but differently inside.
“From the outside, for instance, there is the historic, symbolic church. It is the bishop’s church, and the seat of the diocese. It houses relics and art, almost like a museum,” he said. “Cathedrals are traditionally patrons of the arts. So we do a concert series, Wednesdays at noon. We display pieces from our historic collection, and paintings and other art, all the time. We even have a specific program in art and spirituality. I’ve heard that the parish puts on a play of the Prophet Daniel during Advent, and the archdiocese’s symphony chorus did a holiday concert here.”
Inside a ‘vibrant parish’
Yet, from within, he described a vibrant parish.
“The outreach and programming here are incredible, and mostly self-sustaining. The Open Door Café (food program) runs six days a week. They have nurses come through regularly for free health screenings. The deacon leads a support group for families with incarcerated members. We partner with Catholic East (Elementary School), and do our religious education through the East Side Child & Youth Ministry (with Three Holy Women, Old St. Mary, and SS. Peter & Paul parishes).”
“The staff and parishioners are great. It’s an urban setting, and a big neighborhood,” he said. “It’s really just a wonderful place.”
Fr. Last accomplished much
Much of that strength and unity is attributable to the leadership of Fr. Last, he said. During his time at the cathedral, he became an important figure in the neighborhood, and leader in the local church.
Fr. Last was appointed rector while at St. Matthias Parish, Milwaukee, in December 1999. He left the parish on the city’s southwest side “on a 17-degree day in January of 2000, to serve as the new associate pastor and vice-rector,” he wrote in an exit essay.
As rector, Fr. Last was known for his deep love of being priest and pastor.
“Baptizing babies, guiding couples to their wedding day, sharing in the eucharistic celebration, bringing Communion to shut-ins, preaching, and encouraging compassion,” were the highlights he listed.
“His list of accomplishments is long,” said Pat Wisialowski, pastoral associate. “Pastoral council work, strong parish leadership, attracting and keeping young people. It’s really hard to explain the change here in the last decade. The neighborhood has become so alive and vibrant, eclectic and diverse.”
Explaining that she teaches baptism classes, Wisialowski said the number of participants has increased tremendously.
“As recently as six years ago, you never heard a baby in church. Now they are everywhere, and we even have a children’s liturgy,” she said.
Best remembered for overseeing renovation
But Fr. Last will probably be best remembered for overseeing a then-controversial renovation of the cathedral.
He saw the project “as a catalyst, to enhance the role of the cathedral and parish as the soul of the city,” he wrote.
Parishioners were quick to cite his “laugh, challenging sermons, gourmet cooking, quick mind, smiles and greetings before Mass, and unconditional love” as things they’d miss.
“Fr. Carl was a great administrator and a wonderful homilist,” said Wisialowski. “We were actually very spoiled by his super homilies, and always blessed by his wonderful liturgies.”
After 42 years as a priest, Fr. Last has retired and moved to southern Florida – to “constant warmth and year-round gardening.” During his time in the Milwaukee Archdiocese he served the parishes of St. Gregory the Great, Corpus Christi, St. Matthias, and the cathedral.
Fr. Haines brings ‘fresh eyes’
Cathedral staff and parishioners are happy to have Fr. Haines on board.
“Fr. Jeff is fabulous,” Wisialowski said. “He is also a great homilist. He’s very open. He’s a collaborative, wonderful leader. He has a wealth of experience as a pastor and spiritual leader. He comes from a great family.”
Most importantly, perhaps, she said, “he brings a fresh set of eyes. We can kind of take things for granted because of how long we’ve been around, in the midst of it all. But his outside perspective and vision makes us appreciate what we have that much more.”
Fr. Haines has significant experience across southeastern Milwaukee.
He grew up “on Chambers Street – in what is now Riverwest – and attended St. Elizabeth,” he said. “We later moved to New Berlin, where I attended Holy Apostles Church and graduated from New Berlin West High School.
He graduated from Marquette University (liberal arts, theology major, 1981) and was ordained in 1985 at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, St. Francis.
“I began my pastoral work up on the north side, at St. Nicholas, on Green Bay Road and Villard Avenue,” he said. “Our parish was half Glendale, half Milwaukee and constantly tottering between change and stability. We were then in the midst of becoming a tri-parish, with St. Albert and Holy Redeemer. Blessed Trinity was also added later. As the numbers went down, we increased collaboration. First with youth ministry, then sacramental preparation. We were sort of making it up as we went along, to be honest. And it was very brave.”
That was a different time, he said.
“Not only were there not vouchers yet, there weren’t even merged parishes,” he laughed. “It was really a wonderful parish; very old fashioned in a good way. Like being in the 1950s; that very close-knit feel.”
He was assigned to St. Eugene Parish, Fox Point, in 1991, a parish he described as “four miles, and yet an entire world away.”
He described the parish as large, with about 2,300 families, and 6,000 people. He estimated there were at least 400 enrolled in school. Weekends boasted five Masses, he said, adding that the challenge in Fox Point was volume, especially weddings, baptisms and funerals.
“People teased me that I was hiding, and didn’t want to be a pastor,” he said. “But Fr. Gordon Weber gave me much larger projects than your normal associate pastor. I chaired committees, for instance, that did research, interviewed candidates, and such.”
He was assigned to St. Frances Cabrini, West Bend, in 1996, though, he said he took a one-year hiatus along the way, “and took a stab at being a canon lawyer.”
“Which wasn’t for me,” he smiled. “And here I am.”
Future challenges include ecumenism, outreach
Fr. Haines’ first large-scale challenge was overseeing the ordination Mass for Milwaukee’s new auxiliary bishop, Donald J. Hying, on Wednesday, July 20. The celebration was a success, earning the new rector many accolades.
In his “downtime,” – in addition to unpacking – “I’m still meeting with all the staff members from each of the departments,” he said.
“I haven’t really begun even preaching on specific issues, yet,” he laughed. “I’ve focused more on individual spirituality, rather than community concerns. It’s sort of a getting-to-know period right now.”
At the same time, he said, “the parish council just released a strategic plan. And that’s probably good for the next five years. So a lot of things are in place.”
He said, however, that he’s looking forward to increasing outreach in several ways.
“I can’t wait to meet with the neighboring pastors,” he said. “The dean of the Episcopal cathedral already called. He wants to sit down to talk about our Shared Covenant. We actually both served (concurrently) in West Bend, so it should be primarily a re-familiarization. I’m looking forward to that. I know in the past, the two parishes have done ecumenical prayer at thanksgiving.”
Cathedral is at heart of ecumenism
As the central cathedral, he said St. John should be at the heart of ecumenism in Milwaukee. Nearby churches include a Presbyterian cathedral, a Methodist cathedral, Metrobrook Evangelicals, and the Jewish Cultural Center.
“Becoming a centerpiece for those groups would be a wonderful Gospel witness,” he added.
“This parish has always welcomed diversity,” he said. “We want to reach out to the poor and disenfranchised, while at the same time remaining the mother church of the diocese. Since this is the bishop’s church, it is everybody’s church, and we want people to see it that way. We’re already inviting senior groups, confirmation classes, and groups for historical tours. The history of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the Catholic Church in Wisconsin are here.”
He also hopes the cathedral opens its doors to evangelize.
“We’d also like to reach out to guests – folks downtown for conventions, or suburbanites in for Summerfest. Bastille Days & Jazz in the Park are in our front yard,” he said. “We’re easy to see and easy to find.”
Parishioners and staff agreed.
“The next big challenge is getting people downtown; to get here, and experience what we have to offer,” Wisialowski said. “Whenever people come, they comment on how welcoming and hospitable it is. It’s a lively and vibrant community with a beautiful church, physically. We love our history and tradition, and we’re also looking forward to a bright future.”
She described it as an exciting time in the cathedral’s history.
“It’s exciting. But we’re a little nervous,” she said. “There’s obviously some unknowing. It’s a new boss, after all. At the same time, things already run pretty well. So we’re hope-filled and optimistic. I’m excited for where the Spirit will take us next.”