Compiled by Tracy Rusch, using resources provided by parish member, Kathy Palm.
First church: The incorporated village of West Milwaukee, between Milwaukee and West Allis, was churchless until the summer of 1911, when Capuchin Fr. Calasanctius Grim was entrusted with the spiritual ministry of the people in the area north of Greenfield Avenue. With more than 80 families of different nationalities, predominantly Austrians from Carinthia, in the area, he was permitted to celebrate Mass if he could find a location. Fr. Grim met with Balthazar Haerle, owner of an old public school building on the corner of 40th Avenue (now 46th Street) and West Beloit Road, who let him use the building’s two, large rooms – one for a temporary chapel – rent-free. A chapel was established after Fr. Grim received permission from Archbishop of Milwaukee Sebastian Messmer, who inspected the room and gave his approval. Archbishop Messmer stressed the need for a parish and decided it should be dedicated to St. Florian because of the predominance of Austrians in the village. It was officially inaugurated with Christmas Day Masses. After construction of a new church-school building in 1914, under the leadership of the Carmelite Fathers of Holy Hill, the new church was dedicated April 19.
Current church: In August 1923, the Carmelite Fathers decided a separate church building was needed, because the four rooms of the school were insufficient for the increasing number of students. The church was built in two portions, beginning with a basement that served as a temporary church where regular Masses were held for 15 years. Construction of the upper church began in June 1938 and finished in February 1939; Milwaukee Archbishop Samuel Stritch dedicated the church, whose exterior design recalls the Romanesque style, Feb. 26, 1939.
First pastor: Capuchin Fr. Calasanctius Grim, but Archbishop Messmer was asked to find a pastor who could be closer to the parish, and assigned Fr. Joseph Ritger as first resident pastor after the Easter celebration in 1912. In spring of 1913, Capuchin Fr. Gabriel Messmer, provincial of the Capuchins, and the archbishop’s brother, suggested that the Carmelites at Holy Hill might be interested in taking care of St. Florian Parish, which was approved by the archbishop on the condition that a combination church-school building would be erected. Fr. Irenaeus Berndl was appointed the first Carmelite pastor.
Current pastor: Carmelite Fr. David Centner; associate pastor is Fr. Ralph-Elias Haddix
School: The Carmelite Fathers, faithful to their agreement with the archbishop, established a school, Sept. 7, 1913, which opened with 40 students enrolled. The school, overcrowded and in need of repairs, was replaced in 1966, a gym was added in 1967. The Sisters of St. Agnes served the school for almost 100 years, until the school closed in 2004, but an elevator was added to make the building more accessible for people attending fish fries and events.
Worth noting: Three fires threatened the life of St. Florian Church – the Carmelite Fathers attribute St. Florian with protection of the building: The first fire was set by someone who dumped and ignited a can of gasoline on the first floor of the church, during construction in 1914. Though the floor was covered with wood shavings, three-to-four inches thick, the fire extinguished itself. A second fire broke out in February 1920 during a High Mass at the opening of the school day. Children were evacuated when clouds of smoke filled the church from a smoldering basement wall between the boiler room and the kitchen, but the West Allis Fire Department was on the scene in six minutes, and estimated damage totaled $15. The third fire was discovered the morning of Oct. 14, 2000, in the candle room, where it had smoldered all night, causing extensive smoke damage. Carmelite Fr. Leonard Copeland, who served as pastor from 1972-1981, and 1993-2011, was appointed chaplain by the Milwaukee Fire Department to provide for the spiritual needs of the men and women because of the parish’s rich history with the firefighting community.
St. Florian lost about one third of its parishioners in 1968 when many homes surrounding the parish were razed to make room for a freeway that would never be built.