The Riverwest neighborhood on Milwaukee’s east side has become a hipster hub for those interested in unknown musicians, craft beers, tattoo sleeves and unique facial hair. One of the main events of the neighborhood is the Riverwest 24, where area bicyclists ride for 24 consecutive hours.
On July 24, during this community gathering, the intersection of Burleigh and Fratney Streets and nearby streets were alive with music, bicyclists, magicians and food trucks, and the doors of St. Mary of Czestochowa Church, a worship site for Our Lady of Divine Providence Church, were open.
The parish is part of OremusMKE, a group that opens churches late at night to invite individuals inside to take a peaceful break from their night out. Visitors are also invited to light a candle for peace inside the church.
The name, OremusMKE, combines the Latin word, Oremus, meaning “let us pray,” with the airport code for Milwaukee.
Brittany Milewski, a woman in her 20s, was out with with friends to watch the cyclists on July 24 when an OremusMKE organizer stopped her and invited her inside the church.
“It’s beautiful. It’s a very nice church; I hadn’t been in a church for years,” said Milewski, who was raised Catholic but has since stopped practicing, went into the the church sporting a tanktop and shorts. She had a tattoo that started on her shoulder and went down her right arm, along with the 1980s Milwaukee Brewers logo on her calf.
“It’s nice that this place is open. I’ve lived here for a while and this is very rarely open.” Milweski said. “I’ve never been in it.”
The next OremusMKE event will be held Saturday, Oct. 3, at Three Holy Women Parish, St. Hedwig site, 1702 N.
Since residents like Milewski might not realize when the church is open, it’s the goal of OremusMKE to make the church a welcoming place to those who may overlook its presence.
“It reaches a different crowd,” said Samantha Vosters, organizer. “This reaches a population that they’re out already, they’re experiencing life.”
Several years ago, Vosters and organizer Shannon Segers went to Chicago where a similar event was underway. They brought it to Milwaukee as a way to evangelize young adults, but not in a manner usually associated with evangelization.
“I think a lot of times evangelization sounds scary,” Seegers said. “That’s not what this event is about. It’s not supposed to be a lecture. We’re not trying to recruit anyone. It’s just to say that we all have this common interest of praying for peace.”
OremusMKE has held events at Three Holy Women Parish on Brady Street during evening hours when bar-goers mill about and at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Cathedral Square during Bastille Days. It hopes to make the church an active part of the community.
“The basic idea behind it is to open up our churches at the same time that our neighborhoods are alive,” Chad Griesel, director of adult formation at Three Holy Women and organizer, said. “Sometimes the neighborhoods are alive when the churches are closed.”
OremusMKE organizers use an inviting approach to evangelize.
“We try to be as noninvasive, non-threatening as possible,” Griesel said. “We can mistakenly think people are going to be hostile and, for the most part, people are curious. They’re thankful. We’re inviting them in and who doesn’t want peace?”
During Riverwest 24, various vendors along the route make pancakes for the cyclists and spectators. Steve Wiberg and his fiancé, Abby Fries, were working the frying pans in front of St. Mary of Czestochowa Church, on behalf of OremusMKE.
“You can try to throw a church event and invite people to come or you can go out to where the people are and try to meet them were they’re at,” Wiberg said. “Once people are in the church, it will be like the beauty and stillness juxtaposed against the party and it would help people understand this is worthwhile.”
Fries agreed that opening the church during neighborhood events will help make the church as alive as the streets.
“The church is a community,” Fries said. “Here, there’s a neighborhood community so it’s combined the two and I think it’s really cool.”
Adam Klarner and his friend, Jolene Arnold, grew up Catholic but admit they’re not practicing. However, that didn’t stop them from going inside to light a candle when they were invited.
“We both live in the neighborhood and we’ve seen this church; we’re real interested in churches, Milwaukee churches, and we try to visit them as much as possible,” Klarner said. “I don’t think its necessarily a matter of Catholic or not, but just the sense of doing it. You have that intention behind it.”
Throughout the night people from all ages, ethnicities and economic backgrounds entered the church. Parents taught their children how to properly light candles by guiding their hands. Young couples took advantage of the peaceful moment at the altar. The tattooed and non-tattooed alike lit candles for peace.
For those who wanted to stay in the church and talk to a priest, Fr. Luke Strand, vocations director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, was available.
“A lot of people have stopped by to chat, others for confession,” Fr. Strand said. “I think it’s a beautiful way to introduce people again to the reality of God in their life.”
Fr. Strand said it’s important to have an active church.
“Right now, the street is alive with music and this street is right in front of church where the presence of God dwells,” Fr. Strand said. “So that’s where God is meeting reality, meeting culture, meeting people’s lives…. If we don’t have our churches open to encounter God, they’re going to choose a less desirable location.”
At points while the church was open, there was line of people 10 to 15 deep waiting to light a candle.
“I’m shocked by the number of people,” Fr. Strand said. “I was here last year for this exact Oremus…. I think we had less people than what have walked in tonight.”
The event appeared to be embraced by the Riverwest neighborhood and by those of different backgrounds.
“The diversity of the people, especially in this neighborhood, is amazing,” Fr. Strand said. “I’ve been impressed — not only by the amount of people but who has walked through the doors.”