“We don’t just come to church. We belong to church.”
— Josie Panhans, Parishioner, St. Augustine Parish

Main Image: Blessing of the Cornerstone of St. Augustine Croatian Catholic Church on Sept. 18, 1938. (Submitted photo) Top: St. Augustine statue. Above: The entrance to St. Augustine in West Allis. (Photos by Tom Andrews)

With a gentle sigh and a soft smile, Josie Panhans insists that not very much has changed at St. Augustine Parish since she first attended Mass here in 1949 at the tender age of 22. Today at 90, this church is still part of her family in every sense of the word.

“At that time, cars were first coming into existence,” Panhans fondly recalls. “West Allis people belonged to Sacred Heart in Milwaukee at Seventh and Galena Street. I was baptized at Sacred Heart by the priest who started this church. This church was part of my life before because both churches (Sacred Heart and St. Augustine) had social events together. A lot of my friends belonged to the church so it wasn’t like I was coming to a strange place. When I got married, this is where I belonged because that’s the way I was brought up.”

Nestled on the east side of West Allis and founded by Croatian immigrants in 1928, St. Augustine is a family-oriented church served by priests of the Croatian Franciscan Custody, headquartered in Chicago. The church’s mission remains true to its ethnic heritage while continuing to bring the Charism of St. Francis of Assisi into the lives of its congregation through its ongoing worship and a number of special religious services highlighting Francis of Assisi. It continually strives to serve the will of God through deepening the baptismal gifts of faith, hope and love.

As the morning sun begins to poke through the clouds on a brisk November morning, an early Mass is being celebrated inside St. Augustine’s cream-colored brick building. The Mass celebrant is Fr. Lawrence Frankovich, OFM, who’s been the pastor at St. Augustine since 1994, with assistance from Deacon Steve Pemper.

As the visitor opens the main door and begins to climb the steps to the sanctuary entrance, three beautiful traditional stained-glass windows depicting St. Paul, Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Peter grace the stairway. The church’s original stone arch entrance remains intact and etched with the inscription, “St. Augustine, R.C. Church. Hrvatska Kat Crkva, SV. Augustina.” A statue of St. Augustine of Hippo is just off to the left, providing an additional welcome.

“The parish was founded by the Croatians under their leadership and there were so many Croatians living here at that time,” said Fr. Frankovich. “The pastor at Sacred Heart began organizing a church for the Croatians in this area. During those early years, the Mass was celebrated in Croatian. They even had a parish council long before that became popular under Vatican II. But then, one strong impetus for doing things in English was the establishment of the school in 1954. Many non-Croatians began moving into this area wanting to join the parish and to send their children to the school.”

Certainly, times change. People come and go. Neighborhoods transform to meet the needs of those who move in and depart. While Croatian immigrants no longer dominate this particular part of West Allis, their ethnic heritage certainly lives on.

“There is still a Croatian contingency in our parish but it is a small one,” Fr. Frankovich said. “We have about, at the most, 10 families who were born in Croatia. But then we have maybe 30 percent of the parish who are people just like Josie Panhans who don’t need Croatian but they like to hear it and it’s part of their background. So we have about 30 percent of people who are second-, third-, fourth- or even fifth-generation who still belong here. The other 70 percent or so are people who came here, friends of the people who belonged, school families who moved here or simply lived here and attend because it is close by.”

So how should one describe the character of this church and the worship experience available to those who would consider paying a visit?

Fr. Frankovich has a ready answer with an emphasis on two key areas.

The sanctuary entrance at St. Augustine in West Allis. (Photo by Tom Andrews)

“I always point out two characteristics of what it’s like to worship at St. Augustine,” said Fr. Frankovich. “We’re a regular archdiocesan parish and, like every other parish, we have our strong points and our weak points. First, I like to point out our Franciscan Charism because this parish has always been staffed by Franciscan friars and, at one time, there was a very strong secular Franciscan group known as the Third Order of St. Francis. We still have a very small group of which Josie is a member. I hope, pray and dream that over the past 89 years that the friars have been here, something of our unique Franciscan Charism, spirituality and way of being a Christian has taken deeper root in the hearts and minds of our parishioners.

“Many people tell me that there’s a difference between a Franciscan parish and a diocesan parish. It’s not that one is better or worse but they are just different. Each has its own mission and its own Charism. We happen to be Franciscan.

“The second characteristic is that we are an ethnic parish founded by Croatian immigrants and the first 10 years were probably exclusively Croatian. We still have that feel in us. Everyone is welcome and is an equal parishioner no matter what your ethnic background is but we do have some things like Christmas, Easter and other feasts where we use some of our Croatian hymns. You’ll hear people speaking Croatian outside and we have a Croatian Tamburitza group with which we work hand in hand.”

In order to drive his points of emphasis home a bit further, Fr. Frankovich likes to tell a personal story about one woman from another parish who cherishes her visits to St. Augustine.

“We have the annual Transitus celebration of the transition of Francis from an earthly life to his life in glory,” Fr. Frankovich recalled. “Francis died as the sun was setting on Oct. 3 and his feast is celebrated on the fourth. About five years ago, after the service, we had a reception with cakes and cookies, etc. There was one woman sitting in the center of the church deep in prayer. I tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘Please stay here and pray as long as you like but then please come downstairs for the reception.’ She said, ‘Oh, I just enjoy praying in this church. It is so uplifting and it brings me so close to the invisible and yet ever-present God. When I come here it’s so peaceful and it leads me to prayer.’”

Peaceful and spiritually uplifting. Family-centered with a strong sense of history. The people of St. Augustine Parish are proud of their heritage. They are also excited for what the future will bring and to welcome new members to their family.