Fr. Michael Bertram, O.F.M. Cap., receives a kiss from his mother, Lyla, after his final Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in November. (Photo by David Bernacchi)

Fr. Michael Bertram, O.F.M. Cap., is looking forward to his new assignment and expanding the Capuchin Community Services, but leaving his two parishes will be difficult.

On Nov. 19, Fr. Bertram bid farewell to his beloved spiritual families after serving more than six years at St. Benedict the Moor and more than 19 years at St. Francis of Assisi parishes.

“I will miss the opportunity to be part of people’s lives, and when you have a role like a pastor, you enter into their lives in a very personal way with weddings, funerals and baptisms, as well as various types of counseling,” Fr. Bertram said.  “That’s what I’m going to miss, as we don’t have that at the Capuchin Community Services. I will have very different relationships and different ministries so I will miss that type of friendship and family that I had at the parishes.”

Fr. Bertram will now devote his ministry to serving as the full-time director of Capuchin Community Services, a ministry that serves the House of Peace and St. Ben’s Community Meal.

“I was assigned to that role 15 months ago during an emergency situation that called for a new director,” Fr. Bertram said. “I was a bit surprised when my Provincial, Fr. Mark Joseph Costello, asked me to take it on; but because I have been in Milwaukee for a long time and Milwaukee was familiar with me, he thought I could take on both the parishes and the Capuchin Community Services. The order provided supplementary help with the parishes, and we have great site managers at the Community Services, so I was able to balance both.”

Since his assignment 15 months ago, Fr. Bertram said the responsibilities would have been impossible if it were not for Fr. Javier Rodriguez, O.F.M. Cap., who was helping  at both parishes and will now lead both.

“He is the first non-white, non-Germanic pastor of St. Francis,” Fr. Bertram said. “Fr. Javier is Puerto Rican and proud, and the parishes have welcomed him with open arms.”

Two Community Services programs Fr. Bertram hopes to expand are the after-school program and the shelter program, which he said will greatly aid needy people in Milwaukee.

“One of our main challenges is the St. Anthony apartments. We do not own those apartments, but the owner went bankrupt June 1, and we are on the first floor, so that lease is in jeopardy. I want to help work something out with the residents,” Fr. Bertram said. “The weird thing is I was also talking about expanding the services to help children with an after-school program. So many children got behind during COVID and children have the lowest scores in 30 years for reading and math, and children of color have it even worse. I am a former teacher and feel called that we must do an after-school program.”

In addition to the program for children, Fr. Bertram will reopen St. Ben’s meal hall as a temporary winter shelter program, which, he said, is the largest seasonal shelter program in the city of Milwaukee.

“We can house 40 men in the meal hall, and it will be filled every night. Last year, we had 54 and it was a little too tight, so we are reducing the number to 40 and we have space for 20 women,” he explained. “We are hopefully expanding in the future for year-round shelter as the homelessness is increasing with such high rental costs.”

Born and raised in Fond du Lac County, Fr. Bertram was raised on a farm near the town of St. Peter. Before becoming a Capuchin, Bertram taught math, science, and a “raft of other subjects” to seventh and eighth graders about 10 miles away in rural St. Cloud. He described the students as great people and the ones who gently affirmed him to become a Capuchin and a priest.

“I was in the seminary and needed a break, so I went to college and went to teach,” he said. “The kids talked me into being a priest, even though I would tease them that they wanted to get me off track for not finishing their math assignments. You know young people, and when they are serious and when they are trying to waste time.  I have always been so grateful to them for what they did.”

Those students saw the call to the priesthood in Fr. Bertram more than he saw it in himself; they helped identify part of his ministry. Years later, he remains in touch with many of them, including performing wedding ceremonies for his students’ children.

“I enjoy the opportunity to help people, and while it sounds simplistic, these days it is valuable to be appreciated by others,” Fr. Bertram said. “They motivate me, and I am so grateful for this opportunity, and I am grateful to leave St. Francis and St. Benedict in the good hands of Fr. Javier. I told both parishes that they wouldn’t see me for a while as they needed distance from me, and the time and space to embrace him as a pastor. He needs that and I need that, too.”