As the Archdiocese of Milwaukee looks toward the celebration of 175 years of service to the Church in southeastern Wisconsin, the stories of the past — both the blessings and the challenges — are an important part of understanding the realities of today and the promises of tomorrow. Almost from the beginning, thousands of women and men religious have contributed to the vitality of the archdiocese and their lives of poverty, chastity and obedience have left an indelible mark on this local church.

This chapter of the archdiocese’s history began when Sisters of Charity from Saint Elizabeth Seton’s community in Emmitsburg, Maryland, arrived to serve at St. Peter’s Church in 1846. Within 10 years, the sisters opened St. Joseph’s Academy, St. Rose Orphan Asylum, and St. John’s Infirmary (the predecessor of St. Mary’s Hospital).

At almost the same time, a group of Third Order Franciscan Sisters from Bavaria established the first new religious community in the archdiocese in present-day St. Francis. Although the sisters engaged in a variety of ministries, through their work at St. John’s School for the Deaf and St. Aemillian’s Orphanage (both in St. Francis) and St. Coletta’s School for Exceptional Children (Jefferson), the sisters developed a reputation for excellence in working with children with special needs, demonstrating the willingness of religious to serve those on the margins of the Church and society.

Above: Archbishop Samuel Stritch stands with priests and Sisters of St. Joan Antida outside of the Italian church Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in West Allis. Below: Fr. Theodore Zaremba, OFM, provincial of Franciscans staffing St. Bonaventure prep school, Sturtevant, blessed the site for a new facility at a groundbreaking ceremony.

Another of the earliest religious communities to arrive in the archdiocese was the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Arriving from Germany in 1850 in response to an invitation from Bishop John Martin Henni, the sisters focused their energy on serving in parish schools. Their first school was at “Old” St. Mary’s in Milwaukee and they received their first candidate, Ms. Catherine Flasch, the following year. The ensuing years saw the School Sisters of Notre Dame expand their ministries to other parishes in Milwaukee and Kenosha and, in 1859, the sisters opened Visitation of Mary Orphanage in Elm Grove.

Sister Sylvia Hecht, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, reflected, “We came for the immigrants, especially the German people. Of course, you meet the needs of whoever comes. So, eventually we were also with the Polish, the Spanish, the Irish, and, later the migration of the African-American community.”

Sr. Sylvia, who was born on a farm near Weyauwega, entered the community in 1952 and arrived at St. Elizabeth School in Milwaukee in 1959. The years that followed saw the population of the parish and school shift as the African-American presence in the community expanded. For Sr. Sylvia and her community, however, this change inspired new forms of outreach and service, particularly within the Civil Rights Movement.

“We were being educated about a world we didn’t know,” Sr. Sylvia said, “but I felt called to educate each child, whether they were Catholic or not. Whatever their race, it was bringing them to their full potential.”

After years of service at St. Elizabeth’s (which later became Harambee Community School), Sr. Sylvia continued her community’s commitment to formation and education as she and her sisters explored new ways to serve minority communities. For Sr. Sylvia, this would lead to the establishment of The Shade Tree, an outreach program she founded to empower single mothers, and, more recently, to the creation of the Rising Stars Tutoring Program, which she founded in 2009. Today, this program serves children in 12 area schools.

Sister Carol Thresher, a member of the Sisters of the Divine Savior (the Salvatorians), recalled how her own community’s outreach and mission evolved from their first ministries in Milwaukee. Invited by Archbishop Frederick Katzer in 1895, the three pioneer Salvatorian Sisters were initially entrusted with a mission focused on healthcare in the home.

“Our first three sisters were graciously hosted by the School Sisters of St. Francis. They later rented a house on the near Southside,” Sr. Carol said. “The sisters advertised their help for those who needed them. They would then go into homes and they weren’t just the German immigrants, or Catholics. They went into many homes and took care of the families during those times’ epidemics like typhus, typhoid, and influenza, and also when a mother had a baby.”

In time, however, the Salvatorian sisters, like so many other communities, expanded the scope of their ministries to include other forms of healthcare and eldercare, education and social work.

Beyond the work of the communities already mentioned, some communities, such as the Mercedarian Fathers, Cistercian monks, the Sisters of Misericorde, and the Little Sisters of the Poor, no longer serve in the archdiocese. However, other communities, including the Jesuits, Franciscans, Pallotine Fathers and Brothers, Felician Sisters, Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus, and dozens of others continue to build up the Church through their untiring commitment to prayer and service.

“Religious were in the trenches building the Church,” Sr. Sylvia reflected. “We were the ones who made the Church what it is today, who created this huge population of people who had faith and developed their Catholic religion and sense of who they were.”

Obviously proud of her community’s contributions to Catholic education, but also recognizing the courage and faith of so many other religious women and men, Sr. Sylvia said, “We were the strength and the faith of the Church. We had the audacity to do the work that the people wanted and needed. We had a lot of grit and we never said, ‘Oh, we have too many children, we can’t take you.’”

Sr. Carol, who has served her community as a formator and educator, a staff member at the Capuchin-sponsored Justice and Peace Center, missionary, and provincial leader, noted that when she entered the Salvatorian Sisters in 1959, she didn’t think her life would change much over the years. However, she found herself surrounded by women who had a vitality and interest in the world that empowered her and so many other religious to continue to reach out to the margins, particularly in the years since the Second Vatican Council.

“Religious women and men offer energy about serving, especially the most needy, and being responsive to those needs in a way that went beyond a monetary exchange,” Sr. Carol noted. “The presence of religious in the archdiocese is critical to the growth and maturing of the immigrant Church and it’s made a big difference, both educationally and in healthcare, in ways that were and are significant.”

Sr. Carol said that while some of the external elements of religious life have changed, the commitment of religious women and men remains the same.

“Our role has shifted because our charisms call us to the needy. Our charisms continue to move us. There is a spark and that’s why you will always find us where there are no resources, where people need to be helped.”

To learn more about the religious communities serving in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, visit the vocations section of