I have just returned from the beatification of Blessed Solanus Casey. He’s one of our own: a Wisconsin man who attended our archdiocesan seminary and then returned as a Capuchin Franciscan to finish his priestly studies at St. Francis Church at Fourth and Brown. He was ordained to the presbyterate by Archbishop Sebastian Messmer.
On the bus ride home, I thought of the contributions of the Capuchins to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The two founders of the St. Joseph Province, Francis Haas and Bonaventure Frey, came first to Milwaukee and began their Capuchin careers here. Frey established St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit, where Fr. Solanus served as porter. Capuchin friars in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have been educators, rural pastors, and always in the forefront of service to the poor. They have been strong advocates for civil rights and generous benefactors of those left behind by society.
I remembered the story of another Milwaukee-based Capuchin who was also considered for sainthood: Fr. Stephen Eckert, OFM. Cap. An imposing and lonely statue of him stands over his grave on the west side of St. Benedict the Moor Church. Almost totally forgotten now, Fr. Eckert at one time seemed destined to be enrolled in the ranks of the Church’s saints. His cause was never completed but his life is worth recalling, especially for the inspiration he gave to one important Catholic layman.
Fr. Eckert was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1869 of German immigrant parents. He entered the Capuchins in 1890 at St. Bonaventure Friary in Detroit. He finished his studies in Milwaukee and was ordained to the priesthood in Milwaukee on July 2, 1896, by Archbishop Frederick X. Katzer. During his years at a Capuchin mission in Yonkers, he was inspired to work with African-Americans. A visit to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Philadelphia, founded by wealthy heiress St. Katherine Drexel, deeply moved him. St. Drexel and her sisters had devoted themselves to ministry with Native Americans and African Americans.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of African-Americans migrated to northern cities to search for work and escape the worst features of the Jim Crow South. In many large northern cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland and New York, African Americans carved out niches for themselves. They bought homes, created businesses, and transferred their cultural institutions to these new locales. Sadly, even though they came to escape the apartheid of “legal” segregation, it was often not much better in the North, as local prejudices and real estate realities restricted where they could live. Social attitudes toward blacks were not radically different in the North than the South. In Milwaukee, the near north side became an African-American community.
Local African-American churches had already begun ministering to the mostly Protestant migrants. Catholics came to their spiritual assistance in 1908, when an African-American couple, Lincoln and Julia Valle, created a mission to African-Americans. This small community, first located in Old St. Mary’s Church basement and then in a storefront, was named for St. Benedict the African (Moor), and organized black Catholics and cajoled local priests to offer Mass. At the behest of Archbishop Messmer, the Capuchins took it over in 1911 and moved it to Ninth and State. They opened a small chapel and, with the help of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, founded a catechetical program and later a day school. Fr. Eckert became the first resident pastor in 1913 and the school’s numbers grew rapidly.
The burly Fr. Eckert, with a thick black beard, was an indefatigable apostle, going door to door in the district and asking people to send their children to the mission for instruction. His method and that of his successors was to convert African Americans to Catholicism. Eckert began a boarding school by taking in three orphan children. Even though Fr. Eckert intended the school for the destitute and homeless, it became a private school for black children. Soon, the boarding school drew numbers from around the country and outnumbered the day school in enrollment. Nearby houses and property were purchased, children had to be fed, and expenses met. The eloquent Fr. Eckert was often on the road preaching missions and begging local food merchants for donations. He sent letters asking for money for mission buildings. He enlisted the sisters and the children in a form of intercessory prayer called the “The Storm Novena” that consisted of various prayers with arms uplifted.
Fr. Eckert was a lovable man, but not a good administrator. Believing that the urban environment had bad effects on African American children, he moved the school to Holy Rosary Academy in Corliss, a rural location in Racine County and, in doing so, nearly killed it. The school moved back to Milwaukee and the Racine Dominicans joined as faculty members. Fr. Eckert, relieved of his administrative duties, spent the rest of his days until his death in 1923 raising money for the school by giving missions. When he died, he was buried with his fellow Capuchins in Calvary Cemetery. Under the leadership of Fr. Eckert’s successor, the practical and hard-working Fr. Philip Steffes, the parish and school took off. Eventually, a boarding high school began that drew African American children from around the country. This high school welcomed African American celebrities to speak to the students, including Marcus Garvey, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and convert-poet Claude McKay.
Fr. Eckert left a strong impression for his sanctity and generosity. Not long after he died, people began praying for his intercession and receiving answers to their prayers. Capuchins sent devotees tiny bits of his habit, which were treasured as future relics. Children at the mission prayed to him and used the “Storm Novena” to petition for the many needs of the growing school. His life was memorialized by the Capuchin historian Fr. Celestine Bittle in a short book, “The Herald of the Great King” (1933). In the late 1940s, his cause for beatification was advanced by the Capuchin Province and, in 1949, his body was exhumed from Calvary and re-interred between the church and St. Anthony’s Hospital on State Street. An enormous statue of him looms over his grave, a site designed to encourage the veneration of the faithful. Formal proceedings were begun under Archbishop Moses E. Kiley and, in 1959, Archbishop William E. Cousins delivered to Rome documents related to Fr. Eckert’s sanctity.
Fr. Eckert’s memory lived on as a symbol of Capuchin kindness to African Americans and of the heyday of their efforts to help “the colored” by converting them to Catholicism. However, Fr. Eckert’s star faded as ministry to African-Americans took another direction. The rise of the civil rights movement in the 1940s and 1950s and a deepening sense of independent African-American identity (fostered at the school itself by the Capuchins and Racine Dominicans) made Fr. Eckert seem out of date and quaint. Blacks did not want to be referred to as “colored” but as Negroes and later African Americans. Pride in their culture and achievements rejected the notion that they were somehow “disordered” or needed white people to tell them how to be “better.”
Nonetheless, one person who venerated the memory of Fr. Eckert was Miller Brewing heir Harry John, a legendary Catholic philanthropist. Miller belonged to the St. Vincent de Paul Society and had often visited African American homes. Earlier, Miller’s uncle, Ernest G. Miller, had contributed substantially to the church of St Benedict the Moor (still one of the most beautiful in Milwaukee). African American children had prayed “Storm Novenas” for his health in the 1920s. The African American presence in Milwaukee, traditionally small until World War II, expanded substantially in the 1950s and 1960s. To spread the Catholic faith among them, Miller and another Vincentian, James Rogge, devised a plan to start a summer program for African-American youngsters. He named it in honor of Fr. Eckert: “Father Stephen’s Day Camp.”
Beginning in the summer of 1953, Miller launched and generously funded “Father Stephen’s Day Camp,” which provided a variety of programs for African American youth during the summer: sports, field trips, crafts and a hot lunch. It always included devotions, especially to the Sacred Heart, to which Miller had a personal deep personal devotion. These summer camps were held at Capuchin parishes: St. Benedict the Moor, St. Francis, and the mission of St. Martin De Porres. Seminarians recruited from St. Francis de Sales Seminary and elsewhere served as staff. A number of future archdiocesan priests served in this program, including Gerald Brittain, Patrick Flood, James Vojtik, Jerry Hudziak, and James Groppi. Several of them wrote to Miller after their ordinations, thanking him for the opportunity he provided. Miller was deeply devoted to this work and when he married in 1956, children from the camp were attendants at his wedding.
In the days before seminarians served parish internships, this program provided aspiring Levites an opportunity for ministry. Many of these seminarians had never lived or worked near African- Americans. The day camp had them visiting their homes, taking city-bound children to the country, and teaching catechism. Not a few of the seminarians were awakened to the realities of the African American experience in Milwaukee and the conditions and needs of these families. Some seminarians, like Groppi, decided that working with African-Americans would be a focus of their priesthood. All of them learned about Fr. Eckert and likely prayed to him. Fr. Stephen was long dead, but this program continued the Catholic outreach to African-Americans.