As a student in Rome from 1979 to 1983, then-Fr. Jerome Listecki met Pope John Paul II. The two met again early in the new millennium after the priest had become an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Archbishop Listecki is Milwaukee’s first archbishop of Polish descent. (Photo courtesy of the Catholic Times)

With the appointment of Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki as the 11th archbishop of Milwaukee, a milestone in Milwaukee’s Polish Catholic history has been reached. It took 166 years, but in Archbishop Listecki, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has its first archbishop of Polish descent.

“If this had happened early in the 20th century, when the Poles were really anxious to have that – when great Polish leaders like Michael (a journalist) and Wenceslaus (priest) Kruszka (half brothers who advocated for a Polish bishop) – had it happened then, jubilation would have known no bounds because the Poles in Milwaukee and elsewhere felt that their numbers warranted representation in the hierarchy,” according to Fr. Steven Avella, a priest of the archdiocese and a professor of history at Marquette University, who added that native born Poles and those “in the larger Polish community” will take pride in Archbishop Listecki’s appointment just as they did when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978.

Turbulent history

As late 19th century and early 20th century immigrants sought support and familiarity in their new country, they found it in their families and in parishes where priests spoke the native language. As numbers grew, so, too, did the call for bishops to serve specific ethnic groups. Fr. Avella said Germans were among the first to petition the Holy See to appoint bishops on the basis of nationality, not territoriality, but the Vatican rejected the idea.

The priest, author of “In the Richness of the Earth: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee 1843-1958,” noted that Poles felt they were discriminated against and that there was a negative feeling by church leaders toward them due to perceived distrust and disloyalty.

“There was a sense that conceding them these sorts of privileges (appointing a Polish bishop) would create divisiveness in a diocese. He would be bishop just for the Poles. And that he would neglect others or, if you created him as an auxiliary bishop, as was demanded here in Milwaukee, he would, in effect, become the de facto bishop of all the Poles and Polish parishes, which were large and prospering, and the de factor leader of the Polish priests. What would that do to ecclesiastical unity?” Fr. Avella said about the thinking at that time.

While Poles were asking for a Polish bishop, a growing number of priests were asking that an English-speaking bishop be appointed for Milwaukee.
“They insisted that this is America, that the bishops should speak English, we should break free of this notion that this is just a German diocese. Well, they didn’t get their wishes,” Fr. Avella said. None of Milwaukee’s first four archbishops – John Henni, Michael Heiss, Frederick Katzer and Sebastian Messmer – was native born.

Ethnicity also national issue

Ethnicity was not merely an issue for the church in Milwaukee. Nationally, bishops such as Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul and Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore wanted Catholicism and Americanism to work hand in hand.

“(They believed we were to) strive as hard as we could to become integrated into American society,” the priest said. “And this meant putting aside ethnicity as a defining feature of Catholic life,” Fr. Avella said.

Archbishops Heiss and Katzer were among those who opposed Americanization.


“You better get nervous about preaching. If you’re not nervous, then I think you don’t have respect for the congregation. You overcome the nervousness by realizing that you’re an instrument of something that’s far greater. You are proclaiming the Word, helping people to open up the sacred Scripture.”

— Written for “Priesthood:
So That Others May Serve,” Vol. II, a publication of 14 vocation stories, produced by the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary for the Year for Priests, June 2009 to June 2010.

“They felt, ‘Language preserves faith. We must preserve their language; we must continue to perpetuate their culture,’” the priest said, though he noted that Archbishop Katzer wanted the catechism taught in English because he didn’t feel children understood enough German to be catechized in that language.

Although constantly under attack by various members of the Polish community, Archbishop Messmer, whom Fr. Avella said, “clashed violently with the Poles when he served as bishop of Green Bay” for 12 years prior to being appointed Milwaukee’s archbishop, asked the Holy See to provide Milwaukee with a Polish auxiliary. In November 1913, Fr. Edward Kozlowski, a priest of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Mich., was appointed an auxiliary bishop. But 21 months later he died from blood poisoning. Another Pole would not serve as a bishop in Milwaukee until 1947 when then-Fr. Roman Atkielski would become an auxiliary bishop and serve until his death in 1969.

The struggle between Americanization of Catholics and maintenance of a church divided along ethnic lines continued to be a struggle for Archbishop Messmer who, according to Fr. Avella, wanted ethnicity downplayed and who “worried about the Poles – that they would be divisive, that their energies would be dissipated in quarreling among themselves, and quarreling with the church hierarchy.”

“’If excessive ethnic diversity were permitted, the church would sunder, there would be no control, no coordinated diocesan effort,’” the priest said of the archbishop’s thinking in the early 20th century.

Americanization takes hold

The effort to Americanize Catholics continued during Archbishop Messmer’s 27 years in Milwaukee and through World War II.

“There was a strong sense that what the church requires is Americanization. English becomes the common language, ethnic churches can exist but the ethnic parish is a way station to becoming Americanized. After World War II, particularly in the ‘60s and ‘70s, immigrants become ethnics, and we start to celebrate multiple ethnicities and this culture of diversity,” Fr. Avella said.

Regarding Archbishop Listecki, the priest noted that he is a Polish-American.

“Take any ethnic group, and when you hyphenate it with American, it’s a hybrid. You’ve got loyalties to your cultural heritage, but you’re American,” he said.

Common ground

For people of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Fr. Avella considers it “far more significant that he’s a Midwesterner” than that Archbishop Listecki is of Polish descent.

“There’s the identity. He does know the culture of the Midwest. He knows the seasons, sports teams, how people get along, how people have made a living; he’s from an industrial background; he understands what industries were like and that we’re de-industrialized now,” the priest said.

Admitting that he doesn’t know Archbishop Listecki well, Fr. Avella, noting the archbishop’s multiple academic accomplishments, i.e., completing law school while completing his seminary studies, described him as “a very energetic man.”

“This isn’t a man who sits around and waits for things to happen. He’s an organizer, he’s a go-to guy. It appears he’s got pretty clear ideas about things. He’s pretty clear he knows what the church expects in a certain circumstance and he’ll follow through on it.”

During his initial press conference on Nov. 14, Archbishop Listecki spoke about following someone as popular as Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan. Fr. Avella said it was “gracious” of him to acknowledge his predecessor’s impact on the archdiocese, and that he will have an opportunity to make his own niche in the archdiocese.

“He comes here with an as open-minded and welcoming diocese as he’s going to find anywhere. Priests, religious and lay people really love the church; they’re invested here. Good things have happened here,” the priest said. “Wherever he goes, he’s going to find people saying, ‘Welcome,’ and really meaning it. That, I hope, will reassure him that he can be who he is and be the kind of leader that he is.”

Fr. Avella predicted that a year from now, the archbishop will have “probably ticked off some people, made some enemies, made some friends,” among whom the latter will be parishioners.

“The average Catholic who meets him at confirmation will like him: ‘Hi, how are you? How are you doing? How are things going?’ That goes a long way with people,” the priest said.

Here to stay?

Three of Milwaukee’s archbishops went to larger archdioceses – Archbishops Samuel A. Stritch and Albert G. Meyer to Chicago, and Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan to New York. Is Milwaukee a transitional appointment for its new archbishop?

“We’re not a novitiate for a ‘better’ diocese,” Fr. Avella said, referring to the belief some people have about the Milwaukee Archdiocese being a stepping stone to another assignment for an archbishop.

“The message to Archbishop Listecki should be, ‘Come here and stay. Let’s work together; let’s soothe out whatever rough spots there are. Let’s make this whole thing work. We don’t want you to leave after six years.… There are lots of important things going on, lots of important decisions to make, so stay,’” the priest said.