MILWAUKEE — Ironically, the newest parish in the Milwaukee archdiocese has accumulated 275 years of history.
The former St. Alexander, St. Helen and St. John Kanty parishes, located within a mile of one other on Milwaukee’s south side, have merged – St. John after 103 years, St. Alexander and St. Helen after 86 years each. The consolidated congregation is called Blessed John Paul II Parish, the first in Wisconsin known to have been named for the Polish pontiff.
Consolidation of the three Anglo/Hispanic parishes went into effect June 30, to coincide with the end of the fiscal year. Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki presided at a Mass marking the merger on Saturday, July 23 at the St. Alexander site. The bilingual Mass, which priests currently and formerly assigned to the new parish and its predecessors concelebrated with the archbishop, highlighted the new parish’s festival weekend. The festival, with a nod to the community’s two dominant cultures, is known as Polka Fiesta.
It is unusual for a parish to be named for a beatified person rather than a canonized saint, Fr. Michael Ignaszak, pastor, told your Catholic Herald during an interview in his office at the onetime St. Helen rectory, 3307 S. 10th St. In fact, a Vatican decree permitting a non-canonized patron is needed. Archbishop Listecki, pleased with the merger and the parishioners’ selection as patron of the pope who had made him a bishop, successfully sought the decree.
Fr. Ignaszak readily conceded that John Paul II is one of his own heroes. Moreover, the priest noted, the saintly pope “really has universal appeal.” John Paul II reflects the Polish roots of St. Alexander, St. Helen and St. John parishes. But if the pope was idolized by Polish Americans, he also earned the admiration of Spanish speakers for his devotion to the Blessed Virgin and visits to Mexico and Latin America, Fr. Ignaszak and his former associate pastor, Fr. Norberto Sandoval, indicated in separate interviews.
In conjunction with the July 23 Mass, the archbishop installed Fr. Ignaszak as pastor of the new parish – he had previously served for six years as pastor of all three of the predecessor parishes and, for eight years before that, as pastor of St. Helen alone. Also, the archbishop blessed a 3’ x 4’ framed, caanvas print of Blessed John Paul. Smaller versions of the same print have been installed at the St. Helen site and St. John Kanty site; the new parish will maintain the three worship sites “as long as economically feasible,” according to Fr. Ignaszak, along with the sites’ traditional names. Icons and paintings of those saints hang next to Blessed John Paul’s images in the three church buildings.
Newly ordained Fr. Javier Guativa has been appointed to serve as associate pastor of the parish.
“Blessed John Paul II is probably one of our most inclusive parishes,” Mark Kemmeter, of the archdiocese’s parish mission office, said in a news release to your Catholic Herald. “The Anglo and Hispanic communities are almost equal in size.”
Former pastor ‘envisioned the future’
Images installed 55 years ago reflect present collaboration
Some 55 years ago, when Fr. Tony Czaja oversaw the construction of a new church for Milwaukee’s St. John Kanty Parish, he had two Marian images installed.
One depicted the Madonna of Czestochowa, an image dear to the hearts of the first- and second-generation Poles who made up the great majority of Fr. Czaja’s parishioners.
The other depicted Our Lady of Guadalupe, revered for her appearances to the now-canonized Juan Diego in Mexico.
In the estimation of Fr. Norberto Sandoval, associate pastor of St. John Kanty, St. Alexander and St. Helen Parishes (now merged as Blessed John Paul II Parish) for six years until his recent relocation to St. Benedict in Fontana as pastor, Fr. Czaja envisioned the future: the current day in which the former St. John Kanty and the other now-merged parishes are about equally divided between Anglos and Hispanics.
The late Fr. Czaja apparently felt, as Fr. Sandoval does, that “in the presence of Christ all nationalities can come together and celebrate.”
With consolidation, things have come full circle. Mother and offspring have been reunited.
While the Anglo parishioners may be primarily of Polish extraction, Fr. Ignaszak pointed out that their ethnic origins vary and that the Anglos tend to be considerably older on average than their Hispanic counterparts. The two parish schools, St. John Kanty and Holy Wisdom Academy, have mostly Hispanic pupils, he said.
Both schools serve K4-8 populations. Holy Wisdom resulted from the consolidation nearly a decade ago of St. Alexander and St. Helen schools, a consolidation in which St. John chose not to participate. Holy Wisdom’s upper grades are quartered at the St. Alexander school building, 3344 S. 16th St., which has a gymnasium; lower grades are at St. Helen, 3329 S. 10th St., which does not. St. John Kanty School is at 2840 S. 10th St. About 280 students are anticipated at Holy Wisdom when school reopens later this month and about 180 at St. John.
The consolidated parish numbers 1,828 family units and 4,416 individual members. Fr. Ignaszak described his parishioners as warm, friendly, extremely welcoming to each other, as well as to strangers.
The consolidation, he added, “has been a wonderful movement of grace, bringing our parishes together…. I always give credit to the Holy Spirit. It’s the work of the Spirit and the cooperation of God’s people.”
Bob Lynch, president of the parish council, told your Catholic Herald that “in earnest (the merger) has been worked on over the last year.” But the seeds of unification were sown much more than a year ago. St. Alexander, St. Helen and St. John combined for athletics and religious education even before St. Alexander combined with St. Helen to form Holy Wisdom Academy. The term “Tri-Parish” came into use.
After Fr. Ignaszak’s pastoral responsibilities were expanded to include all three parishes in 2005 and Fr. Sandoval was assigned as his associate pastor – and solidified Hispanic involvement by introducing Spanish Masses which continue to draw hundreds weekly – consolidation of parish councils occurred.
Although a single council, with equal representation among the parishes, meant a single human concerns committee, a single liturgy committee, etc., there needed to be separate finance committees because each parish was a corporation. However, as longtime council member Lynch noted, the three finance committees “met as one” and “worked on each other’s needs.”
According to Lynch, merger was not the goal when council members and other Tri-Parish leaders forged a strategic planning committee three years ago. When he became Tri-Parish pastor, Fr. Ignaszak said, his attitude was “I’m going to shepherd them; I’m not going to push them.” Asked to express their vision for the parish, however, an overwhelming majority of the planners mentioned a unified congregation.
Has the merger of the parishes gone well? Yes, said Lynch, “because of the fact that we’ve been collaborating” for years. Fr. Sandoval echoed that sentiment.
“For the most part, the merger has been very well-received by people,” said Fr. Ignaszak, who feels the consolidation “adds a sense of stability to the neighborhood. He added that parishioners “are very happy” with the selection of John Paul II as patron.
Its beatified patron’s words have become a slogan for the multicultural parish: “Open wide the doors to Christ.”