Fr. Steven Avella has identified Archbishop William E. Cousins as “a thread” running through his new book, “Confidence and Crisis: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 1959-1977.”

(Photo courtesy Marquette University Press)That 18-year period represents the tenure of Milwaukee’s eighth archbishop, which ended with his retirement.

Fr. Avella recalled Archbishop Cousins (1902-1988) in describing the book and its era during a recent interview at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, where he resides. Former president of the American Catholic Historical Association and a priest of the archdiocese, Fr. Avella is also a Marquette University history professor who assists at various parishes on weekends. “Confidence and Crisis” is a sequel to his 2002 volume, “In the Richness of the Earth: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 1843-1958.”

Archbishop Cousins was a “down-to-earth” individual, owing to his working class background, according to Fr. Avella, who met him on occasion but did not know him well. As Fr. Cousins, the prelate-to-be served in the Chicago archdiocesan band of priests assigned to preach parish missions and, the historian said, he “was a very gifted speaker in the style of the time.”

Read more

Stories within the story


Fr. Steven Avella’s “Confidence and Crisis” and “In the Richness of the Earth” are publications of Marquette University Press,

At public functions such as confirmation celebrations, “his geniality was on display,” said Fr. Avella, but the archbishop “knew when to draw boundaries.” He was not without friends in Milwaukee, but apparently did not have many close ones.

The archbishop was a kindly “man of faith,” Fr. Avella said, yet not one “to wear his piety on his sleeve.” Having served as a pastor and auxiliary bishop in Chicago and then as bishop of Peoria before his promotion to the archdiocese, “he was a competent administrator,” said Fr. Avella. He also was something of an administrative innovator who gave his assistants “a lot of leeway. He wasn’t a micromanager.”

Then, as now, it wasn’t easy being a member of the hierarchy.

“Many … bishops had a hard time riding the whirlwind of Vatican II (1962-65),” Fr. Avella said.

In the early years of the Cousins episcopacy in Milwaukee, “the country was materially prosperous,” Fr. Avella said, and “waking up to the systemic injustice that had been perpetrated on people of color.” Also, according to the historian, “there still was a Cold War consensus” and the Vietnam War was not unpopular.

America’s post-World War II prosperity was reflected in the American church, Fr. Avella noted. The Milwaukee Archdiocese counted approximately 100,000 children in its schools in 1963, he said, when there were more than 600 priests and some 700 seminarians. In 1963, 21 men were ordained priests; 26 were ordained in 1964.
What happened to alter the picture “is the story of the book,” its author said.  

As the ’60s progressed, there was racial unrest nationally and locally, including rioting in Milwaukee’s central city in 1967. San Francisco experienced its Summer of Love that same year, while Milwaukee’s countercultural scene was headquartered on Brady Street on the east side. Drug use and, as dissatisfaction with Vietnam set in, antiwar demonstrations became prevalent among the young.  Television series like “All in the Family” and movies like “Easy Rider” reflected the often-mentioned generation gap.

The church was changing, too. In the archdiocese and elsewhere in the U.S., English replaced Latin for some parts of the Mass in late 1964, as Vatican II was about to enter its final year. In seminaries once meant to “sequester (their students) from the world,” Fr. Avella indicated, “theological training shifted”; in convents, formation procedures changed and “radically altered (nuns’) presence in schools. The number of (teaching) sisters began to decline dramatically.” Many sisters left their religious communities and priests left the priesthood.

One such individual was then-Fr. James Groppi, the civil rights leader. Separate photos of Groppi and Archbishop Cousins share the “Confidence and Crisis” cover. A member of the first class of Milwaukee seminarians ordained by the archbishop, Groppi “became increasingly vocal on the question” of racial equality, Fr. Avella noted. As a parish priest in the inner city, Groppi marched on Washington and in Selma, Alabama, besides protesting racism in his hometown.

In researching his book,” Fr. Avella had access to hate mail sent to the then-cleric, a considerable amount of it from “self-identified Catholics.” The historian also came across letters in support of Groppi, far outnumbering the non-supportive ones, from clergymen – some of whom, he said, sent along generous donations despite modest salaries.          

An understanding of clerical culture rooted in his own priesthood facilitated his understanding of Fr. Groppi, said Fr. Avella. The priest, who suffered for the cause of civil rights and gained the admiration of some in the process, was “for others … a polarizing figure,” according to Fr. Avella, one who “could be moody” and had “sort of a victim complex.” Still, Groppi’s efforts made Milwaukee “the Selma of the North.”

With “Confidence and Crisis,” the author said, he “wanted to dispute the common wisdom of the ’60s and ’70s as disastrous in the church and world. I tried to speak to the positive aspects of this epoch – confusing, disorienting, but also an exciting time.”

“To march with Groppi,” Fr. Avella mused, “to witness the stirrings of reform in parishes … It was a great time to be alive.”

Fr. Avella pointed out that his “approach to history is not heavily dictated by historical theory. For me, the essence of writing is to recreate a narrative.”

Complimented on his literary style, the author modestly recalled a favorite professor at the University of Notre Dame, where he earned his doctorate, who assessed his writing by saying, “‘You have to work at this. You’re not Oscar Wilde or Charles Dickens.’”

Fr. Avella said he asks friends and colleagues to read his manuscripts prior to publication, urging them not to sugarcoat their evaluations.

As for his own evaluation of the 344-page tome, Fr. Avella said, “I would think it would be of interest to people who want to understand how Roman Catholics in southeastern Wisconsin influenced their environment and were influenced by their environment. I would also think that people should be interested in those on whose shoulders we stand. And then, finally, those controversial topics, issues that are of great moment for the Catholic Church” and are closely identified with the epoch – such as abortion, given the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision – are likely to be of interest as well.

Does Fr. Avella, who first considered priesthood at age 7 and became a history buff not long after, consider his work as historian a facet of his ministry?

“Very much so,” he said.    

Stories within the story

Fr. Steven Avella’s “Confidence and Crisis: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 1959-1977” contains intriguing tidbits. A few follow:

  • Chicago-born son of Canadian immigrants William Cousins, archbishop of Milwaukee during the years the book covers, was one of six siblings – four of whom died in infancy. The future prelate had a full head of hair in his youth, as one of the book’s more than 30 photos shows, and was nicknamed “Red.” He enjoyed playing the harmonica and golf.
  • Cardinal George Mundelein, archbishop of Chicago, “sent a warning to (Fr. Cousins’) first pastor, suggesting that the new young priest was rebellious and should be tamed,” according to the book. Of course, the subject of the warning eventually followed the cardinal into the hierarchy, choosing as his motto “Auxilium Meum a Domino” (“My help is from the Lord”).
  • One of 10 children, James Groppi was born in Milwaukee and baptized at Our Lady of Pompeii, the long ago demolished “Little Pink Church” of blessed memory in the Italian community. As an adolescent, Groppi played basketball at Bay View High School; after ordination and because of his civil rights involvement, he became “Milwaukee’s most famous priest” and “the single most important figure in the city … in the late 1960s.”
  • If Groppi was its most celebrated priest, Milwaukee’s most celebrated worshiper was John F. Kennedy. In 1962, the president attended Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of St. John, along with future governor Patrick Lucey and other prominent Democrats.
  • Incorporating the years of Vatican II, the period covered by “Confidence and Crisis” was an era of firsts. The first concelebrated Mass following revival of that ancient practice occurred at the cathedral in 1965. The first distribution of the Eucharist under both species took place during a wedding that same year at Our Lady of Good Hope Church, Milwaukee. The first priest senate was established in 1967. The first class of permanent deacons – 31 men – was ordained in 1975.
  • While Milwaukee’s central city parishes tended to lose members from 1960-70, St. Thomas Aquinas was an anomaly, experiencing “a burst of what turned out to be temporary growth from 5,190 (members) to 6,500.” By contrast, St. Elizabeth went from 4,450 to 1,100. Meanwhile, Fr. Avella writes, “the growth of suburban parishes was phenomenal.” From 1960-75, for example, New Berlin’s Holy Apostles increased from 2,567 congregants to 7,852.
  • Church/school combinations were prevalent among archdiocesan construction projects in the early years of the Cousins era. Among these: Good Shepherd, Menomonee Falls; St. Luke Brookfield; St. Leonard, Muskego; St. Roman, Milwaukee.
  • New churches reflected the liturgical renewal of Vatican II. Waukesha’s St. Mary “developed a semi-circular floor plan and a detached altar.” A Risen Christ figure, rather than a crucifix, served as sanctuary focal point at Milwaukee’s St. Veronica. The baptistery was situated in front at Sacred Heart in Racine, the sacristy in back at St. Joseph, Grafton.
  • Purchasing the old Schuster’s department store at 12th and Vliet streets in Milwaukee for archdiocesan headquarters was considered during the Cousins era. Instead, Milwaukee County bought it.
  • In 1966, Milwaukee’s Pius XI High School had an enrollment of nearly 2,600. Catholic secondary school authorities of the period gave students additional latitude in organizing “dances and proms that at one time were objects of concern by parents, nuns, and the superintendent of schools who often inveighed against ‘jitterbugs’ and odd student hairstyles and attire.”