Saint Francis de Sales Seminary 175th Anniversary


The tree-lined path leading to Saint Francis de Sales Seminary is iconic. (File photo)

Milwaukee historian John Gurda once wrote: “Catholicism is a universal system of belief, one that applies across all borders and in every time, but this cosmic faith comes to life, always in minutely particular human circumstances — this community and not another, this street corner and not the next.” Catholics, like monks who take a vow of stability, are “lovers of the place.” They attach special significance to their parishes and schools, and are pained when they close or consolidate. Catholics consecrate sacred space, reflecting our spiritual and institutional commitment to a particular locale. Our Catholic world is “mapped” by diocesan boundaries. Our sacred spaces include not only parish churches, but also hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, shrines, schools, cathedrals, and houses for men and women religious orders.

Nojoshing was the name given by native Americans to the lands on which archdiocesan institutions would later rise. Surveyed and carved into the township of Lake, hugging the south shore of Lake Michigan, this land became home to some of Milwaukee’s Catholic pioneers. Over the years, that initial Catholic presence expanded to 180 acres. Saint Francis de Sales Seminary was the anchor and crown jewel of the phalanx of Catholic institutions that still dominate this part of Milwaukee. The impressive network of buildings and services represented the largest single concentration of Catholic space in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

The size and prominence of urban space is an important category of study for urban historians. As the late Dr. Frederick Olson of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee often observed, Catholic expansion on the south shore altered the path of Milwaukee urbanization. Catholic institutions had an “economic halo,” a collective impact of the money paid in wages and spent on purchases by those who lived and worked in them. They also contributed to the social impact of the Church on society. Catholic institutions, such as the seminary, enhanced the value and beauty of the land through their rich forestation of the grounds, especially the planting of the elegant canopy of trees that welcomes all to the handsome seminary buildings (a favorite for photos of seminarians and newlyweds). Graduates of the various schools included clergy and religious sisters who taught in schools or cared for “the least among us”: orphans and the hearing impaired.

The land was first claimed by a brotherhood and sisterhood that came from Ettenbeuren, Bavaria. This mixed community of men and women eventually faded away. The men continued to work on the property and inhabit the cream brick building where the archbishop resides today. The women were eventually transformed into the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. The Franciscan Sisters’ congregational history is deeply linked and intertwined with these properties. Their blood, sweat, and tears helped build and consecrate these acres.

Between 1856 and 1982, cohorts of sisters ranging from 16 to 19 at a time, served as cooks, housekeepers, laundresses, and nurses at the seminary. They served as sacristans, baked altar breads, and both cared for and made liturgical vestments. In 1902, smallpox roared through the seminary community (then 290 students). In February that year, the seminarians were sent home for a month, except for 22 who were sick with smallpox and pneumonia. The epidemic was the impetus for the construction of a convent for the sisters, which included an infirmary wing for the students. Until 1917, the sisters attended Mass on the lower balcony of the seminary chapel. Later, they set aside a new community chapel in the convent that they named for St. Clare. Later one of the empty seminary residence halls was given over to the Franciscan Sisters and was named Clare Hall.

Of the service of the Franciscan Sisters, one seminarian recalled: “Oh, how these good Sisters had worked for us when we were young students, and how cheerfully they performed the most menial work — washing our clothes, darning our socks, and mending our trousers.” Sr. Kathleen Nuebel recalled when she was assigned to the seminary in August 1930: “I was sent to work at the Major Seminary and found this appointment very hard … but as the days passed by and even if the work was hard, it afforded many spiritual blessings. … I stayed 16 years … during those years, I had a taste of nearly every job there from dining rooms, sacristy, laundry, kitchen helper, and priest’s housekeeper.” While not all went well between the sisters and the male clerics, most students and faculty were deeply grateful to the sisters. As one wrote to Sr. Kathleen on her anniversary: “We’d like to thank you for all the heartache and backache you go through to keep us fed, healthy, and in step. I know how hard it is on you. We’ll try again and again to make it easier.”

By the 1890s, the sisters had built a motherhouse on land north of the seminary. In 1904, they opened St. Mary’s Academy for girls. The academy expanded for many years and its elegant buildings fronted Lake Drive until 2019. St. Mary’s Academy closed in 1991 and the buildings were used for non-profit organizations. In the 1930s, at the behest of Archbishop Samuel Stritch, they created what is today Cardinal Stritch University to prepare young sisters for classroom teaching. Later the campus moved to Fox Point. With help of funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the sisters transformed one of the buildings on their motherhouse property into senior housing. They also built another structure behind the old academy. These buildings, Canticle Court and Juniper Court provide affordable housing for seniors.

Preparing Catholic Men for the Professions

In 1870, Fr. Joseph Salzmann founded a school for teachers, especially church musicians, called the Catholic Normal School (later renamed Holy Family College). This venerable institution, built in the shadow of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, responded to the demands of German parishes, which valued fine music. This school trained scores of musicians under the leadership of the great maestro and composer, John Baptist Singenberger (1848-1924), who arrived in 1874. A native of Switzerland, he taught chant and composed scores of anthems, motets, and masses. Singenberger died in 1924 and is buried in the seminary cemetery.

The need to train young men for jobs in the business world (and shore up the finances of the Normal School) led to the creation of a business school named for the reigning pope, Pio Nono. Young men learned bookkeeping, accounting, business practices and clerical skills. In 1876, one of the floors of the Normal School was set aside for “deaf and mute” young people. This became St. John’s School for the Deaf. In 1879, a new building was erected for them. In 1885, the Franciscan Sisters took over the care of this institution. It experienced a brush with closure in 1889, until Fr. Mathias Gerend took over the school and solidified its finances with a profitable church furniture industry. A new building was erected in the 1970s and closed in 1983, later becoming Deer Creek Elementary School.

When the Normal School faded in 1922, Pio Nono was reinvented as a free-standing high school for boys. In 1941, Archbishop Moses E. Kiley designated it as the site for a minor seminary. It welcomed both resident and commuter students (called “Day Dogs”). In 1963, its program was transferred to the newly built De Sales Preparatory Seminary. For a year, it served as the minor seminary of the Diocese of Madison until the diocese built its own Holy Name Seminary. In a major high school reorganization in the 1960s, Pio Nono High School merged with Don Bosco High School run by the Brothers of Mary and became St. Thomas More High School.

St. Aemillian’s Orphanage

Many immigrant parents perished on the way to America or soon after arriving. Fathers often could not raise children alone if their wife had died. In 1849, Archbishop Henni formed St. Aemillian’s Orphanage for boys. (He also founded a similar institution, St. Rose’s, for orphan girls.) St. Aemillian’s was for German orphans and was supported by donations from German-speaking parishes. It was transferred to the seminary grounds in 1854 and seminary professors taught the children religion for a time. Scores of orphan boys learned practical trades like book binding, shoe repair and carpentry, as well as habits of cleanliness, order, and personal discipline. The school burned down twice, in 1895 and 1930. After the second fire, the orphans were transferred to a facility on 60th and Lloyd and finally to a new building on 89th and Capitol. Changes in orphan care shifted to group homes and foster parenting.

Seminary Growth and Expansion

The growth of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary required additional space. Already in the 1930s, Archbishop Stritch pondered building a new seminary building. The financial distress of the 1930s and the wartime restrictions on building materials deferred construction, but in the more prosperous late 1940s and 1950s, the Saint Francis campus expanded. Archbishop Kiley added a new powerhouse. To celebrate the centenary of the Saint Francis site, Archbishop Meyer built a new dining hall and residence for the students (Heiss Hall). He also laid plans for a new college and high school seminary. These plans were advanced by Archbishop William E. Cousins, who launched a fund drive. The reorganization of seminary programs altered the course of seminary study. Instead of six years at one place and six years at another, the seminary program more resembled general education of four years of high school, four years of college, and four years of theology. Ground was broken for a new high school and college seminary on land south of Saint Francis and across from an old power plant. This giant complex (today the Mary Mother of the Church Pastoral Center) was completed in 1963 and functioned as a minor and college seminary until it closed in the 1980s. Today, the buildings house the administrative offices of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Change and Continuity

Today, the huge Catholic acreage on Milwaukee’s south shore has a much-altered footprint. St. Mary’s Academy is gone and its two buildings were demolished to make way for a new state-of-the-art retirement facility and general headquarters for the Franciscan Sisters. The reminders of the two academy building are the two elegant towers that crown the center of the new facility. The old Holy Family College buildings have been torn down and the School for the Deaf is no more. St. Thomas More High School is a coeducational school that provides quality education to young people from the south side of Milwaukee. Canticle and Juniper Court provide needed senior housing. Responding to a need for eldercare, St. Ann’s Center for Intergenerational Care opened in 1983 in the basement of the motherhouse and in 1999 finished a new building directly behind the old Heiss Hall of St. Francis Seminary. The old Heiss Hall now houses homeless COVID-19 patients.

Although the buildings are changed, this beautiful Catholic acreage is still serving the People of God. It continues to make known the “goodness and kindness of Christ Our Savior” to the present generations. This is still sacred space for the archdiocese.