Throughout Lent, the Catholic Herald will literally highlight Where WE Worship, a weekly feature on parishes within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, by featuring parishes of some of the Catholic Herald staff. This week’s parish feature is St. Rita in West Allis, home parish to Bob Bembenek, Account Representative for the Catholic Herald.

“Once you get to know the people, you realize that we are more of a family than not. I think that was the thing that kept me coming back.” -Pat Henzel

When Pat Hetzel moved into the West Allis area near St. Rita’s Parish, she was “kind of in between the parishes.” She was looking for something in a church but just not finding it. That is, until she entered the doors of St. Rita’s near 61st Street and Lincoln Avenue about 14 years ago.

Top: The organ. Above: The entrance to St. Rita’s is on 61st Street in West Allis.

“There was an aura that I was looking for that I didn’t find in the other parishes,” Hetzel explained. “That was kind of an openness and a friendliness and, of course, the liturgy. That was one of the big things. The liturgy is pretty much the same, but there’s always an inflection and that’s the one that I found here with Fr. Dick Mirsberger (pastor). So I joined the parish and got active at that time.”

Pat had been a career nurse for many years, working in various capacities in Milwaukee area hospitals, including St. Mary’s, Columbia and ultimately at the former Milwaukee Psychiatric hospital, where she “found my love in psychiatry.” The tender compassion with which she practiced her craft as a nurse would serve her well after she arrived and sought out ministerial opportunities at St. Rita’s as she was approaching her retirement.

The pastor at St. Rita’s for the past six years is a man who also arrived from the world of medicine. Fr. Charlie Zabler served as a chaplain for two decades in a variety of hospitals, including 19 years as the oncology chaplain at St. Luke’s Hospital. He also worked in the intensive care unit and other areas as staff chaplain and also worked 11 years at West Allis Memorial Hospital. With a soft chuckle, Fr. Zabler fondly recalls being known as “Charlie Chaplain,” and he was more than familiar with the church scene on this side of town.

“When I was ordained in 1976 as a deacon and in 1977 as a priest, I was at Gregory the Great which is only a mile down the road,” Fr. Zabler explained. “So I’ve been familiar with the West Allis parishes all these years. So I knew the parish; I knew the parishioners through the ministries of both hospitals.”

“I knew St. Rita was a parish that had a good social outreach, was ethnically mixed at that time already and that there was a hospital community, and I wanted to make sure that wherever I would go would have that spirit about it.”

St. Rita’s Parish was officially founded July 6, 1924, with a solemn High Mass at 8 a.m. in a tent set up in the field where the church stands today. The tent was obtained from Wisconsin State Fair Park and the first pastor was Fr. Rodenkirk.

According to St. Rita’s historical accounts, “Lincoln Avenue was only a dirt road but the first building put up on the corner of Lincoln and 60th Street was designed for full parish activity.” The school was on the first floor while the church was in the basement and the parish hall occupied the second floor.

As the congregation began to grow, Archbishop Messmer appointed the Rev. Frederick P. Arnold to serve as an assistant to Fr. Rodenkirck. However, Rev. Arnold only stayed until July before being transferred to a church in Madison.

St. Rita’s Parish held its first Mass in this tent in 1924. (Submitted photo)

While St. Rita’s did have a good-sized school, it had no hall facilities. Construction began in the fall of 1931 on a new auditorium, which was completed in the spring of 1932. The Rev. Peter Enrietto took over as pastor from 1935 to 1940 and implemented three major projects. A janitor’s home was purchased, a three-room addition was made to the rectory and the church was renovated.

With the congregation continuing to grow, parishioners began to have dreams of a beautiful new church building in the 1950s. However, it wasn’t until April 1, 1962, that the first spade of earth was overturned to begin the construction project. Mark F. Pfaller was chosen as the architect for his biggest, most impressive project – one which prompted an article in the New York Times, dated Dec. 12, 1964, to describe St. Rita’s as “a new Roman Catholic Church in suburban Milwaukee which combines such traditional elements of church architecture as flying buttresses and stained glass windows with contemporary forms – a parabolic roof and an open interior plan.”

Unlike other church buildings, the roof of St. Rita’s was erected before the walls were built. A majestic stained glass window depicting St. Rita of Cascia looms above the main entrance doors inside. Dedication ceremonies for the new church were held May 3, 1964, with Archbishop William E. Cousins blessing the structure in the morning and delivering a sermon at a dedication Mass celebrated by Msgr. Arnold.

As beautiful as St. Rita’s Church is to behold, it has an even greater reputation as being a welcoming church community. Fr. Zabler’s approach has much to do with it.

Growing up in Burlington and attending Mass at St. Charles Parish, Fr. Zabler fondly recalls Fr. Richard Altenhofen, who would come out before Mass and walk up and down the aisles talking to people, something very uncommon in the 1950s. It’s an approach Fr. Zabler eagerly adopted as part of his own welcoming style.

“When I first got here, the church before Mass was very quiet and now we actually have to call them to order because they’re social,” Fr. Zabler recalled. “There’s still a need for people to become more familiar with the stranger who walks in.”