Top: A banner displays the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus. Above: The exterior of Immaculate Conception Parish, which was zoned as a Barton Historical Site in 1992. (Photos by Tom Andrews)

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 Immaculate Conception in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, home parish to Amy Taylor, Associate Communications Director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Fr. Philip Schumaker is a young man who has found himself with a unique opportunity.

For the past year-and-a-half, he has served as administrator for two of the oldest and most classically beautiful churches on Milwaukee’s south side. They are the parishes of Immaculate Conception and St. Augustine in the Bay View neighborhood.

Fr. Schumaker found his way to Bay View following his attendance at St. Francis de Sales Seminary and three years in Brookfield at St. John Vianney Parish. During a recent visit to Immaculate Conception, Fr. Schumaker described his initial excitement with his assignment.

“I was excited to come here because this is a really great side of town,” said Fr. Schumaker. “I didn’t know much about this parish and had never been inside before. The first thing that struck me was the physical beauty, the interior and the exterior, just a beautiful classic style church. Everyone was extremely welcoming and I’ve been blessed to be here.

“We try to do liturgy well and are always trying to improve, especially to reflect the reality of what’s going on. Part of what I enjoy so much about celebrating Mass here is that it is a very beautiful church, and the point of that is to reflect the beauty of the Eucharist and the beauty of celebrating Mass. We try to do it with reverence to reflect the fact that God is coming to us and that we are receiving Him.”

As he strives to lead his flock and help them on their personal journeys to Christ, he is placing a special emphasis on the Eucharist.

“One of the things that I’ve started here at Immaculate Conception is Eucharistic Adoration during Advent, Lent and doing it at different times,” Fr. Schumaker said. “One of the greatest ways to God is through prayer and obviously Mass is the greatest prayer we have. When we talk about bringing people closer to Christ, we could talk about different programs or other things, but ultimately what we want to do comes down to prayer and the sacraments.

“At the end of the day, it’s quite simple. That’s what Christ taught and encouraged us to do. When we come to the Mass, we are able to worship the Lord, and when we sit in front of Him in the Eucharist in adoration, we’re able to be with Him and to pray with Him. That’s how the early Church grew and that’s how we will grow. If there’s an emphasis in my ministry, it would be those two things: prayer and the sacraments. They’re the most important things we have and they will lead us to Christ.”

The Diocese of Milwaukee was established in 1843 and Immaculate Conception was founded under the leadership of Bishop John Martin Henni, the first bishop of the diocese. In the years 1868-69, the Milwaukee Iron Company erected a blast furnace puddle mill and rail mill in Bay View, which attracted many industrial workers. Many of these workers were Irish immigrants who settled on the south shore of Lake Michigan between Jones Island and St. Francis Seminary. In The Immigrant Church, Fr. Steven Avella noted, “Each ethnic group of Catholics that entered the diocese demanded and received their own worship where the Gospel could be preached in their native tongue, their distinctive devotion and piety could be celebrated in art and prayer, and their confessions could be heard by priests who understood their struggles.”

In response to these needs, Bishop Henni designated a young Irish professor from St. Francis Seminary, Fr. Thomas Fagan, to establish a parish on three lots on Russell Avenue. The Milwaukee Iron Company was persuaded to donate these lots for the site of the new Catholic Church in Bay View, which was dedicated by the Very Rev. Martin Kundig in honor of the Immaculate Conception on Nov. 19, 1871. The following year, the Rev. P.F. Pettit became the first resident pastor and presided over the building of
the rectory.

This statue of St. Mary is located near the entrance to Immaculate Conception in Bay View. (Photo by Tom Andrews)

As the congregation began to grow, the need for a school was addressed in 1885 and the building, consisting of two rooms and an enrollment of about 90 students, was completed in the summer of 1886. The cornerstone for a new church was laid Sept. 22, 1907, and it was dedicated by Archbishop Sebastian Messmer the following August. The rectory was completed about the same time.

By the mid-1950s, more space was needed in the church and to accomplish the expansion, the interior of the church was turned around, placing the main entrance on South Kinnickinnic Avenue. In 1959, the church renovation was completed and dedicated, and in the late 1960s, the position of the altar was changed so the priest would face the people. In 1990, the 125th Jubilee Committee launched a campaign to restore the bell tower, refurbish the pipe organ and establish an endowment in anticipation of future needs.

Myron Thomsen is a parishioner who understands the colorful history of Immaculate Conception and has relished coming to this church for 50 years.

“I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy and I like an old-fashioned kind of church,” said Thomsen. “I think the sheer beauty of it, the stained glass windows and the mosaic (behind the altar) are absolutely gorgeous. It makes it easier to be part of the Mass and to look around and see the religious symbols in the windows and the mosaic with all of the people from the Old Testament. It makes it easier to concentrate on what you’re doing.

“The other thing I like about Immaculate Conception is their involvement in the community. Immaculate Conception, through the school, and of course through St. Thomas Aquinas, which is our group school, have been marching in the Fourth of July parade for, like, a hundred years. We’re also involved in a group called the Inter-Organizational Council of Bay View and for the last two years, we’ve had their Christmas tree lighting ceremony on our playground, which draws hundreds of people.”

As it is with every church, charting the course for the future at Immaculate Conception is an ongoing focus for Fr. Schumaker and his entire church family.

“We strive to have more people who are holy,” Fr. Schumaker said. “That’s really all I can ask for is to try to lead my congregation to Christ. Certainly, there are different ways of doing that, whether it’s through men’s groups, women’s groups or different programs, and they’re all wonderful. But that’s what I want to focus on most – people who are focused first on serving Christ and serving one another.

“One of my college professors used to say that ‘institutions and programs don’t change things. Saints do.’ The point of being Catholic and the point of all we do is to become a saint and to go to heaven. What I see for the future of Immaculate Conception Church is people who are committed to prayer, the sacraments and to Christ, and bringing that same message of love and mercy to the world.”

Even, Fr. Schumaker insists, in a world shrouded in evil, hatred and fear.

“In our world and in our country, we see the darkness with these killings and these evil things that happen again and again and again. The solution is simple: the solution is Christ, to Him through prayer and the sacraments. If we can start doing that as a Church, we can start spreading that to the world around us.”