Roughly a year ago, Fr. Bob Betz, pastor of Divine Mercy Parish, South Milwaukee, believed the property of the old St. Adalbert Parish would never be sold. It had been largely empty for about six years and various proposals to sell the 2.5-acre site near 16th and Minnesota avenues fell through.
On Monday, Dec. 23, however, Divine Mercy Parish closed a deal and sold the St. Adalbert property for $600,000 to Masjid Al-Huda, a Muslim congregation.
The selling of St. Adalbert began with the merger of four South Milwaukee parishes 12 years prior.
“They were all viable parishes at one time,” Fr. Betz said of the four former parishes — St. Adalbert, St. John, St. Mary and St. Sylvester.
However, with changing demographics and fewer priests to staff parishes, it was not practical to maintain four parishes in close proximity to each other.
“You can do things better together,” said Fr. Betz of the merger. “You have more options. You have more resources. It’s more efficient and productive.”
The merger, however, was a slow process.
“Mergers are always difficult emotionally to accept,” Fr. Betz said. “And rightly so, because religion is more of the heart than the head, so there is a lot of emotion and attachment, too. To bring about a change in that regard is often very difficult for people.”
For the first few years after the merger, Masses were celebrated at all four sites, however Fr. Betz knew to become one parish, there would have to be a change.
“We said we are never going to be one parish unless we worship together,” he recalled.
The St. John’s location became the obvious choice for the Divine Mercy Church because of its sheer size, seating 1,200 people.
“What was nice was every one of the four sites we used for something,” Fr. Betz said.
The church, parish offices, religious education and school were housed at different sites until this format became impractical. From there, the newly-joined Divine Mercy Parish had to determine what to do with the four properties.
The St. Sylvester site became the location of the school and parish offices. St. John was the main church, which left the sites of St. Mary and St. Adalbert. St. Mary Church was sold last summer to Milwaukee Chin Baptist Church, a congregation comprised primarily of Burmese refugees, and the school to Max A. Sass Funeral Home, leaving the St. Adalbert property.
In 2013, a proposal to sell the property to New Day Church fell through because of funding issues, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report. And in 2014, Divine Mercy received an offer from Gorman & Co. to create affordable housing for lower-income families at the location, but it was rejected by the city of South Milwaukee after neighbors complained.
It was decided that the property would be left for back taxes.
“We were resigned that it was never going to sell,” Fr. Betz said.
When an offer came from a Muslim congregation, Fr. Betz and Divine Mercy committee members were shocked.
He described the city’s rejection of selling the property to Gorman & Co. and the subsequent offer by Al-Huda to be a silver-lining for Divine Mercy.
“God had a hand in this,” Fr. Betz recalled. “He had other things in mind and changed it for the better in terms of remodeling and construction (of Divine Mercy).”
The official closure, according to Fr. Betz, went smoothly. After the formality of the selling, Fr. Betz witnessed the joy of the Muslim community in acquiring the property when a member of the Muslim congregation approached Fr. Betz and asked for a hug after the sale papers were signed.
“The man from the title company said this was one of the best closings he ever had,” the priest recalled.
The former St. Adalbert will become a mosque for the Muslim congregation as well as a center for religious education.
The sale of St. Adalbert was not announced until the Sunday after Christmas to avoid negative reactions from the community, yet rumors had been spreading about the transaction.
Prior to the announcement, religious symbols were removed from St. Adalbert, including crosses, statues and stained glass windows.
“(The Muslim congregation) didn’t want to be seen as desecrating Christian symbols,” Fr. Betz said, adding that the sale caused a mixture of positive and negative reactions in the community.
“In this Year of Jubilee of Mercy, when one of the corporal works of mercy is to welcome, this is certainly not a sign of what our Holy Father, Pope Francis, wants us to be in this Year of Jubilee,” Fr. Betz said of the negative comments.
Fr. Betz plans to ask someone from the Al-Huda community to come to Divine Mercy to help the Catholic community gain a better understanding of the Islamic faith.
In his public blog for the city, the mayor of South Milwaukee, Erik Brooks, also welcomed the Muslim community.
Following this sale, Fr. Betz and Divine Mercy Parish have plans to further remodel the parish and create one large community. He discussed plans for a new sanctuary area, which would be handicap accessible, and a permanent shrine to Divine Mercy.
Fr. Betz is proud of his parish and its response to the merger and the changes over the years.
“If you have ever gone through a merger, it’s not easy,” he said. “But without bragging too much, we really have one of the most successful mergers in the diocese.”
Fr. Betz attributes the success of the merger to the community and leadership of Divine Mercy Parish.
“I am very proud of our people, how they have responded and helped implement this through the years,” he said. “They feel the spirit and atmosphere (of the parish) when they come in.”
With such a welcoming, responsive spirit within the parish, Fr. Betz hopes his community will respond with the same spirit toward their new neighbors.