“Our parish has been energized and the entire parish community is just on fire with commitment.” – Tom Shannon, parishioner
As he reflects on how he and his wife found a new church home at St. Charles Parish some 25 years ago, Tom Shannon confides that it was really more about practicality than anything else.
“We were more or less passive Catholics in the beginning,” said Shannon. “I think the thing that most attracted us to St. Charles was its proximity to our home.”
What the Shannons discovered was a church with a rich history of spreading the love of Jesus and fostering individual spiritual growth. They also discovered a church that time and again has addressed improving its facilities to meet the growing needs of those who come to worship.
It’s a leadership philosophy that continues to this day and is reflected in the parish Mission Statement: “At St. Charles, all are welcome to meet Christ, know Christ, love Christ and serve Christ.”
“There’s been a great demographic change out here,” said Fr. Kenneth Omernick, who replaced Fr. Tom Demse as pastor in 2009.
“A lot of people are moving out here,” Fr. Omernick said. “Hartland used to be a farm village with all of that small-town or village feel. We are no longer that anymore and many of the farms have been subdivided and there’s an incredible amount of growth going on around here.”
St. Charles was founded in 1906 when a group of Hartland area Catholics were planning a church at the crest of the village hill under the direction of Fr. Charles Keyser. The land had been purchased in 1863 by a group of unnamed people for a Catholic church. The construction began in 1906 and was completed in 1908. St. Charles remained a mission to St. Mary’s until 1916, when Archbishop Messmer established St. Clare in North Lake and appointed Fr. Leo Scheuerell as pastor and directed St. Charles become a mission of St. Clare.
In 1917, Fr. Louis Zirbes became pastor of both parishes and remained in that capacity until 1950. Under his direction, many improvements were made to the church building, including installation of electrical lighting, central heating, and water and sewer systems. The parish also expanded its Sunday Mass schedule, offering four Masses instead of just one. More expansion came during the 1950s under resident pastor Fr. Francis McGarry, including a new church and school completed in time to celebrate the parish’s golden anniversary in 1957. The school opened in 1959, staffed by Sisters of the Precious Blood.
In 1964, under the guidance of Fr. Felix Taterczynski, the school was expanded to include all eight grades. English replaced Latin as the language of the Mass during this time period, the sanctuary was remodeled and the altar turned to allow the priest to face the people.
St. Charles underwent many more changes coinciding with Vatican II and the arrival of Fr. Robert Graves as pastor in 1970. The laity became more active in the celebration of the Mass, assisting with the distribution of Communion and the proclamation of the Liturgy of the Word. The 1970s also saw the school faculty change to an all-lay staff led by a lay principal and school board, establishment of the parish council and the expansion of the religious education programs. St. Charles was growing rapidly in 1985, when Fr. Michael Grellinger became pastor, and it became clear that further expansion was needed. In the early 1990s, plans to expand the church and other areas of the complex were explored and a successful fund drive in 1990 culminated with construction of the church we see today.
St. Charles has 7,900 members, making it the fifth largest parish in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. As the growth and expansion plans continue, the far more important undercurrent at this church for Tom Shannon and his fellow parishioners is that “fire,” that burning desire to become involved, to know and serve Christ.
“Our parish has been energized and the entire parish community is just on fire with commitment with programming and volunteering and with people getting involved with their faith and doing it very consistently and steadily,” said Shannon. “When Fr. Ken arrived, he was a mustard seed and, once he hit the ground and began implementing the great vision he had for St. Charles, things have grown, blossomed and flourished to the point that I’ve never been more actively involved in my life.”
Besides serving as vice chairman of the parish council, Shannon is a member of the strategic planning committee for expanding the church and school. He and his wife co-chair the Cornerstone Capital Campaign, which raised $12.4 million for a new church and expansion of the school.
“Fr. Ken has brought Christ to all of us and made us want to do more,” Shannon explained. “It comes from the wonderful people in our community. By and large, we are a young community with a lot of young families, a lot parents who have good backgrounds who want their children to be brought up in the faith because they have good roots in the faith themselves.”
“When I came here, my hope would be that though St. Charles was already a big, well-functioning, well-financed parish with a great school, my goal was to see if we couldn’t grow it to an even bigger parish with an even more thriving school,” said Fr. Omernick. “I said from the beginning that I thought God wanted something to happen here. It really is just watching the way the Lord works in the lives of a parish of stunningly wonderful people. I’m very cognizant of the fact that if God did not want something to happen here it wouldn’t be happening.”
Continuing to build its spiritual foundation, five years ago St. Charles began working with Evangelical Catholic, an organization dedicated to not allowing people to remain members but to have them become disciples by forming small groups and fostering one-on-one interaction.
“Last year during Lent, we had 350 people in small groups,” said Fr. Omernick. “That helps to take anonymity of a growing parish away and people get to know each other. You could tell the difference right away because after Mass, people didn’t want to go home.”
Above all, Fr. Omernick stresses that St. Charles Parish strives to keep its priorities in order.
“Buildings are secondary to the community,” said Fr. Omernick. “But it’s very clear that our buildings are entirely inadequate. We have people working out of store rooms because we don’t have enough office space anymore. We had to put an addition on the school to make that large enough. For at least two of the Masses every Sunday, people are sitting in the hall watching Mass on TV because the church is full. One of the things we need to do is match the facilities to the community of people and that’s what we’re setting off to do.”
It’s a task to which Fr. Omernick says he and his congregation will bring a great deal of confidence and enthusiasm.
“So this is a parish of the future. It’s one of those places that I think will be a flagship parish because it has everything you could imagine a parish would need. That’s kind of what’s fun about being in a big parish, because it gives you the ability to do anything you would like to do. It’s just limited by the bounds of your imagination.”