While each individual faith community shares in the work of the Church, each of these communities brings its unique history, gifts and perspective to our common mission of proclaiming the Gospel. The community of St. James Church in Menomonee Falls has been living out this mission since 1841. Today, this vibrant Waukesha County parish celebrates its faith through commitment to liturgy, parish life and hospitality, “journeying toward the Kingdom” through worship, formation and service.
In the late 1830s, the area around Menomonee Falls and Lisbon was being settled by Irish immigrants. While some of these families came to the United States to escape the repressive anti-Catholic laws that were in force in Ireland at that time, many others immigrated to escape the disastrous “potato famine” that claimed the lives of more than a million people.
It was Fr. James Morrissey, an Irish missionary who spent several years “riding the circuit” in southeastern Wisconsin, who first served the Catholics around Menomonee Falls, offering Mass in the log home of the Brogan Family. (The historic cabin still exists and can be found at Old Falls Village in Menomonee Falls). Those first Catholic families were also served by Fr. Martin Kundig, S.J.
In 1847, newly ordained Fr. James Colton was assigned to serve as the community’s first resident pastor. It was at this time that the parish received its name, St. James, presumably honoring their first pastor. Early histories of the record that Fr. Colton, a young and energetic man, immediately began planning a church and he worked alongside parishioners, quarrying stone from a nearby field. That church — now known as the “historic chapel” — was dedicated in 1848. The parish continues to make use of the chapel for weekday Masses, weddings, funerals and Eucharistic adoration each Tuesday.
Standing outside this historic building is an ancient tree, known by parishioners as the “Gathering Tree,” which was the site of many informal gatherings for local families before and after Mass.
To accommodate the growing number of Catholics, other parishes were later established in Menomonee Falls and the surrounding area, including St. Dominic’s Church in Brookfield, a one-time mission of St. James Church.
To serve the needs of the children of St. James, pastors and religious sisters from various communities would provide Sunday catechism classes in the rectory and church. Sisters would also spend two or three weeks each summer at the parish. In time, the parish built a school, which was staffed by the Servite Sisters for several years. Because of changing realities within the parish, the school was closed in 1970. St. James School was re-opened in the 1980s but closed again after only a few additional years of service.
The 1950s saw a concentrated building program at St. James, initiated by Fr. Francis Finnegan, who served as pastor for 25 years. In addition to the construction of St. James School, a convent, school addition and basement-level church were also built. The current church at St. James was dedicated on the Feast of St. James, July 25, 1999.
For Deacon Sandy Sites, the parish director, the parish is a vibrant community in which parishioners and guests live for the Kingdom of God.
“The parish has lots going on and is a welcoming community,” Dcn. Sites said. “The notion of ‘journeying toward the Kingdom,’ that is in our parish mission statement really captures who we are as a parish. We live out what I’ve heard some priests say: that we come to Mass to ‘practice the Kingdom,’ and this notion of living in that kind of relationship and respectful fellowship through worship, formation and service. I think it nails it, in terms of who we are.”
Dcn. Sites has been serving the community of St. James for the past year and also serves as parish director for Good Shepherd Parish in Menomonee Falls. Although the clustering of these parishes took place only last year, the two communities have been working together closely for several years and share nearly 25 ministries that benefit Menomonee Falls and the broader community. St. James Parish also collaborates with the other Menomonee Falls parishes for seasonal reconciliation services and respect life initiatives. Dcn. Sites sees this collaboration between parishes as a wonderful opportunity for stronger outreach and evangelization beyond parish boundaries.
“For me, clustering is a chance for practicing Catholics to practice being catholic, meaning ‘universal.’”
While St. James is technically located within the boundaries of Menomonee Falls, Dcn. Sites notes that St. James is a parish that primarily serves the Sussex area, near whose town line the church is located. An important part of the service of St. James Church flows from its involvement in a six-church, inter-denominational group known as “Cooperating Churches of Sussex” (CCOS). Together these congregations operate Sussex Outreach Services, as well as providing food, clothing and outreach to those in need.
St. James also supports St. Benedict the Moor Church in Milwaukee, as well as the Guest House and Repairers of the Breach. The parish also has a long-standing relationship with its sister-parish, Milwaukee’s St. Martin de Porres Church. A parishioner-led ministry within the parish includes three community gardens, produce from which goes to the Sussex Food Pantry.
In thinking of the future of the parish, Deacon Mike Rooney, who has served at St. James for 10 years, sees continued outreach and evangelization as a vital part of the parish’s mission.
“I’m hoping we can bring people back,” Dcn. Rooney said. “I’m not sure how we will do that, but that is the greatest question we have right now. I’m hoping there is a way our adult formation programs and ecumenical programs will help us reach people.”
Dcn. Sites shares this vision outreach and community building.
“I believe the Church needs a paradigm shift to mission. We need a new way. We need to become a mission church. My hope is that St. James will become more and more of a connection point,” Dcn. Sites said. “My hope for the future is for mission, to go where the people and the needs are.”