“I remember on a Friday morning I got a phone call saying, ‘When you come home this afternoon, you’re going to find that the church that we had once gone to Mass at is gone because there was a fire last night.’”
The date was March 4, 1954, and Sr. Delores Theine still remembers the shock of it all so vividly and so painfully that she must stop for a moment and quietly choke back the tears. The original St. Boniface Catholic Church in Germantown, the church that she, her family and so many other dedicated parishioners from what was then mostly farm country northwest of Milwaukee, was destroyed by fire. Before the Germantown and Richfield Fire Department crews had any chance to get the racing, ravenous flames under control, the roof and entire interior of St. Boniface were reduced to ashes. The stately church bell fell during the blaze and landed at the entrance of the church.
It was heartbreaking.
“The church meant so much to the people because it was one that they had built with hard-earned money many years ago,” said Sr. Theine, who grew up on a farm right across the street. Sr. Theine has been part of St. Boniface as a parishioner, nun and teacher for more than 40 years, and this church community truly has been a vibrant part of her family.
“I went through St. Boniface School, grades one through eight. I went away to high school as a boarder but always came home so I could attend weekend Mass with the St. Boniface community.
“After high school, I joined the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, but my heart was always back home and my one prayer was that somewhere along the line in serving God’s people, I would be able to come back to Germantown at St. Boniface School. That wish was granted me and I spent several years as a teacher here. After a number of years teaching, I retired but I came back as a volunteer by teaching two classes of religion.”
The story of St. Boniface Parish is the legacy of “thrifty, self-sacrificing people led by zealous, capable priests who have” in the course of nearly 175 years “established a splendidly equipped parish institution,” reads the official parish historical account. From its inception in its first log chapel built on 2 acres of donated land, and throughout the majority of its years, St. Boniface was a German congregation. The church announcements, sermons and records were all conducted in that language.
In June 1846, Fr. Francis Xavier Obermuller became the first assigned pastor and, in 1847, the first parish school was established as the parish moved to its present location with a 40-foot-by-80-foot stone church building. In 1861, construction of a 45-foot-by-100-foot stone church began under Fr. Strickner, and the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi began teaching in the school in 1865.
St. Boniface celebrated its centennial jubilee in 1945 with a Pontifical Mass while the parish consisted of 94 families, including 59 children attending the school. A separate brick convent for the teaching sisters was built in 1953 and by the next year, there were 138 children attending the school.
After the disastrous fire the following year, it did not take the parish long to rebound and move forward. By October 1955, a new church was completed under the guidance of Fr. William J. Huemmer, who told his parishioners at the time, “our church may have been destroyed by fire, but we are going to rebuild the House of God.”
The original church bell, along with a dedication plaque telling its story, are part of a monument at the new church entrance today. The speed at which the people of St. Boniface recovered from that tragedy to rebuild their church is a lasting tribute to this church community.
“One of the memories I have of St. Boniface as a parish is that we pulled together,” said Sr. Theine. “We were always there for one another. Coming together to worship God as a community and helping one another, being concerned for one another.”
It’s that kind of church spirit that first attracted Fr. Loyola Amalraj when he was named pastor of St. Boniface seven years ago. A native of India and ordained in 1981, Fr. Amalraj first studied at Marquette University before spending nine years in the Archdiocese of New York in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He understands hard times and appreciates the kind of commitment and hard work the people of St. Boniface pour into their parish community.
“I think St. Boniface is very impressive because the faith has been exemplary in this community and they will be celebrating their 175th anniversary in 2020,” said Fr. Amalraj. “They are hard-working people, and I just loved them from the very beginning. When I came on, there were about 300 people welcoming me, and since then I’ve always been moved by their hard work, generosity and willingness to take part in the liturgy. They’ve accepted me wholeheartedly.
“I think the people here are unique. They have this great sense of community and they have their festival in September where they put together a beautiful welcome. They’re a caring, loving community with a wonderful school and the kids are so excited. We have a beautiful environment. So I want them to be remembered as warm-hearted people who are enthusiastic about their sense of community.”
The people of this parish may embody the very same spirit and work ethic of their predecessors but time certainly stands still for nobody. Indeed, much has changed since Sr. Theine was a little girl, playing on her parents’ farm across the street those many years ago.
“When I came back here to teach in my later years, I came back to a community that was no longer a farming area,” Sr. Theine said. “It had indeed become suburbia. Germantown had mushroomed with a building factory in the 1950s and 60s. The whole face of not only Germantown also the face of St. Boniface had changed. So many families with working moms and dads and they’re much more (involved with) the technical things going on in the world today.”
As he leads St. Boniface into the future, Fr. Almaraj sees opportunity to reach outside the parish with prayer and healing for the troubled times in which we live.
“I think peace is dwelling in each one of us. When 9/11 happened, I was called to serve there and I was there for nine years. When I came here, we go through troubled times but I truly believe in a deep prayer life. That’s where I try to teach contemporary prayer to help people to calm down and to relax. God is dwelling in us and He will get us through all of this. I bring that message to my homilies, the forgiving love of God. God is always there in us. Take the time to pray and that’s where you begin, with small steps and we all move collectively.”