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 St. Matthias on the southwest side of Milwaukee, home parish to Larry Hanson, associate editor for the Catholic Herald.
In the years following World War II, the Catholic Church in Milwaukee grew at a staggering rate. St. Matthias Parish was one of the biggest beneficiaries of that growth.
The number of Catholics in Milwaukee grew from 457,397 in 1953 to 567,440 in 1958. In the meantime, St. Matthias was shedding its agricultural roots and benefitting from the rise of the suburbs shortly after the war. Its population grew from 1,652 in 1947 to 8,500 in 1965, making it the largest parish in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Shepherding this growth was Fr. John J. Krieg, who was the pastor of the parish from 1934 until his death March 18, 1965. He helped the church’s finances recover and set in motion the building of the parish’s two modern buildings, a two-story school that was built in the triangle between Beloit Road, 92nd Street and Oklahoma Avenue in 1962, and the new church, which was built after he died.
During World War II, 7.5 acres were purchased between Beloit and Oklahoma for a new school because it was “busting at the seams” even before the rapid peacetime growth and the influx of Baby Boomers.
The parish’s 150th anniversary booklet described Fr. Krieg’s stewardship of the parish thusly, “He never got to see the new church, but is remembered as the spirit of the church who led it out of its darkest days during the Depression. In short, he truly answered Christ’s call to be a good shepherd to his people.”
Wilhelm Strohman was the first German to settle in the Greenfield Township (where St. Matthias began) in 1836; by 1839, 800 Germans arrived in Milwaukee. In 1844, roughly 1,000 to 1,400 Germans were arriving in Milwaukee every week.
In 1845, Catholics from the southern part of Germany began settling in Greenfield Township.
Between 1845 and 1850, the Revs. Schraudenbach, Keppler and Kundig periodically visited the area and said Mass in the homes of Herman Sauer, Peter Trimborn and W. Fusenich. When an itinerant priest wasn’t available, area Catholics walked or rode the 10 to 12 miles to Old St. Mary or Holy Trinity.
In 1849, Fr. Mathias Steiger would trudge the 10 miles from St. Francis to Greenfield Township to minister to the Catholic population, unofficially known as Holy Cross Parish.
Soon, Steiger (who the church’s activities hall is named after) was sent east and Bishop Henni directed Fr. J. A. Stein to organize St. Matthias in 1850. It is believed that naming the parish after the “13th apostle” was a tribute to Steiger.
Stein chose a site on Beloit Road for the new church because it was one of the main arteries leading into Milwaukee. Bishop Henni dedicated the new 32-foot-by-50-foot structure on June 22, 1851.
Fr. Steiger returned to the area in 1851 but died on Sept. 11 of that year after contracting cholera from a church member on whom he had performed Last Rites.
The first school building was built in 1866; before that, schooling was held in barns, houses and a structure about which little is known. The 25-foot-by-42-foot brick structure on the south side of Beloit Road was built to accommodate 26 pupils.
In January 1882, Fr. Hubert Jansen came on board and he launched a drive for a new church. The cornerstone was laid on June 17, 1883. Archbishop Michael Heiss dedicated the new building (along with four new bells) Nov. 28, 1883. It cost $13,500 for 80 families and was paid off in 1884.
A two-story frame building for the school was built in 1895. Those buildings lasted until the post-war modernization of the parish.
Jeff Van Dalen has worked at the parish since 2007 and was named parish director in 2016.
“My role, along with the trustees, is to make sure all the financial and temporal needs are met,” Van Dalen said. “To a degree, my role is to make sure catechetical and basic spiritual needs are met. I also see my role as the face of the parish.”
The parish has four priests who rotate through conducting Mass, including Fr. Charles Schramm, Fr. David Cooper, Fr. John Cella and Fr. Joel Szydlowski.
While the parish may not have one pastor, the range of styles is beneficial. It also gives Van Dalen more than one person to call on if a parishioner has a spiritual need to speak with a priest.
“It makes it a very big positive, plus what we’ve found on Sunday morning is each of them has a different homily style or a different presiding style,” Van Dalen said. “The folks like all of them. They like it because you don’t always get the same thing two weeks in a row. You get priests you like who love to be at St. Matthias.”
Donald Vaclav, a lifetime member of the parish who has served as a trustee for 11 years, also sees that as a selling point for St. Matthias.
“I proudly tell others when asked that we have four priests who serve our community, not just one,” Vaclav said. “They lead by example, (are) very engaging, and sometimes get you out of your traditional comfort zone.”
Behind the scenes, St. Matthias has a sleeping bag ministry where volunteers make sleeping bags from donated materials and give them to homeless people and a food pantry that serves hundreds of people a year. The parish also recently started a Knights of Columbus council, named after Fr. John Endejean, who led the parish from 1981-91.
Earlier this decade, St. Matthias brought back its annual festival, which Van Dalen sees as a vital tool in evangelizing to the surrounding neighborhood. “We hope we’re a good neighbor while the festival is going on as well, so they see the best foot forward and hopefully we can make a connection with them,” Van Dalen said.
Added Vaclav, “We have a very rich past, and a very bright future ahead, and room for more to come and be a part of our vibrant spirit.”