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The Immigrant Church: 1843-1903

This period of Milwaukee Catholic history encompasses the reigns of three bishops: John Martin Henni (1843-1881); Michael Heiss (1881-1890); Frederick Xavier Katzer (1890-1903).

The Immigrant Church: 1843-1903

This period of Milwaukee Catholic history encompasses the reigns of three bishops: John Martin Henni (1843-1881); Michael Heiss (1881-1890); Frederick Xavier Katzer (1890-1903).

These three bishops, all German speaking, established the infrastructure of Catholic life: social welfare institutions, parishes, schools, seminary, Catholic press, and administrative offices.

St. Francis Seminary, 1856.
St. Francis de Sales Seminary, 1856.

John Martin Henni, the first bishop of the diocese, stamped a strong German character on the new jurisdiction. This "Germanization" policy was continued by his two successors, Michael Heiss (1881- 1890) and Frederick Xavier Katzer (1890-1903) and to a lesser extent by Sebastian Messmer (1903-1930.) Strongly believing in the aphorism (perhaps coined by Henni himself) "language preserves faith," German Catholics sought to build a secure, homogeneous religious community wherein German language and ethnic traditions would be preserved. Assisting them were the generous benefactions from missionary societies in France, Bavaria and Austria. The most salient characteristics of German Catholicism were transferred and reproduced in the diocese of Milwaukee. Handsome church structures were built and decorated elaborately. Examples of such structures are Old St. Mary's in Milwaukee, St. Joseph's in Racine and Holy Name in Sheboygan. Attention to the richness of liturgical and devotional life enhanced by a vibrant tradition of church music and community singing were an important part of the life of typical German congregations. Most importantly, schools were one of the highest priorities of German Catholics, and they established them soon after the foundation of their parishes. To staff them, German speaking religious orders were invited to take up residence in the diocese. The most notable of these communities would be the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Racine Dominicans, the School Sisters of St. Francis, the Capuchins, and the Redemptorists. Henni also built the elegant St. John's Cathedral on the site of the first church built in Milwaukee. It was dedicated in 1852.

German organizational life was everywhere in evidence. Every congregation had its "vereins" i.e. church organizations for every conceivable group in the parish, married, unmarried, youth, etc. Moreover, German churches formed a host of benevolent associations: burial societies, widows' benefits societies, etc. All these were the only "safety net" of social welfare many enjoyed before the advent of social security and government programs.

St. Francis Seminary had begun in 1845 in the home of the bishop. Due to the indefatigable fund-raising of Dr. Joseph Salzmann, a new building was erected on the south shore of Milwaukee in 1855 and the seminary specialized for many years in the education of German-speaking youth for service to German Catholics in the Midwest and elsewhere. Social welfare institutions blossomed as well. St. Mary's Hospital and St. Rose Orphan Asylum were opened early in Henni's career, as was St. Aemillian's orphanage; academies in Racine and Fond du Lac were opened. The Jesuits opened Marquette Academy on land purchased by Bishop Henni. The Catholic population swelled considerably, resulting in the breaking off of the diocese of Green Bay and La Crosse in 1868. (The Diocese of Superior would be formed in 1905 and the Diocese of Madison formally erected in 1946.) In 1875, the Holy See elevated Milwaukee to metropolitan status and Henni became its first archbishop.

St. Anthony of Padua Parishioners, Wauwatosa, 1920s.
St. Anthony of Padua (a predominantly Italian parish) Parishioners, Wauwatosa, c. 1920s.

Not everyone was happy with the German domination of the diocese, and there were conflicts between German and non-German clergy. English-speaking clergy and laity felt slighted by German hegemony and worked assiduously to have English-speaking bishops appointed in 1881 and 1890 respectively. Germans grew very defensive about this, and Milwaukee played a role in a larger national debate about the Americanization of Catholics in the United States. Germans generally reacted unfavorably to calls by Irish bishops that Catholics ought to assimilate into American society. Rather, they insisted that their schools and religious life remain distinct. Moreover, they demanded German-speaking bishops to minister to their needs. In the course of this national debate, a Milwaukee Father Peter Abbelen, spiritual director to the largely German School Sisters of Notre Dame, drafted a memorial letter to the pope urging protection for German Catholics and insisting on the rights of German parishes. The Archbishops of Milwaukee were generally perceived as the head of the conservative/Germanizing faction in the hierarchy. However, there were those in Milwaukee who favored a much more conciliatory attitude toward assimilation. Among these was a distinguished Catholic layman, Humphrey J. Desmond, who jousted with the German power elite on the pages of the Catholic Citizen, a privately owned newspaper, which reflected the concerns of English-speaking Catholics. The German dominance held strong throughout the declining years of the century, successfully turning back a series of challenges to German cultural expression. United German opposition forced the repeal of the Bennett Law in 1890, a piece of legislation which mandated instruction in English in all public schools.

By the end of this period, however, the German hold on Milwaukee began to weaken. Indeed, there continued to be strong German parishes in each city of the diocese. However, in the 1880s, the shift of the economy of southeastern Wisconsin from commerce to heavy industry brought a huge influx of southern and eastern European Catholics to the area, which made it more ethnically diverse. Bohemians had already come in sufficient numbers to form their own parish in Milwaukee in 1862 (St. John de Nepomuc.) Poles, Italians, and other ethnic groups began appearing in Milwaukee to work in the growing number of industries that were opening in the city. Already in 1866, the parish of St. Stanislaus had been founded by Polish immigrants. From this church would spin off numerous other Polish-speaking congregations that would dominate Milwaukee and establish a presence in the other industrial towns in the archdiocese. By 1903, the Catholic community was largely in the cities. Milwaukee held the largest number, while the growing towns of Sheboygan, Racine and Kenosha also held considerable numbers.

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The Archdiocese of Milwaukee

3501 South Lake Drive
PO Box 070912
Milwaukee, WI 53207-0912

Phone:  (414) 769-3300
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Fax:  (414)  769-3408