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The Church of the Code: 1903-1945

This period encompasses the administrations of Sebastian Messmer (1903-1930), Samuel Alphonsus Stritch (1930-1940) and part of the administration of Moses Elias Kiley (1940-1953).

The Church of the Code: 1903-1945

This period encompasses the administrations of Sebastian Messmer (1903-1930), Samuel Alphonsus Stritch (1930-1940) and part of the administration of Moses Elias Kiley (1940-1953).

This was a period of centralization, consolidation, and the imposition of disciplinary uniformity on the diocese, aided by the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1917-1918. This code gave the diocesan bishop new powers and authority of his clergy and laity. As a result the central administration of the diocese became more in evidence, and the bureaucracy surrounding the bishop began to grow. Moreover, during the period, ethnicity as a factor in Milwaukee Catholic life began to wane. German immigration had already peaked in the 1880s. In the 1920s, the Congress closed the doors to further immigration from southern and eastern Europe. As a result, the ethnic vitality of neighborhoods and cities began to decline as intermarriage and Americanization took place. By the end of the period there were still many "ethnic" Catholics, but clearly the diocese was becoming more ethnically homogeneous.

The bishops of this era were very different in terms of personality and temperament, but they shared a unified vision of their authority and prerogatives. All were well schooled in canon law, which gave wide latitude to the diocesan bishop over the lives of priests and lay people. Messmer was the last European-born bishop, hailing from Goldach, Switzerland. Although initially pre-disposed to support the preservation of German ethnicity, Messmer had a change of heart and became a great proponent of smoothing over ethnic differences in favor of diocesan uniformity. His efforts to centralize the diocese were first reflected in the issuance of a parishioner's handbook in 1907 that stipulated rather clear and precise rules and regulations for Catholic life.

However, the continued strength of ethnic diversity was reflected in the swelling Polish community that poured into every industrial town in the archdiocese. Like the Germans before them, the Poles insisted on maintaining their distinctive church life and demanded a fuller representation in diocesan affairs. Messmer and Polish priest Wenceslaus Kruszka and his brother Michael quarreled violently over the treatment of the Poles and demanded the appointment of a Polish auxiliary bishop. The feud, which raged in the early years of the century, nearly created a serious schism in the Milwaukee church. Under Messmer, the archdiocese did receive its first two auxiliary bishops. Joseph Koudelka, a Bohemian-born prelate, was transferred to Milwaukee from Cleveland in 1911 and served until his transfer to Superior in 1913. He was succeeded by Polish-born Edward Kozlowski, who was consecrated in 1914 and served a little more than a year when he died suddenly.

After the Kruszka difficulties, Messmer tended to leave the Poles alone, but proceeded ahead with his centralizing policies. The appearance of the Code of Canon Law in 1918 greatly strengthened his hand in diocesan policy. He reorganized the seminary, expanded the chancery and gave extensive powers to his vicar general Monsignor Bernard Traudt. He also created centralized offices for social welfare operations and education.

St. Benedict the Moor Boarding School, Students and Staff, 1935.
St. Benedict the Moor Boarding School, Students and Staff, 1935.

Messmer also dealt with new immigrants to northern cities, African Americans. He approved the first ministry to African Americans (St. Benedict the Moor Parish) in 1908, organized by a lay Catholic couple, Lincoln C. and Julia Valle. Later the work was assumed by the Capuchin community.

Although opposed to women's suffrage, Messmer favored the formation of Catholic women's organizations, such as the Marquette's Women League and a Milwaukee branch of the National Association of Catholic Women (Milwaukee Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women-- MACCW). He also managed to create a fairly successful diocesan paper, the Catholic Herald, which would eventually merge with the Catholic Citizen in the 1930s. Messmer unified the branches of the Holy Name Society into a Holy Name Union. This highly popular movement sponsored a variety of Catholic programs from sports to a speakers' bureau, and at its peak attracted thousands of Milwaukee Catholics to its various programs.

Messmer's health declined seriously after 1925, and Monsignor Bernard Traudt pretty much ran the diocese. After a 27-year reign, Messmer died in his native Goldach, Switzerland, in August, 1930.

Messmer was succeeded by Nashville-born Samuel A. Stritch. Formerly bishop of Toledo, Stritch was young, kindly, and idealistic. Most of his years were spent coping with the Depression and the accompanying financial woes that were visited on Catholic institutions and parishes. A low point for the diocese came in 1935 when a fire destroyed the interior of St. John's Cathedral. Stritch undertook major initiatives in Catholic higher education, urging local sisterhoods to form their own teacher training institutions. He also mobilized support behind the Catholic Action movement sanctioned by Pope Pius XI. The emphasis on Catholic Action signaled a new era for the Catholic laity as they were "invited" to participate "in the apostolate of the hierarchy." This new thrust was reflected in Stritch's inner circle. At his right hand were, of course, important clerics like Msgr. Joseph Barbian, his secretary, Msgr. Roman Atkielski and young Father Paul Tanner. But he also consulted prominent laity such as attorney Katherine Williams who headed the local MACCW, Philip Grau and Leo Dohn, both associated with Catholic Youth and Catholic Action. Publisher and public citizen William George Bruce was also an occasional confidant. Stritch also sponsored national conferences held at Milwaukee's Schroeder Hotel to discuss social and economic problems. Stritch departed to become Archbishop of Chicago in 1940.

Moses E. Kiley, was born in Nova Scotia in 1876. He determined later in life that he wished to become a priest, and he was trained in Rome and soon "adopted" by the Archdiocese of Chicago. He returned to Rome and served as the Spiritual Director of the North American College until he was appointed bishop of Trenton, New Jersey. In March, 1940 he replaced Archbishop Stritch. Kiley was a tall, austere, prelate, sepulchral of voice and ponderous of manner. He was also a thorough-going autocrat who kept rigid control over the clergy. Conservative by nature, he was reluctant to borrow money and spend too freely. He gathered huge sums for the building of a new St. Aemillian's orphanage to replace a building destroyed by fire in the 1930s. He also rebuilt the Cathedral, celebrated the diocesan centenary, and effected a major transformation in the seminary by separating the high school and junior college programs from the major seminary building and installing them in the old Pio Nono College. Kiley represented the high water mark of the Catholic emphasis on order, discipline and uniformity that had begun at the turn of the century. Kiley served until his death in April, 1953.

A group of Sisters in front of the Holy Family House, 1938.
A group of Sisters in front of the Holy Family House, 1938.

In this epoch, the archdiocese became more ethnically homogeneous. There was a proliferation of Catholic organizations, especially for women. With the onset of the Depression, the "Social Question" loomed large among many Catholics, especially after the issuance of papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931). Milwaukee was one of many industrial dioceses that held national meetings which discussed the root economic causes of depression from the perspective of Catholic social teaching. Figuring prominently in this was the work of Fathers Aloisius Muench and Francis Haas, both social thinkers and members of the seminary faculty. Both men had national reputations as social thinkers and moved to national and international prominence. Haas would become a close advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt's administration and Muench would have a distinguished career as Apostolic Nuncio to post-war Germany. He would also become a cardinal. Parochial growth in most cities continued after World War I until the great Crash of 1929. The archdiocese faced serious financial problems when its major bonding house collapsed.

There was an important surge in devotional Catholicism, especially in "novena Catholicism." Milwaukee Catholics were great devotees of the Novena to the Sorrowful Mother propagated by the Servite Fathers of Chicago. One Milwaukee priest, Father Raymond Punda, wrote a popular novena pamphlet during the war to Our Lady of Victory. Punda, a military chaplain, had countless requests for the book. Novena Catholicism in part stimulated the first stirrings of interest in liturgical reform, especially in encouraging popular participation in the Mass. Father Joseph Holleran would assume a great deal of responsibility for bringing the Liturgical Revival from Collegeville, Minnesota, to the attention of Milwaukee Catholics. Important lay persons include Catholic book publisher William George Bruce, his sons, Frank and William C., brewer Val Blatz, and church goods dealer, Frank Gross. Gross would also be instrumental in establishing one of the first stable ministries to the growing number of Hispanic Catholics who began settling in Milwaukee in the 1920s. There were schools in virtually every parish, served by religious communities of women. These same communities often ran academies in their respective mother houses which would be the nuclei for later Catholic high schools. Such an example would be St. Catherine's Academy in Racine, run by the Racine Dominican Sisters, which would evolve into a coeducational high school in the 1920s. Already by 1929, the archdiocese had built its first central Catholic high school, named after Archbishop Messmer and located on the north side of the city.

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The Archdiocese of Milwaukee

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

Phone:  (414) 769-3300
Toll-Free: (800) 769-9373
Fax:  (414)  769-3408