Riverwest Parishes Vote to Merge to Maintain a Neighborhood Presence

by Jeff Johnson

For more than 100 years Riverwest has swirled around two spiritual pillars: one, St. Casimir, overlooks Bremen and Clarke Streets, and the other, St. Mary of Czestochowa, is at Burleigh and Fratney. Their very names proclaim the neighborhood’s working class Polish heritage. But in a meeting in late July, the joint parish council voted unanimously to accept the recommendation of a strategic planning committee to merge. Final action on the vote depends on the new Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan and his staff, but the parish anticipates that he will agree with the decision. Talk of combining or closing the parishes began in the late 1980’s as declining membership and dwindling financial resources caused the parishes to struggle in maintaining their landmark buildings and their spiritual and community programs. Five years ago, after a pastoral visit by then Archbishop Rembert Weakland, the parish councils of the two congregations were united. Early this year, recognizing that the financial situation of the parishes was reaching a crisis, Father Jerry Hessel called for the creation of a strategic planning committee to examine the options. Under the guidance of staff from the archdiocesan office, Hessel and the committee held a series of town hall gatherings for the parishes to assess the future. The meetings were well attended and demonstrated the passion that parishioners have for these churches. After church members prioritized their concerns and hopes, they received a preference card in the mail that offered them three options. The first option, to maintain the two parishes independently, was acknowledged as unviable, leading ultimately to the dissolution of both congregations. The second, and most painful option, to close one of the two sites and sell its building, received a sizeable number of votes, but was rejected. The final option, to combine the two worshipping communities while maintaining both church structures, received the most votes. An action plan emerged from the strategic planning committee that focused on the need for community outreach and a renewed commitment to working closely with the Riverwest neighborhood. “We will be pooling our efforts and people in such a way that there is more ministry for the combined effort,” said Hessel. “Although the disappearance of the parish names might be difficult for some people, the parishes will transcend these limitations and contribute to the building of the Kingdom of God.” St. Casimir first gathered as a worshipping community in 1894 as the Polish immigrant population spilled north from the St. Hedwig parish into the Riverwest community. Soon the neighborhood had grown to the point where a second parish, St. Mary of Czestochowa, was established on Fratney in 1907. At that point the Archdiocese of Milwaukee made Locust Street the dividing line between the two parishes. According to Pat Beirne, pastoral assistant for the two parishes, these geographical definitions aided the immigrant populations in creating parish identities. With that boundary line came at times a sense of competition between the northern and southern parish neighborhoods. “Our hope is to maintain a Catholic presence in the neighborhood,’ explained Beirne about the merger. “As small as the parishes were on their own, they could not have survived. With unified resources we are really bringing back together those families that started St. Mary and St. Casimir. We are reuniting our roots so that we can grow in a different way.” Beirne notes that the spirit of collaboration extends beyond the merger of the two parishes to a sharing of programs and resources with Three Holy Women, St. Peter and Paul, and St. John’s Cathedral. Parish members are suggesting names for the new united church. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 9 – October 2002