Transfiguration: St. Casimir and St. Mary of Czestochowa Become Our Lady of Divine Providence by Jeff Johnson
In the world of corporate business, mergers and acquisitions are exercises in power, wealth, and influence. But when a church merges it is most often, at least to secular eyes, a symptom of weakness: declining membership, lowering financial stability, more funerals than baptisms, shortage of pastoral and lay leadership, scandal, irrelevance to contemporary spiritual taste. How can this be cause for celebration? And yet on Sunday, November 23, the two grand old churches of Riverwest, St. Mary of Czestochowa and St. Casimir, celebrated their perceived decline into a merged Our Lady of Divine Providence. The two Polish patrons who stood watch over the neighborhood for over 100 years withdrew and cloaked themselves under the mantle of the Puerto Rican Our Lady of Guadalupe. This union of the parishes, brewing for over ten years, was recommended by the churches’ strategic planning committee, approved by vote of the congregations and parish councils, and finally ratified by Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan. Whether the combined parish ultimately survives may well be a matter for divine providence, as weekly giving still falls far below what is needed to meet a budget for salaries, maintenance of buildings, and outreach programs.
And yet on this Sunday the churches were truly transfigured. In the dirty brick building on the corner of Bremen and Clarke, redolent with eastern European murals of St. Casimir and St. Stanislaus floating high in the chancel, a true inner city parish was born. Here hymns were raised in Spanish, English, Latin, and Polish. Here the faces were African American, Hispanic, Italian, Irish. Here were infants and elderly, white collar, blue collar, no collar, single, married, divorced, homeless, mentally and physically ill, tattooed and pierced… all gathered to imagine a community of justice, peace, kindness, and hope. Dolan presiding and preaching proclaimed, “On the outside everything has changed… the faces have changed, the neighborhood has changed… And if the Polish immigrants who first built this parish were to come they would be surprised by the change… but then in here (gesturing to his heart) they soon would see that what matters most has remained the same.” When the worship concluded, the congregation moved in procession through the streets of the neighborhood, blessing this vibrant community that marks the boundary between wealth and poverty, privilege and deprivation, announcing a new church’s presence and determination to serve. The procession, which was lead by a cohort of priests who had formerly served or grown up in the two parishes, ended at the St. Mary of Czestochowa site where a meal was served free to all who attended. Mixed ethnic dishes heavy with sauerkraut and salsa were served while a mariachi band serenaded guests and the Polish Falcons danced. Father Gerald Hessel, pastor for the newly named Our Lady of Divine Providence, commented: “Our hope is that our continuing presence here is of service to the community, particularly the poor.” The parish is heavily involved in outreach, serving hundreds in the community through its Saturday morning food pantry and volunteer work at the St. Vincent DePaul meal program on Martin Luther King Drive. “The work of the Holy Spirit becomes most evident when good is drawn out of evil… when out of poverty people create united communities,” Hessel continued. “This merger has taken these parishes beyond their boundaries… the limits are no longer from North Avenue to Locust and from Locust to Keefe…now this united group of people is reaching beyond these limits.” In the Christian imagination, decline is precisely how God reveals God’s self. By divestment of power and influence, wealth, beauty, respectability, and freedom, God becomes a servant to creation. It may well be that on November 23 a new community servant came into being.
by Jeff Johnson