by Bridget Bishop
Somewhere in Fond du Lac county, in the unincorporated town of St. Peter, WI a young Michael Bertram grew up on a small farm and was eventually called towards God.
Nicknamed “The Holyland,” in the nineteenth century the region attracted chain migration from German, deeply religious Roman Catholics, farming families who settled in the region with prayers, and hopes for better conditions.
The order of Franciscan friars known as Capuchins chose this area for their first permanent religious settlement and founded a high school level seminary, St. Lawrence College, in 1860 (not to be confused with Lawrence University in Appleton). Raised by “people of healthy faith”, Bertram attended this high school where he surely began his spiritual journey.
Discernment, the process of spiritual exploration towards God, for Catholics is often applied to one’s vocation, or life’s purpose. For those considering the priesthood, as well aslife for a Religious man or woman, it is the journey to discovering one’s calling and God’s will. Bertram did not go directly from St. Lawrence into the priesthood. He attended University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh , earning his education degree, and returned to the Holyland to teach middle school kids in St. Cloud. Perhaps seeing himself in the youngsters, realizing how he could make a difference as the Capuchins had nurtured him, Bertram made a decision to join the order.
It’s hard not to think of Bertram’s mother, who must be so proud of the bastion of the Wisconsin Catholic community the young supplicant has now become.
A few weeks ago, I made my way to the Young People’s mass on Sunday evening at St. Francis of Assisi church on 4th and Brown Streets. As I sat behind a trio of spirited girlfriends with similar sassy short haircuts and a relaxed but deferential demeanor, I realized that while on time I was too late to make a special request. My celiac disease means I should ask for a gluten free host, but I never do. I don’t want the priest and Eucharistic attendants to be bothered. Instead, I later end up cutting in front of one of the sisters during the communion to take a sip of wine and not hold up the line. It’s okay because my apologies after mass allows me to introduce myself to the smiling ladies, several of whom are Franciscan sisters. Don’t call them nuns.
However, it’s not particularly chatty after this mass; in fact, it’s silent. At the onset of his homily, Father Mike announced in carefully chosen words his decision to retire. Parish members were still in tears after the service as the father has been at the helm of St. Francis for over nineteen years. The emotional impact of his retirement upon members of the church, though intense, is nothing compared to the spiritual impact that he has had on this community over the last two decades.
The parish of St. Francis is unique for so many reasons. Besides being historically associated with the Capuchins since 1869, which has adds an extra dimension to the organization of the church, its buildings and its operations, the parish is unique for a litany of reasons. Thriving in a time when low membership has caused many diocesan parishes to consolidate or even shutter, a fourth Saturday evening mass was recently added to the lineup. In addition, its diverse population is a stunning representation of the myriad ethnic communities in Milwaukee, and a testament to the power of faith in bringing people together. Notably, the Franciscan heritage also sets the church apart, and its values are present in the message of ministry to the less fortunate, spiritual contemplation and the fight for social justice.
James Fetzer, a Brewers Hill resident and local small business owner, has for years been a fixture in the front row at the early gospel mass on Sunday mornings. “The first time I attended mass at St. Francis with Father Mike,” Fetzer confides, “between the music and the service, I died and went to heaven. I had to go back the next week to make sure it was real, and have been coming back ever since.” The impact of the diversity and communal passion is felt by nearly all who walk through the church’s doors.
My introduction to St. Francis came by the side of my best friend growing up, although as kids we didn’t go to church. The Maldonado family has been a pillar of the parish for decades. Upon my first visit about twelve years ago, hearing Father Mike give mass en Español, I immediately connected to the man who spoke Spanish the way I did, like a kid who grew up on a farm somewhere in Wisconsin. During the service that Sunday, as I saw him do many times since, he noticed the new faces of myself and my children and gave us a public introduction. As my youngest blushed, we were warmly welcomed by the congregants and like so many others I have since spoken to, felt immediately at home in the parish.
For years, the service in Spanish was one of the few in the diocese that wasn’t on the South side of Milwaukee. The community of Puerto Ricans that have historically comprised a significant part of the membership is now joined by many other Spanish speakers, as and upon Father Mike’s retirement effective December 1, they will be blessed with the leadership of Father Javier Rodriguez.
During Father Mike’s retirement homily, he bittersweetly announced this passing of the torch. After fifteen months of two full time placements, Father Mike is finally getting back to normalcy and devoting himself as Director of Capuchin Ministry, outreach that includes the House of Peace and St. Ben’s meal program (sister parishes St. Ben’s and St. Francis share a priest). Father mike noted: “for too much of its history, this parish has been led by white, German priests.” The parish could not have prayed for a more fitting leader. A native of Puerto Rico, Father Javi was a journalist for PBS there before making the decision to attend law school. He worked as a public defender in Florida before coming to Wisconsin to join Milwaukee’s Election Commission. While living in Shorewood, Javier looked for a Spanish mass on the East Side and found himself at St. Francis.
Father Mike has diligently cultivated his Spanish not only amongst the parish, but also traveling to Costa Rica to enrich his skills. For another non-native speaker, I find his thought process in Spanish similar to my own as he formulates his message. His communication style is one of Father Mike’s most endearing qualities. Even when conveying a less than pleasant message, such as when a bride’s wedding starts too late, he manages to do so with clarity and calmness, needing no extra words, sometimes none at all. I once attended a funeral for a friend here, and even though Father Mike did not know the man, he was able to communicate the nature of his life. An unhoused man who had been studying for the bar, my friend’s life was celebrated by Father Mike who highlighted how “rich in spirit” he was before being struck and killed by a reckless driver.
Something in the spiritual messages Father Mike was communicating every week had a profound impact on Javier, who began his discernment in 2017. He contemplated joining the Jesuit order but fortunately found home when he became a Capuchin brother. The two priests have been steadfast since that time, and it is remarkable to see the friends in action ministering to a packed house. After being personally greeted by Father Mike, all who enter are put at ease by Father Javier. He brings a natural demeanor to the proceedings while somehow adhering to the necessary formalities, which can sometimes intimidate newcomers and young people. The music doesn’t hurt—whether gospel or salsa the talent of the choir, drummers, and legendary vocalist Sam McClain at the keyboard, shines through to even nonbelievers.
Sister Stella DeVenuta, OSF, the leader of the aforementioned trio, is a more recent convert to Father Mike’s flock. During COVID, while masses were held online, controversy swirled over whether newly elected President Biden should receive communion, Sister Stella observed a moment of grace online in Father Mike’s response: “The Eucharist should never be used as a weapon .” She describes driving across town with another sister immediately after the service and accosting the priest. Startled, Father Mike asked if they were related. “Well sort of,” she replied—“I am a Franciscan.” Sister Stella had been in a spiritual crisis at her previous parish due to an influx of what she describes as “pre-Vatican” messaging, ie. conservative values that were pervasive prior to the reforms of Vatican ll.
Father Mike received Sister Stella’s message—“Better you should be here.”
“Father Mike always welcomes people with an unmatched sense of hospitality and inclusivity.” Sister Stella confides, “The calmness about him really affects me. I love being in his presence, the words he shares, his reflections. He weaves together everything we need to be and do as people of the gospel. And he does it in such a tangible way that he makes it doable.”
(some minor edits were made to the printed paper)