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St. Casimir Parish - Milwaukee WI

A Centennial History from the 1994 Jubilee Book by Greg Borowski

The dream began in September of 1893, even a few months before, when Rev. Tarasiewicz began talking with families who lived in the northwestern section of St. Hedwig Parish.

He was appointed by Archbishop Frederick Katzer to pursue the dream, as St. Hedwig was becoming too crowded and new families kept arriving from the motherland, lured by the promise of jobs and freedom in America. So the dream was passed, parishioner to parishioner, family to family, and they met the night of September 11 to talk about how to build it.

A new church, built and constructed with their own money, scraped together from jobs digging ditches, cobbling streets and building bridges. Money was scarce. Many of the families were immigrants who could come to America only when a relative here had saved enough money to send for them.

In those days, before cars ruled the narrow streets, parishioners walked for miles on foot, or if wealthy enough, rode in a horse‑pulled buggy to get to the church.

But they pushed on. Yes, they decided. They would make the sacrifices for a new church, their own church, St. Casimir Church. Soon after the announcement of a new parish was made, the people of St. Hedwig's donated $6,000 to the 300 families, their former parishioners, to build their own church ‑ St. Casimir Church.

Father Tarasiewicz and his committee chose a site on the corner of Clarke and Weil Streets, just west of the Milwaukee River and north of St. Hedwig. The land, a plot in Parker's Subdivision, was purchased from John Schramka. Their vision was grand, a Gothic church built of brick with a steeple soaring toward the sky, but that would have to wait.

The first priority was to build a school for the children, as they ran the dusty streets with nothing to do. The first building would house the church, school, and convent, all in one.

It was carefully constructed of brick, every square foot designed for a useful purpose. Work began July 11, 1894 and finished less than five months later, in November of that year. The cost: $6,300.

Archbishop Katzer came to dedicate the building, still standing today, on November 11, 1894. It was a day of rejoicing, as the new congregation ‑ families with names like Czapiewski and Krzeminski and Czech and Woloszyk ‑ were safely under the protection of "our patron, St. Casimir."

Nevertheless, the school was already two months late in opening. Only two days before the dedication the first nuns from the School Sisters of Notre Dame arrived to take charge. They taught in Polish and English, in five crowded classrooms. Soon a sixth classroom was added and by 1896, the sisters had moved to cottages to make more classroom space.

The school was growing fast, from 274 children registered on opening day in 1894 to 635 children just five years later. By then, in 1899, the need to keep expanding was clear. The parish members worshipped on the third‑floor church, squeezing in on Sunday mornings to hear Father Tarasiewicz deliver his sermons of hope in Polish, hope for the future, and hope for a new church.

That was the dream, after all, and in 1899 the parish purchased adjacent land on the corner of Bremen and Clarke Streets. This was where it would be built, St. Casimir Catholic Church. Ground was broken September 10, 1899, and shortly before Christmas, on December 10th, the cornerstone was laid. The architectural firm of E. Brielmaier and Sons designed the structure. Schramka was the builder and general contractor.

By now the parish was five years old, but its former members found themselves working harder than ever. An assistant, Rev. Jan Blicharz, was sent to help Father Tarasiewicz, then growing old and in declining health. The parish members would gather and watch the swift construction of the church, the soaring Gothic style take shape.

The towers would climb 130 feet and 200 feet high, a place to hang three bells ‑ named St. John Aegisius, Sancta Maria and St. Casimir ‑ which had been on the scaffolding for years. Finally, a building 117 feet long and 76 feet wide that could seat 1,200 worshipers, was completed.

It was the fall of 1901 when construction was completed, and the Archbishop arrived to bless the doors on another cold December day. Even before that, the church was being used. In January, the first couple had been married there, Joseph Peplinski and Mary Odyja. As the doors swung open that December day, the parish members pushed inside. They stood in awe at what they saw. The soaring ceiling, the looming walls, the enormous stained glass windows casting red, green and yellow hues on the rows of pews. The vigil lights flickered near the altar, rising high above the people who were craning their necks to take in every final detail.

For Father Tarasiewicz and his followers, the years of hard work and meticulous savings were forgotten, the future looked more glorious. But the pastor did not have long to live so he set about doing just one thing more. He applied to the Vatican and in June 1902, a year before his death, the church was permitted to have "Privileged Altar" indulgences ‑the "Sacra Paenitentiaria Apostolica." St. Casimir was the first church in Milwaukee to receive the honor.

On January 18, 1903 Father Tarasiewicz died, leaving behind a mourning parish three times the size of the one he founded just ten years earlier. Much had happened in those years, as the Polish­American population in Milwaukee grew.

With the death of Father Tarasiewicz, the parish entered a transition period. Rev. Dr. A. Lex arrived to take over the pastorate, holding it for three years. Records for this period are scarce, and often only available through hurried notes kept by the nuns running the ever growing school.

In September 1904, school opened with an enrollment of 972. One classroom alone had 128 boys. The next year, enrollment passed 1,000 ‑ a measure of the parish's growth during a peak in emigration from Europe. The students attended class in split shifts, some in the morning, the rest in the afternoon.

In 1907, Father Lex was succeeded by Rev. Anthony Pradzinski. He was the first American‑born pastor to serve at St. Casimir, but lasted only two years until his death. Rev. Bronislaw Celichowski replaced him and watched as the first eighth‑graders graduated from the school in 1910.

Father Celichowski was transferred in 1915 and his place was taken by Rev. Rudolph Kielpinski who had been leading the nearby parish of St. Mary Czestochowa. He served the longest of any pastor in St. Casimir history ‑ 38 years ‑ from 1915 to 1953.

It was a tumultous time as first World War I and then World War II gripped the nation and the church. Father Kielpinski was a mentor to many of the young men who went to serve their country.

During World War I, in 1917, a flag of 225 service stars believed to represent the most men from a Milwaukee congregation in the service, was hung over the main entrance of the church. During World War II, some 1,000 men and women served in the conflict and 22 died. Father Kielpinski became well known in the city as he worked to contact families in Nazi‑occupied Poland.

During his term, he marked the parish's 25th anniversary in 1919 and his own Silver Jubilee as a priest in 1927. Like the parish anniversary, that jubilee mass was quite an event. A written account describes Father Kielpinski entering a lengthy pro­cession with the new Archbishop Samuel Messmer there to mark the day. Afterward, the lower school hall was packed for a banquet, one of the thousands of events held there over the years ‑ from bingo Panics to holiday bazaars to parish council meetings.

Those years in the 1930's were busy and happy. The school and church became the center of the neighborhood. Many of the graduates won scholarships to go on to Catholic high schools and colleges. Others, dozens over the years, entered the priesthood or convent.

In September 1925, the school had reached its peak enrollment with 1,340 students attending. That spring, the graduating class was so large ‑ 93 girls and boys ‑ ceremonies had to be held at Pulaski Hall. In 1932 alone, Archbishop Samuel Stritch confirmed more than 500 young men and women of the parish.

The spirit of the times could be found in the newspaper headlines, and they carried undercurrents of trouble. In March 1931, German bishops took a stand against the National Socialist Party headed by Adolph Hitler. In June of that year, Mussolini closed all Catholic Action Clubs in Italy. In 1933, editorials told of the persecution of Jews in Germany.

Before long, the country was at war again and St. Casimir was sending its young men to fight and die in it. After the D‑Day invasion in 1944, church attendance was high as parishioners prayed for their loved ones and a quick end to the fighting.

That same year, Father Kielpinski was made a Rt. Rev. Monsignor and the School Sisters of Notre Dame marked 50 years since their arrival at St. Casimir. But the parish celebration of its Golden Jubilee was postponed until 1945.

The scene on that Golden Jubilee day was described this way: "A procession of school children led Archbishop Moses Kiley and hundreds of religious sons and daughters to the church where a Pontifical High Mass was sung."

The special book put out at that time recorded these numbers: 28 parish members had entered the priesthood, five to the brotherhood, and 95 girls had become nuns, 65 joining the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

Among those in the priesthood was Bishop Roman Atkielski, who was baptized at St. Casimir August 7, 1898, two days after his birth. The history books note many firsts, each underlining the significance of the church in the life of the parish members.

First baptism: Theodore Bielinski, son of Ignace and Mary (nee Peplinska) Bielinski, baptized November 9, 1894.

First marriage: Joseph Szymczak and Elizabeth Janasik, November 25, 1894.

First Funeral: Anna Drewek, age 1, who died November 15, 1894. The first adult buried from St. Casimir was Paul Szlesaryk, who died March 5, 1895.

After World War II the size of the congregation began to decline, the result of a post‑war move to the suburbs. The returning soldiers married and started their families. Many moved to the suburbs, lured by the promise of open spaces and easy living.

But the school continued to enroll 800‑plus students during the 1940's and 1950's and a ninth grade was added in 1947. That was dropped twelve years later because of low attendance. It was during this time that the school faced a shortage of teaching Sisters. In 1952, a lay teacher, Mrs. Frank Schemack, was hired to teach the fourth grade.

By this time Father Kielpinski was in failing health. He was to have celebrated his Golden Jubilee as a priest on June 28, 1953 but was taken to the hospital three days earlier. He urged the parish to mark the day without him.

On August 12 he died at age 77 and the parish again mourned the death of a pastor, this time one who served for 38 years. The new pastor was Right Reverend Monsignor John Wieczorek, who led the parish until 1961.

The neighborhood, once considered the outskirts of town, was beginning to change. Young families moved away, other families moved in and the parish was not as solidly Polish as it once was.

Those changes paved the way for the St. Casimir of today, still the hub of the Riverwest neighborhood. Many of the old stores and bars and candy shops have been replaced by artist studios, but the solid old homes still stand, though residents struggle to keep them bright and neat after decades of use.

The church of today was shaped by the Vatican II conference in the early 1960's when Pope John XXIII urged lay people to take a more active part in mass. It would lead to fewer masses in Latin and more in English, and the priest would face the congregation, not the altar.

Like all major changes, this required a period of difficult adjustment. In 1965, the St. Casimir priests and church committees began studying ways to readjust the church. The main altar remained as it was, but became known as the Altar of the Eucha­rist. The platform was extended to the communion rail, and a second marble altar was placed there, the Altar of Sacrifice.

In 1967, new pews were installed. A year later, Catholics were told they no longer needed to fast during Lent, only on Good Friday and Ash Wed­nesday. In 1969, those receiving Communion were allowed to drink the wine from the chalice.

There were changes at the parish as well. In 1961, Rev. Leo Kowaiski was named Pastor, over­seeing the church during the turbulent 1960's. He led the effort to modernize the parish grounds, including changes to the church interior.

He also brought the third‑floor hall, the old church area of the school building, up to city fire codes. It was converted to be used as a gym and gathering area, the detailed murals still painted in oils on the curved walls. One of the six panels, since painted over, was George Washington on a horse. Another was the Polish war hero, Kosciuszko, leading soldiers into battle, sword pointed toward the blue sky. A third was Father Tarasiewicz, the first pastor, standing on a balcony in a somber full‑length portrait.

Other improvements included a new kitchen in the basement hall, new sidewalks and driveways, new fire doors for the school and a garden next to the convent, planted where a house once stood. It all led up to the parish's 75th Anniversary, celebrated November 16, 1969 with a sermon by Archbishop William Cousins.

The church that day was polished to perfection as priests and nuns filled row after row of pews, followed by rows of parishioners, eyes on the pulpit as the Archbishop spoke.

"Those who established this parish had left a native country," Archbishop Cousins said in his sermon. "They left an established church, though they had known days of persecution. They left a country which was dear to them and came to a land of different customs, of different languages, but a land of opportunity. Their first act was to bring Christ into their midst in the establishment of a parish and in the erection of a house of God."

With those words he called to mind the founding of the parish, the early dreams of Father Tarasiewicz and those first 300 families who left St. Hedwig because they dreamed of a church they could call their own.

"Before their own needs were cared for," Archbishop Cousins said, "they prepared that other generations to be, yet unborn, should know the Word of God."

After the celebration, parish life continued much as it had. Every summer there was a Corn Roast festival, started in 1968 by Rev. Jerry Hudziak and the Catholic Youth Organization members. The Booster Club was formed; its members were officers from every organization and interested parishioners who sponsored events like Queen's Night Out ‑ where the men of the parish served the ladies.

In 1970, Rev. Ed Grochowski became the new pastor, the eighth in the parish's history. He was assisted by Rev. Dan Budzynski and Rev. Don Sass, though the days of multiple assistants would soon pass as the number of men entering the priesthood dropped.

In 1971, the regular Tuesday card parties began. In 1975, bingo games started every Friday in the lower school hail, remodeled a year earlier. This was parish life, a mixture of events surrounding the church and the school.

There were baseball teams that won CYO championships and basketball teams that practiced in the upstairs gym, the bouncing of the balls echoing off the curved walls. And there were organizations for every interest, some new but many having survived for decades ‑ Rosary Society, CYO, Home and School, Star Mothers, Holy Name, Ushers, and St. Vincent de Paul Society.

In 1975, Rev. Gil Arciszewski took over as pastor and would serve until 1987 ‑ a period that saw a tremendous need for fund‑raising, even as the congregation numbers continued to decline.

There was money raised to restore the bells and clock, money raised for a new nativity set ‑ large figures still placed before the altar each Christmas. There was a rummage sale to help pay for new panel­ing for the gym, and before long, after one terrible day in 1976, fund‑raising to rebuild the gym and classrooms.

The terrible day was May 6, 1976 when sirens pierced the neighborhood and fire engines roared up to the school where dark smoke was billowing from the roof. The building was on fire and the members of the parish came running, but all they could do was watch in shock and cry in pain.

The damage was heavy to the gym and to the classrooms on the floors below. The cost of repairs was estimated at about $88,000, nearly the amount it took to build the entire church 75 years earlier.

Many parishioners loaned the parish $1,000, with the interest going to help offset the fire costs. Others did more, and when the building was repaired, the gym was named after the benefactor Walter J. Lazynski, whose portrait hangs in the upper hallway today.

 There were other changes, too. The Parish Council was formed in 1980. That same year the interior of the church was redesigned to bring the altar closer to the people.

For weeks the church was in turmoil as the work went on. The front pews were moved, the altar platform extended and the pews repositioned, facing the altar from the sides. A new pulpit was installed, donated by Mr. and Mrs. Ben Andrysczyk.

In 1983, electric lights were added to the side altars, highlighting the delicate statues and detailed painting. The next year, 1984, the parish marked 90 years since its founding and 500 years since the death of its patron saint, St. Casimir.

After 90 years there were still regular masses said in Polish but that ended in 1987 when Rev. Bruno Slodowski, a native of Poland, left the parish where he had been living in residence since 1981.

Father Arciszewski left that same year; becoming pastor at Our Lady Queen of Peace parish on Milwaukee's south side. His replacement, Rev. Mike Barrett, made some additional changes to the church in his five years here.

He added the handicapped‑accessible ramp on Clarke Street and converted the server's sacristy off to the right of the main altar, into a chapel to conserve on fuel and electricity during the cold winter months.

In 1990, some $93,000 was raised to complete the roof repairs, and the parish could turn to focusing on planning for the celebration ahead.

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Last Updated on October 20, 2011