History of Old St. Mary Parish

Old Saint Mary Parish and the City of Milwaukee, both established in 1846, are the same age. This pioneer parish stands as living testimony of the faith of Milwaukee’s early German Catholic immigrants. Through personal sacrifice and financial help from Bavarian mission societies, they gave life to their hopes and dreams for their own church. Of the many societies that then flourished, the most important was the Saint Anne Women’s Society (Sanct Anna Frauenverein), founded on October 6, 1844. This group of women were the prime movers in the establishment of this church. The society is still active today. The first Pastor was Father Michael Heiss, who later became the second Archbishop of Milwaukee.

The church was designed by the renowned architected Victor Schulte who then went on to design the new cathedral, and the new seminary for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Among the artistic treasures of Old Saint Mary is the painting depicting the Annunciation above the High Altar, a personal gift from King Ludwig I of Bavaria. This painting has hung in the church since 1848 and is attributed to the Munich court artist, Franz Xaver Glink. The Stations of the Cross, also painted in Munich, was the gift of the parish Saint John Young Men’s Sodality. Three Bronze Church Bells named Mary, Mary Ann and Mary Magdalen, were cast in Munich and added in 1868. The clock in the tower, installed in 1860. The wooden hand carved High Altar, an irreplaceable work of art, was purchased in 1848. The church organ, installed in 1871, was destroyed in 1893 by fire, the new organ with the present hand carved organ case was installed 1894, The Organ was expanded und updated 1949.

Several beautiful statues adorn the church. In the nave as you face the altar (to your left) is St. Peter (holding the keys of heaven and earth) and Saint John the Evangelist (with the scroll and the eagle). Directly across from these, you have the statutes of Saint Paul (with the downward sword) and Saint James (with a fuller’s staff, the object of his martyrdom). In the sanctuary, as you face the High Altar (to your left), is St. Anthony of Padua (holding the Christ Child), and St. Francis of Assisi (holding the Cross) and. On the opposite wall, there is a representation of St. Anne the Mother of Mary and Grandmother of Jesus, and Saint Leonard (with an abbot’s crosier and an ox).

Our Lady of the Way, a statue of Italian marble on Kilbourn Avenue, was installed blessed in 1959. The Mosaic, “Madonne of Milwaukee,” located on the Broadway exterior, was installed and dedicated in 1982. This mosaic was designed by Franz Braunmiller and executed by Valentine Mamalo at the Franz Mayer Glassworks Company in Munich. The stained glass windows and some of the statutes were the work of the same Franz Mayer Company. The church interior was restored in 1982 by the Conrad Schmitz Studios.

In 1848, Father John Neumann (later canonized), a zealous advocate of Catholic education, accompanied Bavarian Notre dame nuns to the area. On January 2, 1851, led by Sister (Mother) M. Caroline Freiss, the School Sisters of Notre Dame opened their first Catholic School in the diocese at Old Saint Mary. In 1866, a new schoolhouse, which was built immediately south of the church, also served as a rectory. It was replaced in 1891 by a school built on the corner of Milwaukee and Biddle (Kilbourn Avenue) Streets. Like the church, this building was constructed of Cream City brick. After it was demolished in 1978, the salvaged bricks were reused for the 1979 addition connecting the church, rectory and the newly acquired Parish Center on Milwaukee Street. This Parish Center serves the spiritual family of Old Saint Mary for parish activities as well as the parish offices.

Old Saint Mary, a Landmark of Milwaukee, is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Important as these honors are, its greatest service remains in the spiritual harvest of souls. Articles about Old Saint Mary mention that the business people, office workers, clerks, shoppers and others find the church to be within easy walking distance. Many of these bring their families on Sunday to share the beauty they have grown to love. There is an intangible magnetism about this venerable, special church, a certain indescribable attraction in its old world atmosphere. Standing bravely in the flow of commerce, Old Saint Mary continues to offer a special challenge:

“Here have I stood these many years
Asking the busy passer-by
Whether one carries - even as I -
Christ in one’s heart.”