In the late 1920s, Kenosha’s west side was rapidly growing with families, many of them Catholic.
Seeing the need for another faith community, 11 local families petitioned the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to form a new parish near their homes. Their efforts brought local clergy to find and purchase the land where St. Mary Parish now sits.
On Sunday, Sept. 8, the parish will mark its 90th anniversary in Kenosha.
Parishioners first met in an empty storefront on Roosevelt Road, now known as Clay’s Tap. The first Mass was held on Aug. 15, 1929, and on Sept. 8, the parish was formally launched. It was the last parish authorized by the ailing Archbishop Sebastian G. Messmer of Milwaukee.
According to history professor the Rev. Steven Avella — who was assigned to St. Mary’s as a transitional deacon in 1978-79 and served as associate pastor following his ordination on Sept. 8, 1979 — a distressed spouse would occasionally ask him to retrieve her husband from the bar.
“One man told me that I was to tell his wife that he was in ‘church’ because he ‘remembered that he had gone to Mass in that building,’ in 1929 or 1930,” he said, adding, “The wife was not amused.”
Avella will be speaking at St. Mary’s on Sept. 8 on the history of the parish.
After St. Mary’s was established, the first building erected was the school, where the future gym would serve as a temporary church, explained Avella. Recruited to teach in the school, the Dominican Sisters’ first residence was in the old portion of the present school building.
“A house on the property served as the residence for Father Raymond Bell, the first pastor,” said Avella. “His mother and sister came to help him. Samuel A. Stritch, the new archbishop, dedicated these first buildings; he liked to note that the parish was dear to his heart as the first blessed in his tenure as archbishop (1930-40).”
Lay members supported the school and provided for the sisters and the parish’s pastoral needs, explained Avella. He added that St. Mary’s began growing as more moved into the area.
“A vibrant Catholic culture flourished at St. Mary’s with so much growth that, in 1950, the old temporary church gave way to the handsome colonial style building that sits today on the corner of 39th Avenue and 75th Street,” he said. “This ‘new’ church was the product of lay generosity.
“Memorials to the donors were etched in plates found in various places in the church. Among the donors were the parents of a young soldier who had been among the first to die in the Korean War.”
Growth and flourishing
St. Mary’s first pastor died in August 1956 and Avella said his successors built on the spirit of active lay involvement that Bell and his assistants had cultivated.
“It flourished especially during the pastorate of Father John Michael Murphy in the 1970s and ’80s. Murphy, a former seminary professor, was enthused by the dynamic energies of the Second Vatican Council. He pressed forward by energizing lay members to take an even more active role in church life: service in the liturgy, the formation of parish councils which were truly influential, managing the growing personnel required for the church and school, hiring lay persons to assume key positions of responsibility.
“The ever-smiling Murphy endorsed, encouraged and blessed active lay involvement — and people warmed to him with great affection,” Avella said.
He recalled an incident where a parishioner thought he was acting on Murphy’s wishes and took a chainsaw to the old altar rail.
“In my visits around the parish in the late 1970s, I found remnants of those rails used as rails around garden beds,” he said.
A major renovation took place on the church’s 50th year. A new altar and pulpit were built, and the altar platform was projected out into the congregation. Seating in the transepts was moved to face the altar. A brightly colored floral pattern carpet was placed over the new platform.
The choir, which heretofore had been in the loft, was moved behind the altar, while the old choir loft became a crying room.
Other changes included moving the large crucifix, previously located behind the altar, to the loft and replacing it with an image of the risen Christ.
While Murphy kept the old high altar and the reredos behind it, he removed the side altars. The tabernacle, which had been in the center of the altar, was moved to the side.
“The side altars and reredos are gone, but they were quite beautiful,” said Avella. “Statues to Mary and Joseph, common to Catholic Churches, were above the altars. They were dear prayer sites to Catholics.”
More recent changes have included new pews, remodeled altar space and the relocation of the choir when the Rev. Michael Newman served as pastor of the parish.
The baptismal font
The most important innovation, explained Avella, was the creation of a large baptismal font at the entrance of the church.
“Baptism is our ‘admission’ to the church,” he said. “The holy water Catholics take when they enter a church is supposed to be a reminder of the waters of baptism and of the configuration of their lives to the risen Lord.”
St. Mary’s holds a special connection in the heart of Avella, who will always remember the parish as his first assignment as a deacon and priest.
“I was privileged to know so many wonderful people who are still a part of my life,” he said. “St. Mary’s was a blessing at the start of my ministry. Those good folks gave me far more than I ever gave them.”
Avella’s presentation will be included in a luncheon following the 10:30 a.m. Mass.
There will be no charge for the luncheon, explained Theresa Setter, one of the organizers of the anniversary celebration, but they ask those interested in attending to notify the parish this weekend.
“My sister, Susie Sheard, is also helping to organize this event, along with several others in the parish. We are working on an informational sheet on the seven former pastors that served this parish,” said Setter.
“We went to St. Mary’s Grade School and have a great love for the parish. I serve as the music director and my sister taught in the school many decades ago,” she said.
Setter and Sheard are also working on making 500 bookmarks to hand out to attendees. Each bookmark features a photo of St. Mary’s on one side with the words from Mary’s Magnificat, and on the other will be an image of a statue of St. Thomas of Aquinas with a prayer he wrote.
The dual-sided bookmark remembers St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, the parish that merged with St. Mary’s on July 9, 2000.
Pastors of St. Mary’s Parish
The Rev. Raymond Bell, 1929-1956
The Rev. Raymond G. Leng, 1956-1971
The Rev. John Michael Murphy, 1972-1983
The Rev. Gerald Brittain, 1983-1995
The Rev. Howard Haase, 1995-2000
The Rev. Thomas LeMieux, 1992-2000 (Pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas at the time of the merger)
The Rev. Michael Newman, 2000-12
The Rev. Roman Stikel, 2012 to present
Permanent deacons: St. Mary’s deacons continue to be an essential part of serving the parish.
Deacon Ron Lesjack, ordained in 1979 to present
Deacon Jim Francois, 1983 to present
Deacon Wilson Shierk, 1996 to present
If you go
What: St. Mary Parish 90th Anniversary Celebration
When: Sunday, Sept 8. 10:30 a.m. Mass followed by a light luncheon and a presentation by the Rev. Steve Avella on the history of St. Mary’s.
Where: 7307 40th Ave.
Luncheon: Luncheon is free and open to all who RSVP by Sunday, Sept. 1.
Three ways to sign up:
1. Use the form provided at the side entrances and in the back of the church.
2. Call 262-925-4159; leave your name and how many will be attending the luncheon.
3. Email firstname.lastname@example.org