1. St. Mary’s Catholic, 1846

844 North Broadway (at East Kilbourn Avenue)
Architect: Victor Schulte

St. Mary’s Catholic, 1846
St. Mary’s Catholic, 1846

Milwaukee’s two oldest extant churches, St. Mary’s Catholic and St. John’s Catholic Cathedral, predate Wisconsin’s admission to the Union as the country’s 30th state in 1848. When Milwaukee incorporated as a city in the Wisconsin Territory in 1846, it had a population of less than ten thousand. About one-third of the residents were of German origin. The only Catholic church in the city at the time of incorporation, St. Peter’s, served French-Canadian, German, and Irish Catholics as well as those of other nationalities. Although St. Peter’s offered religious services in both English and German, the growing population of German-speaking Catholics wanted their own church. St. Mary’s Church was built for this purpose, with the cornerstone laid in April of 1846 and the building completed and dedicated in September of 1847. St. Mary’s is thus the mother church of Milwaukee’s German Catholics.

German-born builder and architect Victor Schulte (1811-1890) was commissioned to design the combined church and school building. Trained initially as a carpenter, Schulte moved from Pennsylvania to Milwaukee in 1841, where he designed buildings in addition to designing and supervising the construction of some of the city’s first drawbridges over the Milwaukee River. This was a period when the boundaries between the occupations of carpenter, builder, and architect were not clearly drawn, particularly in the frontier towns of the Great Lakes region. There were no registration or licensing requirements for architects at this time. Nor were there any college degrees offered in architecture in the United States until the Massachusetts Institute of Technology established the first course of study in 1865. The University of Illinois followed with its own degree program in 1867, and other universities added programs in the following decades. Prior to the Civil War , some architects had university training in engineering, but the more common route into the profession, particularly in the older cities of the East Coast, was through apprenticeship in the office of an established architect. Alternatively, a carpenter or stonemason could supplement his knowledge of construction with evening school or correspondence courses in architectural drawing and design, and at some point decide to advertise his services as an architect.

As originally built, St. Mary’s was considerably smaller than today. It had classrooms on the ground floor and the worship space on the upper floor, reached by an exterior stairway on the building’s west façade. In 1866-67, Schulte was again commissioned to plan and supervise a substantial enlargement of the church as well as construction of a separate school building. With the ground-floor classrooms no longer needed, the intermediate floor was removed, lowering the church floor to the ground level and thereby increasing the height of the church interior by about ten feet. The original classroom windows were then filled with brick, leaving the windowsills on the interior of the church well above head height. The church was also enlarged at both the east and west ends. Removal of the front steps provided room to extend the building almost to the sidewalk on Broadway. The entire front bay, with its tower and steeple, thus dates to the 1866-67 enlargement. The additions are compatible in style with the original church, but the tower and steeple are much taller than the one originally constructed in 1846. The tower and steeple reach a height of approximately 160 feet from the sidewalk to the top of the cross.

The exterior walls are of locally produced yellow brick, known as Cream City brick, which has darkened to black over the years. Both the original portion of the building and the additions of the 1860s show the restrained classicism of the German Zopfstil. There are no columns or pediments, and the wall surfaces are relatively flat, with shallow pilasters and no quoins at the corners. The pilasters along the side walls have plain capitals, and decorative stonework is limited primarily to simple stringcourses and raised keystones at the tops of the window arches.

Bruce, William George, Joseph C. Hoffmann, and Henry C. Schranck. St. Mary’s Church, Milwaukee: History of a Pioneer Parish. St. Mary’s Church, 1921.

Celebrating the 140th Anniversary Year of Old St. Mary’s: June 1, 1986. St. Mary’s Church, 1986.

“Consecration of St. Mary’s Church,” Milwaukee Sentinel, November 18, 1867, page 1, column 3.

“Death of Victor Schulte,” Milwaukee Sentinel, July 16, 1890, page 3, column 2.

Gurda, John. “The Church and the Neighborhood,” in Milwaukee Catholicism, edited by Steven M. Avella. Knights of Columbus, 1991.

Guth, Alexander. “Early Day Architects in Milwaukee.” Wisconsin Magazine of History, September 1926, pages 17-28.

Old St. Mary’s, 1846-1971. St. Mary’s Church, 1971.

“The Spire of St. Mary’s Church,” Milwaukee Sentinel, December 25, 1867, page 1, column 4.