14. St. Francis of Assisi Catholic, 1876

1927 North 4th Street (between Reservoir Avenue and Brown Street)
Architect: William Schickel (New York)

St. Francis of Assisi Catholic
St. Francis of Assisi Catholic

In 1869, friars of the Capuchin Franciscan Order established a friary on Fourth Street between Brown Street and Reservoir Avenue. At that time, the property was at the edge of the city’s development and just a few blocks from the northern city limit at North Avenue. With no intention of establishing a new parish, the friars built a modest chapel for their own use as part of the friary. However, since services were open to all, a growing number of Catholics in the vicinity began attending Mass at the chapel, as it was closer than any of the city’s parish churches. It soon became apparent that a new parish church was needed to serve the rapidly growing neighborhood. The Catholic diocese therefore established St. Francis of Assisi Parish in 1871, as the city’s eighth parish.

By the middle of the decade, the small friary chapel had become inadequate for the growing parish, and plans were made to build a larger church. The first priest of St. Francis Parish, Father Lawrence Voerwerk, commissioned the New York architect William Schickel (1850-1907) to design the new church. Schickel was born in Germany and received some architectural training there before immigrating to the United States in 1870. After arriving in New York, Schickel worked briefly in the office of Richard Morris Hunt, one of the nation’s most prominent architects at that time. Establishing his own office in 1873, Schickel designed numerous churches and other buildings for the Catholic Church in cities as far west as St. Louis. From 1885, he worked in partnership with Isaac Ditmars. Soon after designing the church for St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Schickel received the commission for Holy Cross Church on Bluemound Road, built in 1879. In addition, Schickel and Ditmars designed St. Elizabeth Church (now St. Martin de Porres) at Second and Burleigh Streets, built in 1907. All three of Schickel’s Milwaukee churches are in the Romanesque Revival style.

The church that Schickel designed for St. Francis of Assisi Parish, which forms the northeastern corner of the larger friary complex, has a basilican plan with no transepts. A single bell tower and steeple rise more than 140 feet to the top of the cross. The walls are Cream City brick, with a small amount of limestone trim for buttress caps and other details. The projecting front entrance vestibule, with walls of stone and richly carved details, is an addition dating to 1900.

St. Francis of Assisi Catholic
St. Francis of Assisi Catholic

The interior is a scholarly exercise in the Romanesque Revival, with extensive mural painting on the upper walls of the nave. All of the murals date to the original construction of the church, as do the stained glass windows in the aisles. The present stained glass in the clerestory windows was installed later, around 1900. Gas lighting was not available in this remote area of Milwaukee when the church was first built. Instead, kerosene lamps were used until gaslights became available in the mid-1880s. These were replaced in turn by electric lighting in the early twentieth century.

The first members of the parish were predominantly German immigrants and their children, and German remained the primary language of the parish until the early twentieth century. Some services were conducted in German at least as late as the 1930s. Although Mass was still in Latin at that time, a weekly service with a homily in Spanish began in 1959 for the growing number of Spanish-speaking parishioners, the majority of whom were of Puerto Rican birth or ancestry. The parish continues to offer a weekly Mass in Spanish, along with two in English, and hosts an annual celebration on the feast day of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Puerto Rico.

Fleischmann, Rev. James. St. Francis Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1871-1946: the History of a Parish, Compiled for the Occasion of its Diamond Jubilee. St. Francis Parish, 1946.

Flower, Frank A. History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Western Historical Company, 1881. Facsimile reprint by the Milwaukee Genealogical Society, 1981.

“Laying of the Corner-stone of the New Church of St. Francis,” Milwaukee Sentinel, June 19, 1876, page 8, column 1.

St. Francis Church: Centennial Celebration, Sept. 12th to Oct. 4th. St. Francis Church, 1971.