Urban spelunking: St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, 804 W. Vliet St., is a bit like Milwaukee's own Mont Saint-Michel. Its imposing Gothic spires sprout from a high point in the city, soaring above everything around it.
But, geographically, it also feels a bit cut off, like the French religious site at high tide, with the expressway to the west, the freeway-like McKinley Boulevard to the south. You can see it from everywhere, but it's not immediately clear how to reach it.
Trust me, it's worth the minor effort of getting there.
These days there are no services held at the church – designed by Herman Schnetzky and his then-draftsman and foreman Eugene Liebert and erected in 1889-90 – where there are just two trustees and a congregation whose members can be counted on one hand.
It's a major shift for St. John's, founded in 1848 and housed originally in a frame church on 4th and Highland that was rented – and later purchased – from Trinity Episcopal. Over the next two decades the church had to be enlarged at least three times. By the 1880s the congregation boasted, according to an unsigned church history, "well over" 2,500 members.
In spring 1889, the congregation hired Schnetzky to design a church, a school and a 14-room cream city brick parsonage. (A stuccoed bungalow caretaker's residence was added to the property in 1914 and still stands and serves its original purpose.)
The cornerstone for the church was laid that same year and on July 28 of the following year, the cream city brick Victorian Gothic church, which could seat 1,200, was dedicated.
The church is imposing. Supposedly inspired by St. Peter's Church in Leipzig, the building boasts a pair of towers, one taller than the other, with long, sleek steeples that rise toward the heavens. The west tower is 127 feet high and the east tower, which houses three bells that still function, climbs an impressive 197 feet.
Inside, there is a gorgeous carved wooden Gothic altar – donated by local lumberman, and church member, Johann Schroeder – and matching pulpit and sounding board. There is a solid marble baptismal font and an unusual solid brass lectern with an eagle that was reportedly purchased from Tiffany's, though another source says it was imported from Germany.
While the interior of the church was once heavily decorated with painted motifs, much of that was whitewashed over in 1962. Even without the stencilwork, the sanctuary is lovely, especially in the morning when sunlight floods in through the stained glass windows in the east facade, generating a kaleidoscopic rainbow.
In 1890, a writer for a national Lutheran publication called St. John's the most beautiful Lutheran church he'd seen. It was also among the largest Lutheran churches built "in the west" in the 19th century.
In 1909, the congregation undertook the unusual step of adding rows of light bulbs to the arches of the sanctuary, creating strips of what look like theater lighting.
Up in the U-shaped balcony, there's an Herculean organ that was donated by parishioners the Kieckhefers, who also donated the large stained glass windows in the east and west transepts.
There is stained glass throughout the building, on both sides of the sanctuary, above the entrance, in the vaulted narthex (which also houses a stupendous electric fuse cabinet that must be seen), in the towers ... everywhere. My tour guides – trustees Paul Demcak and Tim Kitzman – say that the church opened with all that glass in place. Clearly, St. John's was a wealthy – and therefore influential congregation.
But that's changed now. In 1950, the neighborhood around the church was condemned, bulldozed and replaced by the Hillside Terrace public housing project. In 1985, the church ended German-language services. By 1988, there were roughly 80 members at St. John's and within just two years another 10 percent of the congregation was gone.
The parsonage sat empty from 1958 until Demcak moved in a few years ago.
"It's a good vantage point to see the church and worry about its future and dream about it also," says Demcak.
These days, because services have been suspended, the church doors are almost always locked.
"We could start up immediately but with so few members we want to appropriately use our resources," Demcak says as we chat in a parlor in the parsonage. "We didn't think the resources were being used appropriately to just go on the way we were without refocusing on a mission that would work today. We were just kind of going on and on each month, inwardly focused. We want to have outreach, we want to be vital again."
The problem, the trustees say, is that church leadership in the past never really embraced its changing neighborhood, my guides say. As the original German immigrants and the generation that followed died off and/or moved away, no one replaced them in the pews.
This is not a recent issue, either, adds Demcak.
"The church has been seriously hemorrhaging membership off of its books since the 1960s," he says. "So you're talking 50 years – a very long decline."
At one point the church school welcomed neighborhood children at no cost. But, the church itself didn't appear to take a similar approach. When the school closed, it was turned over to a mission group that occupied it until 1961, when it could no longer afford to maintain it and by the mid-1960s it had been demolished.
Amazingly, in its 166-year history, St. John's – which is a Milwaukee city landmark and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 – has had just seven pastors. Two of those pastors account for 90 years of the church's history, from 1868 to 1958. In more recent years, politics divided the congregation and church leadership (you can dig up the nitty gritty online if you want to know more).
"That's a turn-off for us," says Demcak. "We're all too aware of that, we've seen it too much and that's so much about what was going on here in the past and to me that's not the focus if you really consider yourself Christian, Lutheran or whatever. That should not be the focus on your mission. The focus should be people."
So, that's where St. John's stands at the moment. Thanks to an endowment fund, Demcak and Kitzman have been able to keep the church complex in good repair. But that money will not last forever, says Demcak, who vows that St. John's surviving trustees are looking toward the future.
"We want to turn this around," Demcak says. "We're a few blocks from things that are very exciting the way they're happening. We have a footbridge that goes across McKinley, which comes out right on the Pabst property. You have two residential units operating (there), you have three more on the drawing board, you have the Brewhouse hotel. You're going to have real residences there, including upscale (and) mixed income. Our church is right on the edge of that. We're the gateway to Downtown.
"Let's move on to the 21st century. In many ways the church had continued in a 19th century tradition."
That's the challenge, then: connecting the rich history embodied by an impressive and imposing Milwaukee landmark with a changed and again changing neighborhood.
"We are (working on a plan), exploring how we can build bridges to some of the congregations around here, possibly some of the ministries that are already going on in those congregations, exploring how we might do that in some sort of cooperative manner with our former synod," Demcak says.
"I would hope that in the future we can have a presence here that shows we are not afraid to rub elbows and be here and get to know our neighbors. This is a very historically important church but we don't want to be a museum."
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