Motivated by the Black Catholic Lay Congresses of the 1890s, on August 25, 1908, Capt Lincoln Charles Valle and his wife Julia came to Milwaukee to evangelize the black community.
He rented a storefront on State Street which he converted to a chapel named St Benedict the Moor Mission.
In 1911 Capuchin Franciscans agreed to assume full-time responsibility for this parish without boundaries.
Property was purchased at 9th and State.
Fr Stephen Eckert became the first permanent pastor.
When Fr Eckert went on the road to collect funds for the church, Fr Philip Steffes was named pastor. Construction of the present church began in 1923 with funds from Ernest G. Miller. In 1912 a school opened in an old house; then in 1927 the old Marquette Academy at 10th and State was purchased, with Ernest Miller’s help. Notre Dame Sisters and later Racine Dominicans staffed the school.
About half of the 300 students attending were boarders.
Seeing another need in 1930 the Capuchins built St Anthony’s Hospital as a place for African American doctors and nurses to practice and to serve urban black patients, relying heavily on the services of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, MN.
In 1935 the school had 141 boarders and 130 day pupils cared for by 22 nuns. That same year a 9th grade was begun, with the 10th grade promised for the future. The first graduation from the high school was 1940. 99% of the pupils who entered the school each year were non-Catholic and 66% not baptized. At that time the parish had about 600 people. The boarding component was discontinued in 1954 when the Dominican sisters were unable to continue that work.
Changes in the neighborhood and the development of the expressway caused a serious decline in parish membership. Urban renewal efforts resulted in razing of many residences. The high school closed in 1964. When the new expressway cut the grade school grounds in half in 1967, it was forced to shut its doors. It reorganized elsewhere as Urban Day School.
In 1970 the few remaining parishioners met to discuss the feasibility of keeping the premises open. Fr Alex Luzi saw that St Ben’s was in the middle of hundreds and hundreds of people on State Street - in the courthouse, the jails, MATC - and sensed that St Ben’s had a special mission. About this time Mike and Nettie Cullen, Irish immigrants living the ideals of the Catholic Worker Movement, approached him seeking a new home for the meal begun in their kitchen. St Ben’s found new life as people working at the meal united with the small remnant left in the parish to form a revitalized community fueled by enthusiasm in caring for the poor.
Today's parishioners are actively involved in justice issues. They gather on Sunday mornings to nourish their bodies and souls as they toil in the vineyard of the Lord. St Bens has not strived to become a traditional-type parish. It has no defined boundaries. Considering its location and population, it seeks to reach out to the transient, disenfranchised and disenchanted people.
To learn more about St. Ben's Parish 100 year history
To learn more about the history of the Downtown Parish Human Concerns Collaboration: 1994 - 2009
PASTORS – ST BENEDICT THE MOOR
1913-1923 Stephen Eckert
1923-1950 Philip Steffes
1950-1955 Edmund Kramer
1955-1957 Alphonse Heckler
1957-1961 Howard Meunier
1961-1967 Simeon Keogh
1967-1970 Gordon Garske
1970-1973 Alex Luzi
1973-1975 Alex Luzi/ Austin Schlaefer (co-pastors)
1975-1978 Dan Crosby and team
1978-1981 Larry Abler
1981-1985 David Ashbeck
1985-1987 Mark Ramion
1987-1993 Michael Fountain
1993-2000 Michael Sullivan
2000-2004 John Celichowski
2004-2013 Jerry Schroeder
2014-2016 David Preuss
2016-present Michael Bertram
NB Fr Herbert Mathieu was acting pastor during several of the
terms in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.