St. Benedict the Moor Parish – Fr. Stephen Eckert
Fr. Stephen Eckert became the first resident pastor of St. Benedict in 1913 and served for 10 years. He was born in Canada in 1869 and came to know the Capuchins in a visit to Detroit in 1890. He joined the Capuchin Order and studied for the priesthood here at St. Francis Monastery; he was ordained to the priesthood in 1896.
As a Capuchin in New York, Fr. Stephen became interested in sharing the Catholic faith with African Americans, especially as many black people were moving from the South. He visited with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Philadelphia – the religious community founded by St. Katherine Drexel who served the native American and black populations in the United States. After this visit, Fr. Sephen was even more interested in dedicating himself to serving black Catholics.
His dream was realized in 1923 when he became pastor of St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Milwaukee. He worked at developing the school that had just opened. In two years, attendance at the school grew from 9 to 73 students. Fr. Stephen created housing for students who needed it, as some students came from outside the state of Wisconsin. The school also offered a nursery for working mothers, a shoe repair shop, a residence and employment agency for young women, and a sewing school.
Funding for his projects came from his many preaching efforts, and he was in demand as a popular and powerful preacher. After one such preaching trip, he contracted pneumonia, but refused hospitalization. He subsequently died on February 16, 1923 at the age of 53 and is buried on the grounds of St. Benedict the Moor Church here in Milwaukee. His simple tombstone reads, “The Apostle and Champion of the Colored Race.” His great holiness and ministry resulted in the diocese beginning the canonization process on his behalf, and he was declared “Servant of God” in 1952.