History of St. Francis Monastery

Source: The Rise and Progress of the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin order in the United States 1857-1907, by A Member of the Order, Published by Benziger Brothers, New York, Cincinnati, Chicago, 1907

See also: St. Elizabeth Parish and Hospice
See also: Holy Cross Catholic Church
See also: Province of St. Joseph of Capuchin order in the United States

1. Early Negotiations

The idea of erecting a monastery in the city of Milwaukee dates back to the origin of Calvary Monastery. The inconvenience and the expense in sending the candidates for ordination from Calvary to the city made such an establishment a necessity from the very beginning. Bishop J. M. Henni also was anxious to have the Fathers in his episcopal city; he had given his consent, and procured the permission from Rome as early as Aug. 23, 1861. Probably the same year Mr. John Fr. Baasen purchased for Father Francis the property on which the Schunk and Hellberg Brewery stood. This consisted of two lots 100 x 150 feet each, at the corner of Walnut and Ninth streets. Nic. Schunk had died Feb. 4, 1859, leaving a widow and five children, aged two to fourteen years. The widow Schunk became Mrs. Peter Gerstner shortly after the demise of her first husband. Louis Hellberg brought an action (Nov. 23, 1860) against this Mrs. Mary Gerstner to reclaim certain rights in connection with the Schunk and Hellberg estate, and while the lawsuit was pending the purchase was made. May 15, 1864, Father Francis signed a note of $3,000 for the purchase of the Gerstner property. The agreement was to pay $400 at the delivery of the deed, $600 within the year 1864 at seven per cent, and $2,000 at seven per cent, payable within four years from the time of the delivery of the deed in parts not less than $500.

Father Francis had already paid $2,000 when, on June 12, 1865; he sent Father Bonaventure, at that time Vicar of Calvary, to prepare the vacated brewery for a provisional hospice. But there was an element in Milwaukee in those days that was not at all desirous of seeing the friars settle in their midst. The so-called Know-nothings were not only hostile to foreigners, but to religion in any form, in particular to the Catholic religion. Scarcely had Father Bonaventure hired men to raise the roof of the brewery for another story, when a band of rowdies headed by a woman appeared on the scene, and compelled the laborers to leave. Hon. J. G. Jenkins, Father Bonaventure's lawyer, was highly indignant at this action, and insisted on protecting the Father's rights by a posse of armed men; but Father Bonaventure desired to establish his cloister as cloisters had always been founded, not by force of arms, but in a peaceful manner, and, therefore, rather than tolerate violence, forfeited his rights. A peaceful adjustment of claims was thwarted by the anti-religious spirit which then infected even the courts: the place and project was abandoned, and luckily so. The corner of Ninth and Walnut streets was too close to the neighboring parishes to allow the Fathers a neutral field of labor. Their plan was not to establish a parish, but merely to erect a monastery and chapel, a quiet place of study and prayer for the young clerics; still it was feared they might interfere with the work of the parishes and take away the people from the parish services.

Father Bonaventure resided with Rev. F. X. Krautbauer, the chaplain of Notre Dame Convent. It was he who called the Father's attention to the site on which the present monastery stands. The place was called Sherman's Addition, and owned by H. J. Silkman, from whom the block was purchased Aug. 24, 1865, for $5,330. The embarrassment in which Calvary monastery found itself at that time would not allow the Fathers to build a home at once, but some improvements on the property were made to render it exempt from taxation. There were neither walks nor a fence, the surrounding streets were not graded. North Avenue, three blocks distant, formed the limit of the city: the fields to the right and left gave pasture to the grazing cows; the name "gully," commonly applied to the sixth ward, was truly applicable to the Silkman block; its southern part was a gravel pit.

Father Bonaventure had the commission and the blessing of his Superior, but no means to defray the expenses of the purchase and the improvements; he therefore undertook several missions in Iowa, and solicited alms for his monastery. He returned with $1,600 to meet the first payment. Then he conducted a retreat at the Notre Dame Convent, and Ven. Mother Caroline, who had shown herself so generous toward Calvary, proved that her generosity had not abated. But Father Bonaventure was not destined to build the monastery at Milwaukee; a more promising field was reserved for him in New York; thither he was sent in January, 1866, and the continuation of his work was postponed for want of men until the conflagration in Calvary (Dec. 26, 1868) made a branch monastery at Milwaukee a necessity. Father Francis was able to replace the rector of the college by the newly ordained Father Didacus Wendl, and entrust Father Ivo with the building of the monastery. In the meantime Rev. F. X. Krautbauer and Mr. M. Baasen secured the place, and made the payments when due, the former advancing his own money without interest.

2. Father Ivo Builds the Monastery

From the diary of Father Francis, preserved in the archives at Detroit, we learn that he left Calvary with Father Ivo July 5, 1869, to erect the monastery. The contract for the mason-work with the Kraatz Brothers was signed July 6th; August Schellberg of Calvary undertook the carpenter-work. The excavations were immediately begun and completed by July 30th. The masons began to lay the foundation Aug. 3d, and Sept. 26th, the walls were completed up to the comice. Father Didacus Wendl celebrated his first holy Mass at St. Joseph's, his parish church, Sept. 26th, and the eloquent address of Rev. F. X. Krautbauer made a favorable impression on the people and disposed them to be generous toward the new monastery, as will be seen from the sequel. While the monastery was building Father Ivo lived with the Klein family, and said Mass at the Notre Dame Convent; he superintended the building and solicited alms in the neighboring parishes. His account-book for the year 1869 shows an outlay of $5,252.49 for building; capital raised $6,408.60; capital disbursed $6,432.05, leaving a debt of $4,800. On Oct 24th, he reported to Calvary that the building was under roof, and on Dec. 6th, Father Francis arrived for the dedication, with Father Fidelis Steinauer and the Tertiary Brother Vincent Hammer, the last-named were to be stationed at the new monastery. For the following facts we are indebted to the faithful pen of Father Fidelis Steinauer. The work was not so far advanced as was expected; a part of the chapel had but one coat of plastering, the other part was not even lathed; still the dedication was to take place; great activity was displayed in and about the house: the men were removing the rubbish while the women were preparing the church.

At 10:30 A.M. of Dec. 8th, Very Rev. M. Kundig, Vicar General, blessed the chapel and the monastery and sang High Mass. Owing to the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the secular clergy could not take part. There were present in the sanctuary Father Francis, Father Ivo, Father Fidelis, and Brother Vincent. The singers had placed a melodeon in the adjoining infirmary of the monastery, and through a little window their voices were heard. Father Francis delivered the sermon to an audience that taxed the capacity of the little chapel and surrounded it. The speaker said in part:

"St. Elizabeth thought more of the cloak of St. Francis than of her own costly raiment. A part of this cloak has come to Milwaukee this day, we hope with the blessing of St. Francis. The question has been mooted here in Milwaukee, whether the introduction of the Capuchins into this city is opportune. As long as Christ preaches poverty and self-denial from His cross, the Church will not cease to show these doctrines practically observed; practical examples of poverty, self-denial and obedience are nowhere more necessary and effective than where licentiousness and luxury arc rampant-that is to say, in large cities. To judge from the warm reception and the help tendered us from all sides, there are many people in Milwaukee who appreciate the Religious. It will be our task to meet their expectations; they will find us loving fathers in the confessional, true friends of the poor at the monastery gate, and faithful helpers at the altar. Should a public calamity befall the city, e. g., the plague, we will know our duty as sons of St. Francis, and act as these have acted at all times." The monastery wing was 107 x 30 feet; the chapel, which was open to the public during service hours, 66 x 22 feet and 14 feet high; the space above the chapel was used for the library and community.

3. Primitive Condition.-The Parish

On the following day Father Francis and Father Ivo departed, the former to give a mission in New York, Father Ivo to collect alms for his monastery. Brother Vincent also joined in this work occasionally, while Father Fidelis remained at Milwaukee. The good neighbors supplied him with everything he wished for, while he shared his meals with the poor that called on him. The early Mass was well attended by the laboring class, even on week-days, while every Sunday afternoon brought a large number to listen to the instruction and receive the blessing. On Dec. 26th, the Third Order was organized with thirty ladies and three men; Mr. C. Rome was chosen treasurer; henceforth the meetings were conducted monthly. Father Ivo returned Dec. 31st, for a short rest, and Father Fidelis was sent on a collecting tour through the neighboring counties. Everywhere he met with unexpected generosity, and endeavored to prove himself grateful for the liberal alms by assisting the priests at the altar, in the confessional, and the pulpit. After spending the morning in the church he passed from farmer to farmer collecting money, victuals, and grain; but what he left at the different houses was worth more than he had received, for Father Fidelis was always bent on doing good; here enmity ceased, there a better understanding was established between the pastor and his flock, now a hardened sinner was touched by the simplicity and austere life of the good Father; then again a charity was inaugurated in a parish, and the good priest passed on, leaving blessings in his trail.

It was not at first the object of the Province to take charge of a parish in connection with the monastery; still, a public chapel for the accommodation of the Tertiaries and the public at large formed the plan from the beginning. The chapel which both the community and the public had heretofore used was now resented for the exclusive use of the monastery, and a new framebuilding was added which had six hundred sittings. It was begun on June 7th and dedicated to the honor of St. Francis, July 31, 1870. The little monastery with its humble chapel began to attract the Catholics, many of whom settled in the vicinity in hopes that the Fathers would change their plan and organize a parish. The hopes soon became entreaties and petitions, in which the Bishop joined, and the Fathers were compelled to submit to the inevitable. Bishop J. M. Henni gave his permission to Father Francis in presence of Father Ivo, April 12, 1870. The St. Francis' Society was organized to provide funds to build, the young men organized under the patronage of St. Anthony, June 13, 1870; the ninety-nine subscriptions collected by the St. Francis' Society were handed to his Lordship, Dec. 11th. At that time Milwaukee had 71,464 inhabitants, the Sixth Ward, 1,700; St. Francis' parish was the eighth in the city. The first baptism is recorded on April 8th, the first marriage on April 27, 1871 ; the records of this year show twenty-seven baptisms, three marriages, and five funerals. As soon as the chapel was completed, a school was built to accommodate four hundred children, and dedicated Aug. 18, 1871.

4. The First Clerics

Father Anthony Rottensteiner came to Milwaukee with four clerics, Fraters Chilian, Jerome, Louis, and Augustine, June 21, 1871; the canonical erection of the monastery and clericate dates from April 19, 1872. A month later two clerics were ordained and said their first holy Mass, Father Chilian at Calvary and Father Louis as the first in St. Francis' Church, Milwaukee. In October and November a spacious hall was erected on the corner of Fourth and Harmon streets for the different societies and for entertainments. When the year 1873 was ushered in, monastery and parish had still a debt of $36,015, which was increased by $2,000 before its close. This debt was not left to the parish alone. Father Ivo had collected $2,034 in Pennsylvania, and the Fathers constantly gave missions and collected in many parishes throughout the State.

The Provincial Chapter, in February, 1873, placed Father Lawrence Vorwerk in charge of parish and monastery. After the different buildings had been erected by Father Ivo it became the mission of Father Lawrence to enliven the inner spirit of the parish and monastery; still he, too, had to consent to a great amount of exterior work and worry. The ever-increasing parish demanded a larger and better church; this wish was fulfilled to the satisfaction of all, when, on Feb. 8, 1877, a stately church 140 x 61 feet, and 51 feet high, was erected in Romanesque style, according to the plans of Wm. Schickel of New York, at a cost of $80,000.

Father Lawrence was succeeded in July, 1878, by Father Anthony Rottensteiner, under whose administration the old church was arranged for school purposes, while nothing was left undone to make the new church a gem in which everything directed thoughts and aspirations heavenward. During his term he was compelled to divide his energy between St. Francis' parish and the organization of a new parish and the erection of a church and hospice at Holy Cross, opposite the Calvary Ccmetery. His successor, Father Luke (1882-85), provided the church bells and the grand organ; Father Jerome (1885-88) made many repairs in the monastery and prepared to erect a new school, dedicated under Father Ignatius (1888-94), Aug. 18, 1889. A separate school for the girls was built by Father Alphonse in 1899. Since 1904 St. Francis has a free school, ably conducted by the School Sisters of Notre Dame; the seventh and eighth grade of boys are in charge of Mr. J. Meier. Father Ignatius completed the monastery by erecting the east wing, 113 X 29 feet, and by adding 13 feet to the monastery chapel in 1892.

5. Evil Designs the Source of Good

While this was done, the enemy of all good could not quietly look on; it aroused his wrath to behold building after building arise for the service of God, where future generations were to be trained for life and for heaven. It must have been at his instigation that some wicked hand set fire to the church on the morning of April 19, 1893, a conflagration which might have leveled all the buildings to the ground, but that it was soon discovered. The alarm sent in, within twenty minutes the courageous firemen had set a limit to the ravages of the flames. One confessional, several stations, and about twenty pews were totally destroyed, the oil paintings badly blistered, the decoration of the church entirely marred; in fact, nothing escaped injury from the heat and smoke. The damage amounted to about $6,500, covered by insurance. But evil designs are often the source of good. The parish now decided to contribute $3,500 more to make the interior of the church harmonize with its exterior. The damaged furniture was replaced,- the entire church neatly decorated by Mr. Liebig of Milwaukee; its walls adorned with representations taken from the life of St. Francis, by Mr. W. Lamprecht. Now the children of St. Francis' parish behold their patron saint taking leave of his father; they see Pope Innocent III. approving his Rule; they view the saint preaching to the Sultan; obtaining the indulgence of Portiuncula; represented as friend of nature and friend of the poor; they see him blessing his native city and dying in extreme poverty. Moreover, the painting above the high altar shows him receiving the greatest proof of divine love, the stigmata; and in St. Anthony's chapel we find a symbolical representation of the institution of the Third Order; while on entering the church the beholder first meets the triumph of Christianity high up above the sanctuary. In its present garb the church is very inviting, and the people declare that it disposes them to prayer. Their assertion is borne out by the fact that at all hours of the day pious worshipers may be seen adoring the Blessed Sacrament, and Catholic visitors to the city seldom fail to give St. Francis' a call.

Oct. 4-6, 1895, the parish celebrated its jubilee with a solemn triduum; it had then reached its zenith in number; let us hope that the zealous spirit of the parish will never abate, and that it will continue to do good for many years to come.

6. The Harvest of Death in the Monastery

Frater Benedict Kunz of Brooklyn, aged twenty-two, died April 23, 1881
Father Charles Brandstetter, of Switzerland, aged forty-seven, died April 10, 1882.
Frater Emmeran Kastenmeier of Bavaria, aged twenty-one, died Dec. 14, 1890.

Father Bonaventure Henggeler of Switzerland, aged thirty-two, died Jan. 22, 1895.
Frater Gaudentius Trepl of Bavaria, aged twenty-five, died July 1, 1895.
Frater Beda Bode of Germany, aged twenty-seven, died Nov. 12, 1901.
Brother Joseph Walter of Germany, aged fifty-eight, died Oct. 31, 1902.
Father Anthony Rottensteiner, aged seventy. three, died Feb. 19, 1903
Brother Herman Benziger of Einsiedeln, aged forty-one, died Feb. 2, 1905