St. Vincent de Paul Parish

Polish Churches in Milwaukee

In just a few short years, the south side congregations at St. Stanislaus and St. Hyacinth could not accommodate the growing number of Polish Catholics seeking to worship. Father Gulski decided to divide his St. Hyacinth parish and began efforts to organize a fourth Polish parish in Milwaukee. $30,000 was raised and a large two-story brick building (130 ft. x 30 ft.) constructed. The first floor would be dedicated to education while the second floor served as a temporary church, which was becoming a common approach for new Milwaukee churches. In 1888 the building was completed and dedicated by Bishop M. Heiss.

St. Vincent de Paul Parish (Św. Wincenty a Paulo)
2114 W. Mitchell St.
Milwaukee, WI 53215
Architect: Bernard Kopacki

The parish would be named for St. Vincent de Paul, a son of peasant farmers who was born in Gascony in 1580. While a child, Vincent tended his father’s sheep flock and was ordained into the priesthood at the age of twenty. Assigned to a destitute parish, Vincent de Paul dedicated himself to work with the poor and suffering. He founded a religious order called the Lazarists whose charitable work led to the Foundation of the Sisters of Charity. Vincent de Paul’s efforts were felt even as far away as Poland, which had led to the selection of this patron saint for the new parish. He would be canonized in 1737.

The first priest to serve St. Vincent’s was Father Vincent Lewandowski, who would remain at this post for ten years until poor health forced him to retire. Father Lewandowski had been born in Lewice, in the Duchy of Poznan in 1841 and ordained into the priesthood in 1864. Yet another in a long line of activist priests, Father Lewandowski had assisted in the political struggle for Polish independence. In 1872, fearing arrest, he took flight, fearing arrest and arrived in America in 1875. First settling in Toledo, he left the parish after nine years following disturbances which had broken out among its members. Upon his arrival in Milwaukee, the priest served as an assistant in St. Hyacinth before coming to St. Vincent de Paul. It was said that Father Lewandowski suffered from a chronic heart ailment which often left him cross and irritable.

The school sisters of Notre Dame took over the teaching duties at the St. Vincent de Paul School when it opened in 1888. The first baptism at the parish was that of Michael Wisialowski on August 13. The first celebration of marriage took place between Frank Mitchell and Mary Przybylski on January 12, 1892. The following year, a Sisters’ convent and rectory were completed.

A smallpox epidemic broke out in the parish in 1894 and took the lives of nine of its schoolchildren. For reasons known only to himself, Father Lewandowski resigned from St. Vincent in a fit of anger in 1899, choosing to become a volunteer at SS. Cyril and Methodius parish. The priest insinuated that his decision was driven by “intrigue by the Galician”, perhaps the political maneuverings of a rival priest. On January 22,1900 Father Lewandowski boarded a streetcar at Eighth and Grant for a meeting with the Bishop to discuss a new posting. He died of a heart attack en route.

Following the resignation of Father Lewandowski, the Archbishop appointed Reverend Jan Blechacz as temporary administrator until another pastor could be found. Father Maximilian Dorszyński would eventually be named as cleric. Father Dorszyński had been born in Milwaukee in 1873 after his parents had immigrated to America from West Prussia. He was educated at St. Hedwig’s School on the East Side and would later study at Marquette University. Father Dorszyński served at St. Stanislaus for two years and briefly at St. Casimir before coming to St. Vincent.

By now the upper story of the school building was insufficient to accommodate the growing numbers of worshipers each Sunday. Plans were drawn up for a new cathedral which would be 185 feet long and 66 feet wide and constructed in the Romanesque style. Designed under the guidance of architect Bernard Kopacki it would serve the needs of 700 families and the 800 children who attended classes at the parish school. The new church cost $84,865 and the general contractor was awarded to Sylvester Wabiszewski, a member of the parish. Wabiszeski would later go on to become a prominent south side industrialist and would even be honored by Pope Pius XII.

The twin towers rose 195 feet and 132 feet respectively and its four bells were named for St. Vincent de Paul,( which has diameter of 62” and weighs 5000 lbs), SS. Ladislaus & Alexus (which has a 54” diameter and weighs 3000 lbs.), St. Mary (which has a 42” diameter and weighs 1600 lbs.) and St. Hyacinth (which has a 32” diameter and 650 lbs). The clocks for the steeple were donated by the then pastor of St. Josaphat’s, Fr. William Grutza. Father Dorszyński fell ill in 1904 and Father Joseph Kempa named as his replacement. Father Dorszyński would pass away just one year later. Father Kempa had been born in Milwaukee in 1877 and educated at St. Josaphat’s School before being ordained in 1899. He would only serve as pastor at St. Vincent de Paul for one year before being transferred to a parish in Pound, Wisconsin. In 1906 Dr. Anthony Lex succeeded Father Kempa. Dr. Lex had come from Silesia and had served in the German army for a year prior to studying for the priesthood. He received his doctorate in Innsbruck, Austria before immigrating to the United States. Dr. Lex first served at churches in Chicago as well as Stevens Point, Wisconsin where he had been instrumental in founding the first Polish school in the area.

St. Vincent de Paul church was hit by a major fire in 1908. The main altar, the front part of the church and all of the sanctuary and vestments were destroyed. Following the fire, Father Boleslaus Góral was assigned as the new pastor. Father Góral would only be pastor at St. Vincent for twelve months and was reassigned to St. Hyacinth in 1909. Father Michael J Domachowski was named as replacement pastor and would remain at the parish until 1940. Father Domachowski had been born in 1875 in Poland and came to America when he was only three years of age. He attended college at Marquette and upon finishing his studies in 1898 he applied to the St Francis Seminary where he was ordained in 1902. Father Domachowski had previously served as an assistant at St Hyacinth where he had been primarily responsible for the care of young people.

Father Domachowski had served in the Polish Army in America during World War One and for his work on the behalf of Poland’s quest for independence he would be knighted with the honor of “The Order of Polonia Restituta”, the highest rank of recognition, by Polish President Ignace Padrewski. Following Polish independence, Father Domachowski also sold bonds on behalf of the new government. He had been a principal founder of St. Casimir parish in Kenosha as well as St. Adalbert’s in Milwaukee. In 1934 Father. Domachowski was awarded the title of Monsignor by his Holiness, the Pope. He would also go on to serve as a director of the Nowiny Polskie newspaper.
As with most parishes during the Great Depression, the parish suffered a severe financial crisis in the 1930s. Without meaningful employment, many church members did not have the funds for three square meals per day let alone anything for the offering baskets. In addition, during this period St Vincent de Paul lost several hundred families to the new parishes of St. Barbara and St. Ignatius, organized just to the west. So, ingenious means were used to raise the funds necessary to continue operation of the church, which also served to bring the parishioners closer together during the troubled times. Msgr. Domachowski passed away on February 8, 1940 at the age of 66 following a long sickness having served St Vincent de Paul for 31 years.

On May 23, 1940 Reverend S.J. Studer, the organizer of St. Barbara parish, was appointed pastor of St. Vincent de Paul. Father Studer had been born in Poland and had come to the USA at the age of three months. He studied at St. Francis Seminary and was ordained in 1909. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, 435 men and women from St. Vincent de Paul Parish served their country in the armed forces. Seventeen members paid the ultimate price, including Rev. W. Polewski who passed away in Burma on January 29, 1945 shortly before the end of the hostilities.

Father Studer was elevated to Domestic Prelate with the title Right Reverend Monsignor on October 14, 1951. The following year the interior of the church was redecorated by the Liskowiak Church Decorators at a cost of $30,000. At the time of the Silver Jubilee Celebrations in 1963, there were 468 students enrolled in the parish school, seven teaching sisters, and three lay teachers. However, due to dwindling attendance over the subsequent twenty years, the school was eventually closed in the spring of 1989.

Not one, but two, future United States Congressmen called St. Vincent de Paul their home parish. Parishioner John C. Kleczka, the first Polish American to be elected to Congress, and U.S. Congressman Clement J. Zablocki, who would serve Wisconsin’s 4th district for 35 consecutive years, both attended primary school here. John Casimir Kleczka had been born in Milwaukee on May 6, 1885. He attended school at St. Vincent de Paul and graduated from Marquette University. After studying law in Madison and Washington, he was admitted to the Wisconsin Bar in 1909. Following service in the Armed Forces in World War One, Kleczka was elected to Congress as a Republican in 1919. He returned to Wisconsin to practice law in 1923 and was elected as Circuit Court Judge where he served until his retirement in 1953. Kleczka passed away on April 21, 1959 and is interred in St. Adalbert’s Cemetery. One of the stained-glass windows at St. Josaphat’s bears his family name.

Congressman John Clement Zablocki was born on November 18, 1912 and also attended St Vincent de Paul Primary School. The Congressman graduated from Marquette University and was a schoolteacher and choir director at St. Mary Magdalene and St. Vincent de Paul Parishes before entering state politics as a Democrat. From 1938 until his election to the United States Congress, Zablocki served as the organist at St. Vincent de Paul parish. Congressman Zablocki would serve his district from 1949 until his death on December 3, 1983. He was so popular in the district that, at times, his electoral majority of the vote exceeded 80%. While chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee Zablocki helped to construct a children’s hospital in Cracow, Poland where he became friends with Father Karol Wojtyla, who would later become Pope John Paul II. Congressman Zablocki was presented with Order of St. Gregory the Great, Knight Commander, in 1983 by the Pope. Eventually a school, library, park and the VA hospital would be carrying his name in honor. Today St. Vincent de Paul struggles in a changing neighborhood which faces the challenges of so many urban areas in America.

Photos: John Smallshaw