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Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010

St. Stanislaus Parish

Cornerstone of Polish Milwaukee

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While Historic Mitchell Street is now the main artery running through a densely populated, largely Hispanic area of Milwaukee's near-South Side, St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, on the corner of Fifth Street, is a landmark from a time when the neighborhood was a thriving “Polonia” (Polish-American community). 100 Years: St. Stanislaus Centenary, 1866-1966 tells the story of a homesick cobbler from Poznan named Anthony Kochanek, who, longing for the familiarity of a Sunday Mass with a Polish sermon, attended a meeting with a handful of his countrymen. Having just arrived in Milwaukee from Gdansk, Pomorze and Poznan, these men and women sought a way to establish a church for families of Polish descent. Money was their biggest obstacle.

The vast majority of Poles who immigrated to our city were impoverished peasants who had spent their small life savings on passage to America. According to St. Stanislaus legend, Kochanek pulled from his pocket his most valuable possession: a gold pocket watch. He offered it for raffle, and the $250 raised became the sum and substance of the new parish treasury. In 1866 the parish’s original 30 families raised $4,000 to purchase a small hand-me-down brick church from the Lutherans at Fifth and Mineral streets in Walker’s Point. They dedicated it to St. Stanislaus, bishop and martyr, and it became the first Catholic church for Milwaukee Poles and the first large parish for Americans of Polish ancestry in the United States.

Along with Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, Milwaukee was on its way to becoming one of the largest centers of Polish settlement in America. Clearly outgrowing the tiny church, the St. Stanislaus congregation purchased land on Mitchell Street and commissioned Leonard Kowalski, an architect from Warsaw, to design a new church. In July 1872, the first bishop of the new Diocese of Milwaukee, Archbishop John Henni, blessed the cornerstone of the present St. Stanislaus Church. Within 10 years of its move to the new church, St. Stanislaus Parish boasted nearly a thousand families. In 1882, St. Stanislaus married 96 couples, and in 1883 alone it recorded an impressive 602 baptisms—an average of nearly a dozen every week. Anchored by “St. Stan’s,” Mitchell Street bloomed as a commercial district dubbed the “Polish Grand Avenue.”

Beginning in the spring of 1960, St. Stanislaus was restored and modernized to celebrate its centennial in 1966. The general structure of the church was excellent, evidence of the sound and careful workmanship of the men who built it. Old and rotten wood was replaced with stone, all mortar between the bricks was ground out, and the entire exterior of the church and towers was tuck-pointed. A new tile roof, copper flashings and gutters were installed. The original 200-foot tall twin towers—each with eight columns, a dome and a 10-foot cross—were removed. At ground level they were constructed of heavy steel covered with quarter-inch welded aluminum, then covered with 23-carat gold leaf. On Sept. 12, 1962, an enormous crane equipped with a special 200-foot boom lifted the stunning golden towers atop St. Stanislaus, where they continue to stand as one of Milwaukee’s most familiar landmarks.