One hundred years ago, Milwaukee resident Farrel Reilly paid a construction team $100 to build a one-room structure in a single day on what is now the southeast corner of North Maryland Avenue and East Capitol Drive.
Reilly did not tell them what it would be used for, and it was only that evening that the community realized what he was building, when he added the final piece himself: a small wooden cross for the first .
“I couldn’t risk being stopped before it was done,” he told the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1954, according to St. Robert's records, because the community was not supportive of having a church constructed on such a small budget.
Four pastors later, the St. Robert Parish has grown into a powerful presence in the community, celebrating its centennial by opening its doors to the public for various events, and reflecting on its past.
“The doors have always been open to everyone, but I think sometimes you have to make a special invitation,” Joan End, a member of the centennial committee, said.
The parish will kick off the centennial celebrations 3 p.m. on Feb. 12 with a lecture from Milwaukee historian John Gurda about the development of Shorewood and the east side. The event will be free and open to the public at St. Robert.
“It’s our roots; it explains how we evolved and chose this location,” End said. “I think when you move forward, you learn from the past.”
The School as the foundation
The first year for the parish was a muggy, muddy one in the bare structure, with wooden apple crates nailed together for an alter.
Over the next two years, parishioners fundraised enough money to construct in 1914 the $25,000 church that still stands, and the school opened in 1915.
In surviving 100 years through a great depression and downward trends in church attendance, St. Robert Historian Margaret Sankovitz said the school has been key, providing a loyal base of families through several generations.
The importance of the school can be traced back to Reilly, who when faced with a choice between funding improvements to the church or the school, chose the school.
“If necessary, I can say masses in a vacant lot,” Reilly said, according to a compilation of the parish’s history. “But without the school, there might come a day when there would be few to attend the Masses.”
From the original enrollment of 43 students, the school grew to about 1,100 in 1964, according to Sankovitz. In the 70s, enrollment began to decline, Sankovitz said, as families began to view church attendance and religious education as being a more optional part of Christianity.
"In the 40s, the feeling was if there was a Catholic school available, your child should be at it," Sankovitz, who attended St. Robert in the 40s and later sent her children there, said. "In the 70s, those guidelines were not enforced as closely as they had been. Catholics are the largest population in Milwaukee, but that doesn’t mean they go to church."
However, Sankovitz said the school has experienced a recent resurgence in interest. Enrollment this year is 357, a 20 percent increase from five years ago.
She credited the school for ever-expanding what it offers, now utilizing a media lab and multiple language courses.
"It’s not silent like it was when I was in school," Sankovitz said. "There’s just kind of a hum. There's a lot of interaction between teacher and student, and it’s bright and cheerful."
End said she hopes St. Robert will be a little louder and brighter this year, with more of the community coming through the parish for their centennial events.
"We'd like to share the church with the whole community," End said.