OAK CREEK — Members of St.Stephen Parish in Milwaukee started talking about building a new church in 2001.
This fall, those words will become mortar and stone as construction is completed on their new worship home at 13th Street and Oakwood Road in Oak Creek.
Designed to reflect the church’s rich German history while incorporating modern elements, the nearly 27,000 square foot building will be dedicated by Bishop Richard J. Sklba at the 11 a.m. Mass on Nov. 22. The church, set on a 15-acre parcel, will boast a larger worship space, fellowship hall and kitchen, office space, room for its thriving Family Life Center, offer first floor restrooms and will be handicap accessible.
“The entire process has gone slower than anticipated,” said Alice Pyzik, chairperson of the building committee. “The project was on hold for a few years because we were not able to sell the property and we needed that money to begin building. Finally, in 2006, we decided that rather than just waiting for things to happen, we would go back to the archdiocese and look for a smaller redesign. With a new budget, we knew we could begin and have faith that the property would sell – and it did.”
After its decommissioning service Nov. 29, the current property at 5880 S. Howell Ave., will become the site of two hotels. According to Pyzik, the hotels seem appropriate for the property located near the end of the runway of Mitchell International Airport.
“The company who bought the property are very good stewards and the hotels will look nice here,” she said, adding, “Besides, Milwaukee needs more space for people attending conventions and the hotels will provide much needed jobs.”
Church founded by German immigrants
The church dates to 1847 and was founded by German immigrants from the Cathedral of St. Stephen in Cologne, Germany. Fires caused minimal damage in 1884 and 1906, but a third fire in 1927 leveled it. In April 2008, lightning struck and damaged the steeple and bell tower.
As the communities around the church have developed, and other parishes shuttered, membership at St. Stephen has grown to more than 900 families. According to Pyzik, three options emerged from strategic planning the parish did a dozen years ago: merge with another parish, close or relocate.
“The archdiocese wanted another presence in Oak Creek due to the growth in the community,” she said. “And we did a demographic study at that point and found that two thirds of our parish were from Oak Creek.”
|St. Stephen Parish
Sunday, Nov. 22, 11 a.m
Bishop Richard J. Sklba officiating
1441 W. Oakwood Road
Oak Creek, WI 53154
For more information on the
Family Life Center
Contact Debby Pizur
Moving the parish to its first residential home will be welcoming for the many parishioners and visitors unable to attend Mass or other events due to a lack of handicap accessibility. Pyzik anticipates resurgence in attendance among many wheelchair-bound members, including her mother who has not attended since suffering a stroke.
“Once in a while we had a mom with a child in a wheelchair and the ushers would always help to carry her up the stairs,” she said. “But for most, including my mom, they had to find parishes that were accessible for them. It is very sad for the people – not only are they going through trying times, but they are cut off from the group that they were socializing with. Whenever we had dinners or other events, it was very heartbreaking to know that those who couldn’t climb the stairs could not attend.”
Church will eventually seat 1,000
The new church will seat 600 initially and eventually will have the capability to seat 1,000. A reservation chapel will have chairs for 40 people and will be used for daily Mass and Tuesday evening Mother of Perpetual Help devotions.
The majority of the $8.3 million in building expenses was covered by the sale of church property. Additionally, funds from a capital campaign were enough to pay most of the debt.
While it took several years to get the project underway, once construction commenced in January, it went quite quickly, with only a few major challenges, such as working around two wetlands on the property and putting in two detention ponds rather than the one initially expected.
“This was not outrageously fast, but manageable,” said Joe Yanisak, superintendant for CG Schmidt, General Contractors for the church. “We are very pleased with the way everything is turning out and for the most part, the feedback has been very favorable.”
Building will have modern, but Gothic appearance
To incorporate history into the new structure several elements from the current building will be included in the new, giving it a modern, but Gothic appearance. According to Pyzik, the Groth Design Group, architects for the project worked diligently to retain historical presence in the new building.
Most of the stained glass in the current St. Stephen is simply painted glass, but the single large stained glass window of St. Stephen often goes unnoticed by visitors to the parish as it is placed over the doors in the church vestibule.
“Most people didn’t even know it was there,” said Pyzik. “People would focus on the priest or the parking lot and didn’t see it. Now, in our new parish, it will be placed underneath a pedestal where we have the cornerstone from the first building located. Now more people will be able to see it.”
Incorporating the 23-foot hand-carved reredos or back altar into the reservation chapel is the single largest challenge, according to Yanisak.
“That piece is a priceless, very unique, large piece of work and we will have to dismantle it and load it onto a truck,” he said. “We will have to make some slight modifications and reassemble it into the new building.”
Other accoutrements such as parts of the Communion rail, statuary, tabernacle, and podium will be moved and installed in the new church.
“We are also taking the Stations of the Cross from the existing facility and installing them in the new church with a few slight modifications,” said Yanisak.
Time capsule from original structure found
One of the more interesting discoveries occurred after opening the original cornerstone and time capsule from the original structure, no easy feat for construction workers, admitted Pyzik, who added that the job was a hot and difficult one for the men who removed the stone.
“We found a scroll wrapped in a rosary in there that we couldn’t get open because of water damage from the original fire that leveled the building,” she said. “But we found coins from the year the church was built and several local German newspapers. We put everything back in
the original box and then inside a new box that will be on display. You can even view the fire line on the original box.”
The second cornerstone and the one from the current building will be contained in a time capsule containing photos, a history book, cookbook, parish roster, coins minted this year, and a few other items.
“We have room to put a number of things in there,” she said. “So we are still trying to come up with a few things, such as information about our dedication day and photos.”
Although the original St. Stephen had a school, that now houses the Family Life Center, the new facility will allow for expansion and, according to director, Debby Pizur, the organization will be able to serve additional people each month.
Family Life Center mission remains
The Family Life Center mission remains part of outreach to Southeastern Milwaukee County. FLC collaborates with charitable organizations in the area and has formed partnerships with Cudahy, St. Francis, Franklin and Oak Creek public libraries.
“Once in the new location we will hold our two annual community parties, The Great Pumpkin Party and the Easter Bunny Bash,” she said. “We will continue our children’s clothing bank and food pantry, but the days and time might change after the move.”
While it plans to continue its mission, Pizur is hopeful that a new area of ministry will grow with the new location and greater space allotment.
“I do know that being in a handicap accessible building will open up new opportunities for us to have activities for senior citizens or people with disabilities,” she said. “But we do know that not all our friends, volunteers and customers will be involved with us once we move, but we are looking forward to making new friends. I welcome anyone to contact me at the FLC if they are interested in partnering with us.”