St. Mary's Parish, the Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was established in 1848 under the patronage of St. Ambrose. It was organized by 16 pioneer families and was the first parish in the area. Until a church building was erected in 1851, visiting priests held services in homes.
Mother Caroline Friess, SSND
Mother Caroline Friess of the Poor School Sisters of Notre Dame of Munich, Bavaria, arrived in Milwaukee on December 15, 1850. A new church for the parish of St. Ambrose was built on two acres at the corner of Highland and Gebhardt Roads. It was a 24’ x 34’ log structure. The land was donated to the Diocese of Milwaukee for a church and cemetery.
In 1855, Mother Caroline Friess set out from Milwaukee’s motherhouse of the School Sisters of Notre Dame to search for a suitable site for a convent, rest home, and orphanage in Watertown. The tale is she was stopped by a balky horse on Watertown Plank Road at the intersection of what is now Juneau Boulevard in Elm Grove. She saw this as a sign from God that here was the site she sought. The owners of a farm at that site sold 20 acres to the sisters and later bequeathed the remaining 280 acres to the Order.
Brick and Mortar
Construction began on a convent and orphanage for girls in 1858. A small house with a field stone base became the first school. Local farmers’ children and children from the orphanage attended. One room of the school was a makeshift church for St. Ambrose parishioners. Later in the year, the School Sisters of Notre Dame chapel in the convent was used as the parish church and was named Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was blessed as the parish church on August 15, 1859. St. Mary’s School was now moved to one room in the convent. Later two rooms would be used. This was St. Mary’s School until 1913.
In 1868, a church named Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was built on the convent property at 13105 Watertown Plank Road and dedicated by Bishop John Henni. It was primarily a chapel for the convent and orphanage. The people of Elm Grove were allowed to use it as their parish church “for the time being”. “Time being” stretched to almost 60 years. Membership in the church numbered about forty families. In that same year, the Visitation Cemetery was begun near the SSND cemetery. In 1870, the cemetery was deeded to the parish.
In 1886, a parsonage was built north of Watertown Plank Road as living quarters and office space for the resident priest. Five years later, the church was enlarged to accommodate ninety parish families and a steeple was added. At that time, St. Mary’s School had 54 students plus the girls from the orphanage.
Mother Caroline Friess died and was buried at the SSND convent graveyard in Elm Grove in 1892. Back in 1860, she had appealed to King Ludwig I of Bavaria for financial support. He agreed and in 1898, the “castle” was built east of the convent and featured a chapel based on Bavarian King Ludwig’s ballroom and a six story winding staircase. It also included a heating plant, a rooftop cistern and electric lights. A kitchen on the ground level was connected via tunnels to farm buildings.
In 1913, St. Mary’s Parish School was built on Juneau Boulevard. It has two classrooms on the first floor and an auditorium on the second floor. First through third grades were in one room, grades four-eight in the other room. Two nuns taught all of the children. White wooden outhouses were located about fifty yards behind the school; boys to the east and girls to the west.
Growth and Service
The convent property church served St. Mary’s until after World War I when expansion of the convent made it necessary to relocate the church. The second floor auditorium of the 1913 school served as St. Mary’s Parish church while the Visitation Church was being torn down and the little church on the triangle property was being built. The “Triangle Church” as it was often referred to, had two bells and a pipe organ to replace the reed organ used earlier. The cornerstone from the 1868 Visitation Church was included in the foundation of the little church. It was dedicated on November 22, 1922 by Archbishop Sebastian Messmer. Visitation Church and the original convent were replaced by a 5-story structure, Marianum. This housed the retired ambulatory sisters and was later named Visitation Convent.
In 1924, after converting the auditorium of the 1913 school into two needed classrooms, it became a four-room school. The basement of the little church was opened as a social hall. In 1927 the white wooden outhouses behind the school were replaced by red brick ones.
During the 1940’s the SSND orphanage closed. Several new classrooms and indoor plumbing were added to the school. By 1947 the school had 8 rooms and an enrollment of 235 students. The school got its first school bus, which was donated. The driver was Assistant Pastor Fr. Arens.
School population climbed to 510 students in the 1950’s and again additional classrooms were added. The last year that the little church was used as the parish church was 1953. However, it continued to serve for overflow crowds, weddings and funerals until 1960. In 1954, a new basement church with 600 seats opened on Crescent Drive. Cardinal Albert Meyer dedicated Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church and School on November 21. Parish families numbered around 1450. In 1958 Fr. Francis Paulus became the fifteenth resident pastor.
Construction on the St. Mary’s junior high school building was completed in 1962. Enrollment was approximately 1300 students who were taught by 20-25 teaching nuns and lay teachers. Some classes held 60 students. In March of this year, the Christian Women organized the Thrift Shop. The present St. Mary's Church was built in 1963 with seating for 1200. The St. Mary’s convent house was built to house 25 sisters serving the parish. In 1967 the rectory and administration building was added northeast of the church.
Monsignor Joseph Emmenegger became the sixteenth resident pastor of St. Mary’s Visitation Parish on April 2, 1974. At the end of the decade the old 1913 St. Mary’s School was torn down. In 1980 the gym and Senior Center were built on the site, moving the Thrift Shop from the old school building to the old triangle church.
Our Lady of Grace
In 1983, the parish numbered 1,500 families and celebrated its 135th Anniversary. In 1985, perpetual prayer and worship in the Adoration Chapel began on October 7, 1985. “Our Lady of Grace”, the Statue of Mary, was dedicated on May 1st, 1988.
Space for Additional Ministries
In 1991, parish households numbered about 1,500 families and school enrollment was at 235 students. Fr. Daniel Pakenham became the seventeenth resident pastor on June 13, 1992. In 1998, St. Mary’s Parish celebrated its 150th year on June 7th. "The Song of Mary" was commissioned for this celebration. In the fall of this year, the church and school renovations were completed.
The Thrift Shop moved from the little church to the first floor of the St. Mary’s convent house in 2002. During the summer of 2004, construction began on the second floor of the old convent building for a new youth center named the ATTIC (Area Teens Together In Christ). The first annual Fun Run/Walk began to benefit youth programs and activities.
In January of 2009, Fr. Daniel Pakenham, pastor for 18 years, passed away after battling several health issues. His legacy includes the school entrance addition and the splendid Atrium, a place where parishioners can gather before and after Masses, a place where formation and hospitality are offered, a place of beauty where people can share their lives and faith.
Fr. Laurin Wenig, then the temporary administrator, had been named Administrator of the parish and subsequently was named Pastor. In February of 2011, Fr. Wenig went on administrative leave and Deacon Richard Piontek was named as temporary Parish Director. On July 1, 2012, Fr. Peter Berger was appointed the new administrator of St. Mary’s Visitation Parish, and became Pastor in 2015.
Faith in our Future
As the parish and school begin to enter a new phase of ecclesial life, we continue to rely upon the energy, faith, and goodwill of our 1450 families to build a future that is established upon a firm foundation. In prayer, in committees, in organizations, in all the many ways that God extends that endless divine love and Spirit, the people of St. Mary’s Visitation move on with confidence toward the future.