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1849 Background

Looking back in history, it is 1849. Wisconsin had been admitted as the 30th state of the Union. Milwaukee, with a population of 18,000 had just three years before officially become a city. The Catholic church had already, in 1843, organized the diocese of Wisconsin, publishing a roster of 20,000 members. This part of the country had become a Mecca for German immigrants seeking a better life. The Church of Milwaukee was growing rapidly under the leadership of Bishop J. Martin Henni, himself a European immigrant.

Bishop Henni had already made several trips to Europe recruiting not only Catholic immigrants, but missionaries to aid in the faith development of these newcomers. In a small rural town of Ettenbeuren, Bavaria, a young pastor, Father Anton Keppeler, and his assistant, Father Mathias Steiger, heard the call and quickly recruited a group of young men and women, already lay members of the Franciscan Third Order, to go with them to America “to build a new and better Ettenbeuren, an Ettenbeuren of saints.” Responding to the invitation to become “missionaries in the new world,” a small band of five men and six women left Ettenbeuren, Bavaria on March 13, 1849, to journey to North America.

Upon arriving in Milwaukee in May of 1849, they settled south of the bay of Lake Michigan on a strip of land known by the native people as “NOJOSHING.” It is here that the women pioneered the beginnings of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi.

Excerpts from: By God’s Providence
copyright: Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi
written by Sister Doris Pehowski, OSF

Our Foundresses’ First Convent

In June of 1849, since “land is a tangible factor in the founding of a church,” land was purchased at Nojoshing, Wisconsin. The first dwellings were log houses approximately sixteen feet long and ten feet wide.

It is not clear if the cabins were already on the land, or hastily erected.

“Almost at once the building of a suitable dwelling was begun. The Sisters helped by carrying building material, tacking on brushwood used in lieu of laths, and rooting out stumps.” (New Assisi)  Fr. Keppeler writes “by the beginning of December, when winter really set in, we had erected a building sixty feet long and fourteen feet wide-in short, a sixty-foot quadrangle [enclosing a courtyard with a well in the center], as well as a church thirty-five feet long and twenty-two feet wide, with a tower sixty feet high. Each sister has her cell, ten feet long and seven feet wide.” (CFH, p 52)   Our Foundresses little Convent was built on a bluff because a cold spring of clear water below in Deer Creek was available in supplying good drinking water.

After 1861 the house was vacated and left to its slow decay. Deer Creek, on the south side of the bridge, was flooded every fall. The plentiful ice blocks were hauled every winter up the slope, where the first Convent stood, to the road, to the ice-house. That very act destroyed the very foundation of the first little Motherhouse. The well-built chapel survived the original 1849 building and was added to the 1861 building. (New Assisi Archives)

The Assisium, located on our convent grounds, is a replica of the first convent building built in 1849. It is a quiet place to go on a warm summer day. A statue of St. Anthony watches over its quiet beauty from the center courtyard, where the original well would have been.

1888 Addition

With the increase in membership, new buildings were needed. Though money was scarce, Mother Antonine, in her business like way, did not hesitate to have blueprints made for enlarging the convent.

No addition had been built since 1861, so it was an eventful occasion when the cornerstone for the new wing was laid October 2, 1887.

When the new building of 1888 was completed it contained:

•On the first floor: 2 parlors, 1 parlor with bedroom, kitchen, 2 pantries.
•On the 2nd floor: Mother General’s room, the secretary’s office, the Sick Room, and across from the sick room to the East, was the Novitiate and a classroom.
•On the 3rd floor: the temporary chapel, south of it towards the west was the sacristy and a music room; to the north, two dormitories and an invalid’s room.

The building of 1861 was renovated and remodeled. Two hallways connected the 1888 building with the earlier 1861 building, as they still do today. The original and primitive chapel was torn down. In 1894 the cornerstone for the new chapel was laid.

Excerpts from:
A New Assisi, page 114
“A Glance into the Wonderful Past” from The New Assisi Archives (Box 4).

St. Francis Chapel

The old chapel of the first sisters, too small to accommodate the increasing membership, and because of its dilapidated condition, was torn down, and a spacious room on the third floor of the new 1888 building served as a temporary chapel. As this, too, became crowded, it necessitated the planning for a larger convent chapel.

The cornerstone was laid July 19, 1894 and the chapel was dedicated on August 2, 1895. The chapel is built in the form of a cross in gothic architecture. The main altar and side altars are made of red oak richly carved. The pews, carved in the same style as the gallery and the communion railing as well as the doors, are noteworthy for their beautiful carving. The pipe organ was of modern style for its time.

The windows were imported from Innsbruck in 1898. In 1910 the finishing touch was made by adding stations of the cross, designed specifically for the chapel by Carl Walter, of Germany. A Chaplain’s residence was added to the east side, which is now the Adoration Chapel. (In 1944 a petition was sent to the war department and permission was granted for the remodeling of this wing. In 1947 The Adoration Chapel was completed.)

In 1921 the chapel was redecorated and confessionals added. A modern ventilation system was installed and a plaster board ceiling was placed on the chapel attic. Wooden floors of the sanctuary and aisles were replaced by terrazzo and tile. Electrical lamp fixtures were added, donated by the students of Saint Mary’s Academy. Reliquaries were added over the years. In 1941 the first pipe organ of 1895 was replaced.

In 1957 the chapel was redecorated with marble communion rail, improved lighting, a large cross suspened by invisible wiring from the ceiling of the front center sanctuary, repainting and refinishing. Further changes were made in 1965/66 with changes brought about by Vatican II. “…this combination of the old and new in St. Francis Chapel can easily be the subject of meditations. Conforming to the new regulations regarding the liturgy, yet making use of the old altars and combining the best of both in a thing of beauty, we have a practical example of what Mother Church is attempting to do today.”

The original chapel bell, St. Clare, of 1850 was blessed on Oct 4th. This bell hangs in our present bell tower and rings at many ceremonies. (New Assisi Archives)

Entrance to St. Francis Convent

“Carl Wyland’s Franciscan masterpiece in bronze. He and his assistants created this work, commissioned from America, in 4000 working hours. Around the figure of St. Francis, whose head forms the dominating center of the composition, stand the docile examples of his belief, his word and God Vision. The work is being displayed in St. Michael Church, Brusseler Place, until January 18 (1956).

In January, this masterpiece of the Cologne master blacksmith, Carl Wyland, will set out on its journey to Milwaukee, in the state of Wisconsin, USA. There German handworkers will piece together the 5 meter wide and 8 meter high metal framed legend in the middle of the green marble facade of the two steeple flanked convent of the Franciscan sisters.

A large diagonal composition blends in with the outline of the artwork. Here we do not have depicted the community member, struggling with the three vows, but rather each figure, which is bathed in the sun and is in oneness with God’s creation, feeling closer to the light of pure knowledge. So, as is depicted here, lives the holy one of Assisi, the father of the lesser brothers, companion of the lepers and outcasts, the comrade of all creatures in the awareness of the faithful.

The technical and formal production is of the highest level. Only a few in Germany still master these perfect and lovely wrought-iron techniques. Wyland simplified the stylized representation so far as seemed justified and necessary for his technique. The outlines and peripheral curves are definitely marked out, their harmonizing freedom of movement and rhythm form a skillful silhouette. Human figure, animals, foliage and shrubbery reveal intrinsic symbolism; idea, composition and form combine to form visual memory, a genuine effect of higher artistic performance. Orders for such art are clearly no more to be placed in Cologne. Too bad!”

Francis Preaches to the Animals
Wyland’s Bronze masterpiece for the Milwaukee Franciscans,
From a Cologne, Germany newspaper, 1956.
Translated from the German by Sr. Serena Halfmann, OSF–6/29/1995.