JS: How an inner-city Milwaukee parish thrives with the help of its old friends

It’s a stereotype that dates from the middle of the last century. According to the standard narrative, white families fled the inner city by the thousands, usually in a rush, often in a huff, for what they considered the safer, greener pastures of suburbia. On their infrequent trips back, the exiles watched in horror as familiar landmarks fell, old businesses closed, and their own houses steadily deteriorated. Longstanding ties with the old neighborhood were effectively severed, and former residents looked back, when they looked at all, with a sense of wounded nostalgia.

And then there’s the St. Michael Alumni Association. Its members, some 900 strong, all graduated from the parish school of St. Michael’s Church on N. 24th and W. Cherry streets — a school that closed nearly a half-century ago. Even though they’ve lived elsewhere for most of their lives, the alumni have maintained close ties with each other and, more remarkably, with the parish of their childhoods, providing both moral and material support to a community that bears almost no resemblance to the one they knew when Sister Damian and Monsignor Bernard walked the halls.

Why such impressive fidelity? Part of the reason may lie in the historic strength of the original community. St. Michael’s, whose pencil-thin Gothic spire is still a dominant landmark on Milwaukee’s west side, was founded in 1883, when German families, many of them Catholic, were covering the blocks north and west of downtown with towering duplexes and modest alley houses. St. Michael’s become one of the largest parishes in the archdiocese, with 1,100 households by 1905. More than 99% of them were German by ancestry.
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