St. Catherine Parish was founded in 1855. That year, through a donation of land by John P. and Catherine Klehr, a small stone church began to take shape for St. Catherine. It was built under the guidance of Fr. Martin Weiss, pastor at St. Anthony, Fussville (Menomonee Falls) and the first pastor of St. Catherine. It appears that the cornerstone of the structure was laid by Fr. Martin Kundig in May of 1859. He was one of the original “circuit rider” priests who had served the parish.
The parish was named after St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose devotion was rivaled only by that paid to the Blessed Mother. Catherine was one of the “Fourteen Holy Helpers” and devotion to her had been prominent since the middle ages. It is commonly thought that the name was also employed to honor Catherine Klehr, the donor of the church land. On September 12, 1860, (arch)bishop Henni came to formally dedicate the church.
The parish’s first pastors were often the pastor of St. Anthony. When we received our own resident pastor, he was given the responsibility for nearby St. Michael and St. Martin parishes. This continued until each of these parishes closed.
The second pastor of the parish, Fr. Ludwig Mueller, would take the steps necessary for the beginning of the first school here at St. Catherine. Lay teachers taught the children at various times for the first years until the Sisters of St. Agnes from Fond du Lac arrived in the fall of 1872 to take responsibility for the children. The convent that was built above the small school building proved to be ill-suited for the sisters’ health and ministry, yet they persevered until 1901 when they returned to their motherhouse. Lay teachers once again assumed charge of the school.
From 1889 to 1954, the pastors of St. Catherine also had the responsibility of the mission parish of St. James, Mequon. St. James achieved parish status in 1954.
During the tenure of the third pastor, Fr. Charles Shilling, a rectory was built and he took up his duties as the first resident pastor. In 1906, St. Michael Church was closed and the parish members joined St. Catherine.
The parish continued to experience modest growth during its first 50 years with about 60 families participating in the life of the parish. The church held around 150 people. The tower, while modest, could be seen for quite a distance and boasted two bells. These same bells were re-hung in the present church tower and continue to ring to this day.
Since 1860, St. Catherine has also had a cemetery. The original was located just south of the church and served the parish until 1910 when it was decided that the parish needed more land dedicated to the purpose of burying the dead. The new cemetery was laid in 1910-11.
1919 was a difficult year for the parish. It was then that the parish faced its greatest test. A fire broke out because of a defective stove pipe and a good portion of the structure was no longer able to be used. The parish was divided into several factions. Some wanted the old church building repaired. Others saw it as an opportunity to expand the facilities to accommodate the growing population of the area. Plans were formed to enlarge the school with the hope that another teaching religious order might agree to take responsibility for the education of the parish children.
In the end, it was decided to build a new church/school/convent, using as much of the materials of the old building as could be salvaged. The cornerstone for the new building was laid by Archbishop Sebastian Messmer on September 5, 1920. On September 22, 1921, the Rt. Rev. Joseph Rainer, P.A. solemnly dedicated the new building. The altars and statues were installed and the church was finally painted to achieve the look that it had until a renovation took place in the early 1960s. The new building was designed in the Romanesque fashion. A special architectural feature is the loggia, or the porch above the front entrance. It is the only Milwaukee church building with this feature and one of only a few churches whose exterior is all stone.
The decade from 1955-65 was one of incredible growth for the parish. The number of homes built after both the Second World War and the Korean Conflict brought about the annexation of Granville and created a problem within the parish. Both the church and especially the school were too small to accommodate all the persons now joining the parish.
In the early 1960s, it was decided to build a new parish school. The land across the street from the parish was utilized and plans moved forward. A few years later, when the plans were unveiled to extend and widen 76th Street, a new church building was designed that would be attached to the new school. These plans were never implemented. The decision was made to add priests to the parish to allow for the celebration of more Masses and to cover the sacramental needs of the parish.
The problem, however, didn’t easily remedy itself even with the added personnel. As Northridge was built and the farms gradually surrendered to apartment and condominium development, the church building was in need of expansion. The interior of the church, which had been repainted in the early 1960s, was also in poor condition. The decision was made to remodel the church and expand the choir loft, creating additional seating. The resulting renovation removed the side and back altars, and created more space in the sanctuary. The building was adapted to the new liturgical norms promulgated by the Second Vatican Council and the American Bishops conference.
By 1980, there were 1541 families registered in the parish, a huge increase in membership from the 58 families that were registered in 1920. The decade of the 1980s witnessed the growth of many ministries in the church. Lay people were on parish councils and staffed the parishes where before religious women and priests did most of the work with the people.
In 1992, Father Jeff Prasser arrived and plans to renovate the church began again. While the work was being done, daily Mass moved to the Granville Room, one of the two former classrooms. Sunday Eucharist was celebrated in the gym from the first weekend of January to the Easter Vigil.
At the end of the century, plans were developed to completely renovate the parish annex, the former school and convent. The old convent (second floor of the annex) became the new rectory, as the Lannon stone house of 1938 required more repair than it was worth. It was razed and the space was host to a number of plantings and parish prayer labyrinth. Office space was added to the basement of the annex. The two old classrooms were joined together as the new Granville Room. Special needs access and restrooms were also provided to the parish during this renovation. This work was completed in January 2002. A new food pantry was also constructed out of the garage space that was added to the outside of the church in the late 60s.
As Father Jeff was being re-assigned in 2006, he left us with this departing advice. “Let us be proud of our many successes, and continue in our commitment to learn from our failings. Let us move into a future filled with blessings and opportunities. As we have often said together, let the ‘Little Church on the Hill’ continue to be a beacon of hope for many generations to come…Take what we have done in faith for the past years, and create a brighter future for generations of the faithful yet to come.”
In July 2006, Archbishop Timothy Dolan appointed Debra Hintz as parish director of St. Catherine. Parish Director is the title used in the Milwaukee Archdiocese for laity and deacons who lead a parish in place of a priest due to the priest shortage. Two priests served as assisting priests and provided sacramental ministry in the parish.
Since the parish no longer had a resident priest, in May 2007, the parish offices were moved from classrooms in the school to the space on the second floor above the Granville Room.
St. Catherine had its own school as early as 1865. In July 2009, however, St. Catherine School was merged with the schools of Our Lady of Good Hope and St. Bernadette parishes to form Northwest Catholic. The campus is located at Our Lady of Good Hope on 41st and Good Hope Road. In 2016, Northwest Catholic became part of Seton Catholic Schools, a network of schools through the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
In July 2014, the Christian Formation programs of our three parishes also merged, bringing all grade school and high school students together at St. Catherine.
In 2018, the Community Garden was added on the donated property just south of the parish. Its initial offering was 16 raised beds. In 2020, the prayer labyrinth was removed and grass was planted in its place.
In August 2020, Archbishop Jerome Listecki appointed Fr. Joe Jagodensky, SDS as parish administrator of St. Catherine. Parish Administrator is the title used in the Milwaukee Archdiocese for a priest who leads a parish in his first year. We are grateful for Fr. Joe's presence during this time of slowly returning to a post-pandemic level at St. Catherine Parish.
Today our parish has 800 members from approximately 450 families.