Why Milwaukee Loves Church Festivals

Oct 19, 2018

For this week’s Bubbler Talk — our series where you ask, we investigate and together we unveil the answers — we look at church festivals in Milwaukee and why we love them. This all started with a question from curious community member Miguel Rivera.

“Are church festivals (mostly Catholic) only popular in Milwaukee? People from out of state always seem surprised by them.”

He’s been going to Catholic church festivals in Milwaukee since he was a kid. He recalls looking forward every year to the festival put on by his home parish, St. Ignatius on 36th and Mitchell streets.

“It was about knowing everybody’s parents, everybody watched out for each other and then as you got older, it was the beer and the music, the raffles and the games," he says. "It was just the comfort of being around a festival and that was something I always enjoyed.”

Miguel Rivera joined us at the St. Gregory the Great Catholic church festival to help answer the question he submitted to Bubbler Talk.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

While these festivals are the norm for Miguel, they may not be for others. For some of his friends who’ve visited him in Milwaukee, Miguel says a “church festival” is a new experience for them.

But to answer Miguel's question: no, church festivals aren’t just a Milwaukee thing. You can find them across the country. However, our festivals have some unique features.

A big draw at the early fall festival at St. Gregory the Great Catholic church on the south side is fish fry. The traditional fare includes beer battered cod, French fries, cole slaw, rye bread and tartar sauce. Dick Greenwald says he’s been coming here for 25 years and the dinner is his favorite feature.

Attendees of a recent festival at St. Gregory's enjoy their fish fry, a common meal at church festivals in Milwaukee.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

“Fish fry, it’s really good," Greenwald says. "And tomorrow night they’ve got ribs and we’ll be back for that. And, just the games out there too, we have fun walking around.”

St. Greg’s hosts one of the city’s longest-standing church festivals, dating back to the 1960s. Like dozens of others throughout the summer, it features beer tents, live music, rides and a raffle. Jay Unora is chairman of the festival. He says it plays an important financial role for the church, as proceeds go toward helping its members.

“It allows us to support many of the different organizations, Boy Scout, Cub Scout and Girl Scout troops, the Youth Ministry," Unora adds. "We have all sorts of different programs with the church, and this money helps us to do those programs better. Without the festival, what we raise here for funds just wouldn’t be there.”

Danielle Milone lets Tylo Kirby know she wants to play another round of a game at a recent St. Gregory's church festival.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

The Milwaukee Archdiocese has nearly 200 parishes throughout southeastern Wisconsin. Spokeswoman Amy Grau says about one-quarter of them host festivals in summer and fall. She says the free festivals have become a Milwaukee tradition, and the future looks bright.

“There have been so many parishes within the Archdiocese that have had festivals for years and years, huge, and they just keep getting bigger and bigger," Grau says. "So, I don’t see them going away and I don’t see them changing too much because people like them exactly how they are. That’s why they’ve lasted the test of time.”

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