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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

The History Of Milwaukee's South Side Churches

 Basilica of St. Josaphat
The Basilica of St. Josaphat on Milwaukee's south side.

There are a lot of churches on Milwaukee’s south side. Driving down I-94, those churches dot the city's skyline with their steeples and walking around, you’ll find several churches within blocks of each other.

Those houses of worship are part of what the south side is known for, but how did all these churches come to be? That's the question someone submitted to Bubbler Talk.

It all started at the turn of the 20th century when immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe arrived in Milwaukee. Many of them settled on the city’s south side and from Polish to German and Italian immigrants, each of these communities wanted a place where they could practice their religion in ways that reaffirmed their ethnic heritage and identity.

Chris Cantwell, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says the immigration of people from Europe to the United States changed the way churches were formed.

“The history of American religion really is a history of immigration,” he explains. “The Catholic Church in America had to deal with this diversity that it didn't have before. It led to the creation of an entirely new form of parish that was known as the national parish, where parishioners of a particular geographic origin or ethnic identity would all worship at a place that identified as being the Italian parish or the Polish parish and places like that.”

For many immigrants, the church was a place where they could practice their religion, find solidarity within their community and make their presence known in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Public Library
Exterior view during the construction of the Basilica of St. Josaphat in 1898.

“Oftentimes you would talk about not what neighborhood you were from but what parish you're from. That’s how strongly these churches would organize space in urban areas,” says Cantwell.

While there are a lot of churches on the south side, Milwaukee’s experience is similar to other cities across the Midwest.

“The presence of factories brought immigrants from across Europe and eventually across the globe who, by and large, lived near those factories in an era when there weren't cars and highways,” says Cantwell. “These were very much walking cities where you would walk to work and you would walk to church.”

The demographics of Milwaukee’s south side has changed over the years and the area is now known by many to be the heart of the city’s Latino community. Some of the churches that were originally built by European immigrants are no longer being used as a place of worship, but to Cantwell, they are still an important part of the south side’s history.

“The church buildings and religious landscapes are intimately a part of the urban landscape. Even when we don't notice them and even when these buildings are gone, their kind of presence and importance to the community can still be around," he says.

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In 2021, Simone Cazares was WUWM's Eric Von Broadcast Fellow. She later became a WUWM reporter.
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