Greenfield - You might say that St. John the Evangelist Church, 8500 W. Cold Spring Road, is celebrating being 100 years young.
Unlike some centenarians, St. John's is not a stick in the mud, all set in its ways. It's growing at a time when many Catholic parishes are languishing, and it is robust with activity.
Going against the usual way of things has been the usual way of St. John's for 100 years.
For example, Catholic congregation met in a former Jewish synagogue for its first half century. That little synagogue had made a place for itself in the hearts of the congregation by the time it built its own building in 1968. The synagogue on 9th and Mineral streets in Milwaukee was lovingly enshrined in a corner of the big stained glass window in the front of the new church, right below St. John and the three other writers of the Christian gospels.
On to the bar
During the year and a half the new church was under construction, the solemn sounds of Mass being said were intoned in a bar. A highway project had taken the congregation's synagogue home and church officials desperately cast about for a place to hold services.
The answer came from an unexpected corner. A parishioner volunteered his Mellody Bar on Highway 100 and Layton Avenue. So, every week the bar tables were cleared away and chairs set out in rows for Sunday Mass.
"They were very happy to have a place to worship," said Aggie Rosenau, a 43-year parishioner and self-proclaimed church archivist as well as former parish council member and religious education director. But the bar had its drawbacks, she said.
Thelma Walker, former parishioner, recalls worshiping at the Mellody Bar: “I’ll never forget the smell of stale beer and smoke as we entered," she is quoted as saying in a church history. "I always wondered what people thought seeing our five children going into a bar at 9:00 on Sunday morning.”
Rosenau had to laugh when she reflected, "How many congregations worshiped in a synagogue and a bar?"
They were determined
It shows a resilient congregation that was open-minded and determined, she said. Determined they were, and from the very beginning.
St. John came about because immigrants from Slovenia were determined to found a church where they could worship in their own language, Rosenau said. Slovenia is a Central European country on the Adriatic Sea bordered on the south by Italy and on the north by Austria. It is now known for its mountains, ski resorts and lakes.
The congregation was heavily Slovenian for its first 40 years, with Slovenian heard at all church events, Rosenau said. A small portion of the bulletin also was written in Slovenian until 1992, she said.
While the congregation is much more diverse now, Gail Peters, 100th anniversary event coordinator and a parish council member, said the Slovenians sing beloved hymns of their homeland every Sunday. While people come just to hear those hymns, sometimes they do more than that.
"Some actually go up to the choir loft and sing with them," Peters said.
Most people know St. John's for its huge parish festival with rides and games and music, she said. Jerome Kowalski was festival chairman for 25 years. The festival, that started in 1968, is not only fun for the whole community, but it raises money for the parish and its charitable activities. Other revenue comes from renting out the soccer fields on church land, said Kowalski, a member of the parish council for 25 years.
Kowalski also heads the parish' very active St. Vincent de Paul Society that cares for people in need in this area.
"People would be surprised at the needs in Greenfield," he said.
One time, the society came to the rescue of a mother and daughter who were about to be put out their apartment because they fell behind on the rent. They both had physical problems and their situation came down to dealing with those problems or paying the rent.
Although they were behind by a large amount, the St. John's chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society helped them over their rough patch by paying the arrears and putting them square with the landlord.
"We were happy to do it," Kowalski said. "The mother was in that complex for 40 years, imagine how bad she would feel if she had to be put out."
Vet in need
Another time, the society came to the aid of a veteran who had an apartment in Greenfield with nothing but a mattress on the floor -- no television, no couch.
Society members went shopping with him at the new St. Vincent de Paul store on Highway 100 in Greenfield. Now his home is a real home.
While the St. Vincent de Paul Society helps individual needs in Greenfield, the church covers everyone with prayer, night and day, every day, and it has done so since 1983. St. John's has a perpetual adoration committee that organizes volunteers who pledge to come to church to pray for an hour. Even in the dark hours of the night, someone is at St. John's praying for good. About 150 faith-filled people are needed to fill the required hours. They have been found for 33 years.
St. John's has grown by 150 families in only the last four years, going against the trends in most mainstream churches.
There were varying views as to why that is. Some said it might be the school that opened in 1969 to give a strong religious education encouraging children to grow in their faith.
Rosenau speculated that people might be looking for the more traditional kind of approach that St. John's offers.
"I think young adults are looking for something more conservative and we are more conservative than a lot of parishes," Rosenau said. By conservative she said the worship service still employs incense and and rings bells at communion. Then, there is the perpetual adoration, she said.
"It has a lot to do with Father Michael," offered Kowalski, referring to the Rev. Michael Merkt, priest of St. John's.
"He's a wonderful leader," agreed Peters. "People want to work for him."
And then it could be all the ways people can grow in their faith and use it to help others, Peters said.
There are study groups for all ages, the church brings in speakers, there are bus tours, an annual blood drive, members make things for young mothers to use for their babies, and they make meals for the needy. Soon the Giving Tree will go up and members will buy Christmas presents for the needy.
On Saturday, the annual craft fair will be held and there will be a rummage sale in April.