IN THE BEGINNING
In 1909 as Milwaukee’s western boundaries grew, Archbishop Sebastian G. Messmer saw the need for a new parish to serve the many German Catholics who were beginning to settle in Milwaukee.
The land to the west was at this point the Pabst farms, where hops were grown for the brewery and the Pabst family had their summer home. In 1892, Frederick Pabst financially backed the laying of the streetcar line up Pabst Avenue (later known as Lloyd Street) to connect the city to his outlying property. It wasn’t long before this area began to develop. The neighborhood was originally part of the Township of Wauwatosa but annexed to Milwaukee by 1924. Although the streetcar line encouraged development before the turn of the century, most of the homes in the Washington Heights were built between 1910 and 1930 by German business owners and blue collar workers.
The land for St. Sebastian was purchased in November 6, 1909. At a meeting of fifteen families, St. Sebastian Parish was established on May 8, 1911. The name St. Sebastian was chosen as the Patron Saint and name of this church to honor Archbishop Sebastian G. Messmer who was the Archbishop of Milwaukee at the time.
Francis C. Kleser was the first priest who celebrated the first Mass on August 15, 1911 in a store flat on 55th & Vliet
Streets, the temporary home of Father Kleser.
GIVING FAITH ROOM TO GROW
During those early years school buildings were built first to attract families. In 1912, school started with 32
students in three classrooms and one living unit for the three School Sisters of Saint Francis teachers.
As the parish grew, the 20 school sisters who taught and lived at Sebastian in a home on the corner of 55th &
Washington Blvd. that was physically ‘moved’ to 54th street just north of the school. Years later the modern
convent was built to accommodate the growing numbers of religious teachers.
While the First World War restricted most construction, the parish was able to build a new larger chapel,
completed in 1919 replacing the old chapel in the basement of the school. This upper chapel was given the
nickname “Victory Top”. The upper chapel eventually became the future auditorium in old school structure. The
people would worship in this space for the next seven years, until 1926.
In 1925 with 750 families now in the parish, the Parish Council decided more space was needed. On October 6, 1929, the Church Cornerstone was laid. Masses were held first in a chapel in the basement of the school, then to a lower church hall as the upper church was being built. St. Sebastian, a French Gothic with American adaptations
was completed in 1930. Archbishop of Milwaukee, Archbishop Stritch dedicated the new church which accommodated 1,100 as his first official act as archbishop.
The church continued to grow even through the World War II and the Great Depression. In 1945, 655 members were listed as serving in the armed forces. In 1956, St. Coletta’s Day School was formed, adding to the ever growing family. With the school bursting at the seams, St. Sebastian needed to expand once again. The new school building opened in 1960 with 22 classrooms, a modern gym, large meeting rooms, and a corridor which led from the church to the school. Student enrollment peaked about 1970 with approximately 1,500 students. To meet the need, the school began to hire lay teachers, including a lay principal.
In 1980, the church interior was refurbished, and the 75th Anniversary of the parish was celebrated by Archbishop Cousins in 1986.
The 1990s, saw changes to the community and enrollment stood at about 375 with 1,250 families active in the parish. Yet a new capital campaign was welcomed in the early 2000s to breathe new life into the historic church. The School Sisters of St. Francis convent was razed to make room major church renovations and what is today the Gathering Space. The parish withstood many changes and continues to be a firm presence across generations for years to come.