St. Stephen Ev. Lutheran Church was founded on July 13, 1854 as “Die Evangelische-Luterische St. Stephanus-Gemeinde” (St. Stephen Evangelical-Lutheran Church). In 2004 St. Stephen’s celebrated 150 years of God’s Grace and including 40 years of ministry among Hispanics. Originally a congregation of mostly German immigrants, now the Divine Service (or Mass) is held in English and Spanish. Today the church is known as “St. Stephen Lutheran Church” or “Iglesia Luterana San Esteban.”
The history of St. Stephen Lutheran Church parallels that of the surrounding community. An area that was once home to cranberry bogs and farms slowly developed during the mid 1880s, due to the influx of German and Scandinavian immigrants, into the Walker’s Point area.
Trinity Lutheran Church downtown (N. 9th St. & W. Highland) discovered the need for a second Lutheran congregation that would serve their members who had homes on the south side of the Menomonee River. In 1853 a mission church was established and in 1854 “Die Evangelische-Luterische St. Stephanus-Gemeinde” was born. St. Stephen Church was organized with members from Trinity and St. John’s congregations. At that time Milwaukee was only 8 years old with a population of 9,000.
In the year previous to the organization of the congregation, a Christian day school was founded in rented quarters of an old abandoned school building on a hill on W. National Ave. between south 3rd and 4th streets. For 3 years Divine Services were also held there. In 1857, the congregation had grown to such an extent that larger quarters were necessary and land was purchased for $650 on the corner of S.5th St. and W. Mineral St. Here a frame church was built for $2,200. The building served the congregation for 9 years. From the very beginning, the Christian Day School held a prominent position in the history of St. Stephen’s. In 1865, a school building was erected next to the new church. The expansion of the school was so rapid that the following year it was necessary to acquire still larger quarters. The old property was sold and the present site was purchased.
Due to the increase in membership there was a need for a larger church. The old frame church was sold to St. Stanislaus Catholic Church for $4,500 and was moved to S. 5th St. and W. Mitchell St. St. Stephen’s purchased land on the north corner of S. 5th and W. Scott Streets for $1,900. In 1866 a church was built for $20,000. Since room had to be provided for the school, the church was elevated and beneath it three classrooms were arranged. In order to hold down the building costs of the new church, the congregation postponed the erection of a church tower including 3 bells and a clock to a later time. After 13 years, in 1879, a stately tower was constructed. On the Fourth Sunday in Advent, 1866, with praise and thanksgiving to God, the new spacious sanctuary was dedicated to His honor. In 1867 an organ was installed in the new church and a new parsonage was built. The church was used for 35 years.
From 1871 to 1879 the membership of St. Stephen increased in such proportions that an assistant pastor was called. Most of the new members were German immigrants, many of them forefathers of our present members. St. Stephen grew to the point that in 1882 the members decided to start a daughter congregation. Land was purchased on S. 16th St. and W. Orchard St. and in 1884, with the transfer of 145 of the voting members, St. Martini Congregation was founded. St. Stephen’s continued to expand and in 1892 it became necessary to enlarge the school. At this time the present school building was built. The school was considered the largest and best equipped school building in the Synodical Conference.
In 1893, foreseeing the inevitable expansion and growth of Milwaukee and the need to provide a spiritual home for many Lutherans, members of St. Stephen’s purchased an acre of land at S. 35th St. and W. Scott St. for the purpose of forming another congregation. In 1894, with approximately 10 members released from St. Stephen’s, Ebenezer Congregation was organized. The members also saw the need for a congregation in the extreme southern part of the city. In 1895 a number of members obtained their release from St. Stephen’s to organize Jehovah Congregation on S. 12th and W. Manitoba St. Later this church moved to S. 28th St. and W. Manitoba St. and was renamed Grace Lutheran Church. Grace has moved again and is now located at S. 30th St. and W. Oklahoma Ave. Members from St. Stephen’s and St. Peter’s also worked together and formed St. Lucas Congregation in Bay View.
The ministry of God’s Word and Sacrament is not in vain. In 1901, the congregation was faced with the necessity of making extensive repairs to the church structure which was built in 1866. After thorough deliberation, it was decided that the only feasible plan was to build a new church. However, since the tower which was constructed in 1879 was still in excellent condition, it was decided to incorporate in onto the new structure. On March 10, 1901 a farewell service was held in the old church and the following day the razing of the building was begun. Just one year, one month and 3 days after the farewell service in the old church, on April 13, 1902, the new church was dedicated. When one considers the size of this building and its solid construction, its architectural beauty and especially its stained glass windows, it is remarkable that it was completed in such a short time. We are privileged to worship in this church up to the present day. The cost of the new church was $43,000. Otto Uehling was the architect. The church building was one of the first steel-masonry churches built in Milwaukee. The present building is actually constructed around the tower and steeple which was built in 1879. The older lighter brick can still be seen in the tower section. In July of 1902 the organ was dedicated. That instrument served to beautify the services for nearly 40 years. At that same time, the spacious two-story brick parsonage was built next door to the church.
The old steeple of 1879 vintage still contains its original four-faced clock which was installed by the E. Howard & Co. of Boston, Mass. About every 8 days, the custodian climbs up into the tower and winds the clock with a hand crank. The present organ was installed in 1941. It is a 3-manual Wangerin organ with 2,100 pipes. The inside of the church was refinished in 1954.
Services were always held in German. During World War I preaching in English began. In 1919, English services were held once each month. In 1922, the members adopted the use of both German and English services each Sunday. It is noteworthy to point out that the first English language service held at St. Stephen’s was led by Rev. Bernhard Sievers at the funeral of retired Milwaukee School Superintendent, Albert E. Kagel, on Nov. 23, 1923.
During the 1930s the local tanneries experienced a shortage of workers. Tannery owners Pfister & Vogel sent representatives to Mexico to find laborers for their processing plants located in the Walker’s Point area. Mexicans arrived at nearly the same pace as the Germans did more than 80 years before. In 1964, the need was recognized to reach out to the growing Spanish-speaking population. Today both English and Spanish masses are held and the Spanish-speaking members come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
During the past 43 years we have seen great changes in the congregation and the surrounding community. The Walker’s Point area is predominantly Hispanic and continues to change as renewal and new developments take place. During the mid-1990s various improvements were made on the church building, including the covering of the stained glass windows with protective storm glass. On May 16, 2004 a special anniversary service was held to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the congregation. In January of the same year the 150th Anniversary project of both the restoration of the organ and the installation of a new organ console was completed.
For more information see St. Stephen Lutheran Church
St. Stephen’s is located in the Historic Walker’s Point neighborhood. Walker’s Point is named after George H. Walker, one of the founders of Milwaukee.
St. Stephen’s Organ is included in the recording Historic Organs of Milwaukee.
(last updated: May 13, 2011)