History and Archives

The first services of the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin were held near Green Bay in 1821 by the Oneida Indians, recent immigrants from New York State where they had been confirmed by Bishop John Henry Hobart.

Accompanying them on their move from New York was Eleazar Williams, their teacher, lay reader, and catechist, later ordained deacon by Bishop Hobart. (A note of interest: Williams gained national and international attention by his claim to be the lost dauphin of France, which was investigated and highly publicized, but never verified.)

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, MilwaukeeIn 1838 St. Paul's was the first parish founded in Milwaukee and the third in Wisconsin. Before that was Christ Church, Green Bay (1826), and Holy Trinity, Prairie du Chien (1837).

Williams read services from the Mohawk Book of Common Prayer at gatherings held under trees or in Oneida homes until 1825 when a crude log chapel was erected. This building was known as the first Episcopal church edifice in Wisconsin, and was also the first non-Roman Catholic church in the state.

The first official missionary work was begun in 1829 by the Rev. Richard Fish Cadle, who labored for 15 years to establish Episcopal parishes amongst the settlers in Wisconsin. He held the first services and helped found parishes at Prairie du Chien (1837), Mineral Point (1839), Elkhorn (1841), and Whitewater (1841), as well as numerous other places.

The first services in Milwaukee were conducted by the Rev. Henry Gregory in January 1836. By 1838 there was a permanent mission which was to become St. Paul's Church of Milwaukee. Some other early churches in the Diocese of Milwaukee include St. Matthew's, Kenosha (1840); St. Paul's, Beloit (1841); St. Luke's, Racine (1842); and St. Alban's, Sussex (1842).

In 1838 the Territory of Wisconsin came under the jurisdiction of the Rt. Rev. Jackson Kemper, the first missionary bishop of the American Church, who later wrote that seeking "pilgrim children in the Land of Lakes and Rivers" was a task dear to his heart.

In 1847 he called the 25 congregations, 23 clergy, and 57 lay deputies of the territory to St. Paul's, Milwaukee, to hold their organizing convention -- no small task at a time when there were poor roads and no overnight accommodations along the way. At that time Bishop Kemper accepted election as provisional bishop. (In 1859 he relinquished his missionary duties and became the first bishop of Wisconsin.)

At this first convention of the Episcopal Diocese in Wisconsin, several Oneida Indian members were present, including Chief Daniel Bread, who was given the seat of honor and addressed the convention in the Oneida language.

In light of the 2000 "Called to Common Mission" statement, giving full communion to the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran Churches in America, a unique and important event also took place at this 1847 convention. Two Lutheran churches from Waukesha were present, having been accepted into full union with the Diocese of Wisconsin by Bishop Kemper. St. Olaf's, Ashippun, and Scandinavian Parish, Pine Lake (Nashotah Village), fully intended to remain Lutheran, while having a full union relationship with their Episcopal neighbors. The Rev. G. Unonius accompanied the parishes. Scandinavian-born and the first graduate of Nashotah House, this Episcopal priest went on to found both Episcopal and Lutheran congregations in Wisconsin. In the book from which this history is taken, author Wagner states, "Here we have recorded one of the most unusual and singular facts in the history of the American Church. If this is not the only incident of its kind in the American Church, it is a rare one -- two congregations who announce their purpose of remaining Lutheran in doctrine and practice, and yet are being ministered to by an Episcopalian priest and are in full union with an Episcopalian diocese."

The second convention was held the following year at Trinity Church, Janesville, at which time the diocesan assessment system was started, collecting a total of $109.41 to help defray diocesan expenses.

Early in his episcopate, Kemper realized that the future of the church in this area was dependent upon the ability to supply it with clergy. In 1842 three young graduates of General Theological Seminary in New York, James Lloyd Breck, William Adams, and John Henry Hobart Jr., came west to Wisconsin. It was their intention to establish a monastic community and a school from which they would continue the missionary work of Cadle and Kemper. It soon became apparent, however, that the idea of a religious community would have to be abandoned in order to concentrate efforts on the development of a theological seminary. Such were the beginnings of Nashotah House, the oldest institution of higher learning in Wisconsin, which continues to this day as one of the major seminaries of the church.

The Rev. James DeKoven, warden of Racine College (Racine, Wisconsin) from 1859 to 1879, was an eloquent and powerful defender of the catholic faith at the General Conventions of 1871 and 1874, and as Wagner states, "not only was he easily the leading clergyman of the Diocese, but also he was a prominent center of discussion in the National Church." Monastic orders appeared here as early as 1878.

All Saints' Cathedral in Milwaukee, the first cathedral in the United States, laid its cornerstone Nov. 1, 1869, in an effort started by Bishop Kemper, and completed by the Rt. Rev. William Armitage, second bishop of Wisconsin. The bishop's residence was built in 1902 next to the cathedral, and became the diocesan offices at the end of Bishop Benjamin Ivins residence in 1953.

St. Alban's Episcopal Church in SussexBy 1865 there were 45 parishes and missions and 61 clergy; 10 years later there were 86 parishes and missions, 66 clergy, and some 5000 communicants. In 1875 the Diocese of Fond du Lac was created to serve the 26 counties in the northeastern part of the state. In 1886 the Diocese of Wisconsin changed its name to the Diocese of Milwaukee, since its boundaries no longer covered the entire state. In 1928 the Diocese of Eau Claire came into existence, comprising those counties in the northwestern part of the state, leaving Milwaukee with the southern third.


 

The Diocese Today
The Diocese of Milwaukee today covers the southern third of the state from Kenosha and Port Washington on Lake Michigan, to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River (an east-west span of 180 miles), and from Wisconsin Dells south to the Illinois border (a north-south span of 100 miles). There are seven Convocations which are used as a means of gathering members of the diocese on a regional basis for formational, pastoral or administrative occasions.

Today the Diocese of Milwaukee actively seeks to grow in faith as disciples of Jesus Christ through the work of its 56 parishes, 177 clergy, some 15,000 communicants, and through programs for both personal and parochial renewal. It has established a covenant relationship with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the ELCA Synods of Southern Wisconsin. A thriving companion diocese relationship is maintained with the Diocese of Newala in Tanzania. Both clergy and lay people serve in a variety of leadership roles within the Diocese, the greater church, their communities, and beyond.

On Oct. 18, 2003, the Diocese of Milwaukee consecrated its 11th bishop, the Rt. Rev. Steven Andrew Miller.

[Compiled from The Episcopal Church in Wisconsin 1847-1947: A History of the Diocese of Milwaukee, by the Rev. Harold Wagner]  

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