Fr. Thomas Varkey
Director of Administrative Services
St. Therese Parish was born in approximately 1925 as a small chapel. In 1921, Pallotine priest Peter Schroeder arrived in Milwaukee to become pastor of Holy Cross Church at 54th Street and Bluemound Road. Two years later he would found St. Anthony’s Mission Church at 76th Street and Bluemound. In 1925, he began construction of a chapel of his own.
When it was completed, the chapel was dubbed the “Little Flower Mission,” on 94th and Adler, after St. Therese of Lisieux. That year (1925), St. Therese had just been canonized and was fast becoming a popular figure. Chosen to head the community was Fr. Joseph De Maria.
Fr. Schroeder died in 1939 and Fr. De Maria was appointed pastor of St. Anthony’s Church. As with all newborn institutions, St. Anthony’s and the Little Flower Mission got off to a rocky start. Debt accumulated and attendance wavered. But Fr. Joe still had a dream of creating a church and school at St. Therese. In 1955, he got his wish.
Fr. Joe wanted to expand the Little Flower Mission, but Milwaukee County wanted to use the nearby land for the expressway, which was under construction at the time. He struck a deal: the county could have fifteen acres of the Mission’s land — today used as the zoo parking lot — if he could have fifteen acres for a church at the current site. The county agreed, and the foundation was laid for St. Therese.
“St. Therese of the Child Jesus” Parish began on May 1st, 1956, with Fr. Nicholas Wilwers as pastor. St. Therese School opened two years later. The Milwaukee Archdiocese took over the church in 1962 after debt accumulated. During the 1960s, the church operated as any other would: there were monthly Communion breakfasts, picnics, even festivals.
However, the world changed quickly. Vatican II changed the liturgy. Debt continued to rise. The school enrollment dropped as well, and in 1970 the school closed.
But as this era ended, a new one began. In May 1970, a new pastor arrive at St. Therese: Fr. Roger Heck. He would keep this position for nearly three decades. Fr. Heck worked to rebuild the St. Therese community and mold it into its modern form. Among the changes were decisions to place a greater emphasis on religious education, social concerns, and spirituality.
Activities and events that are still around today emerged at the beginning of the 1980s. Sharing Sunday - a special collection taken up once a month for a designated charity - started in 1978. The first recipient was the House of Peace.
What we called the St. Therese Festival began in 1981 as a one-time event in the winter. When it returned a large profit, it was decided to move it to the summer and make it an annual event. It continued as the parish’s main fundraiser until the last festival in 2008.
The Youth Ministry was announced in 1984, organized by Tim Schwaller, Jerry Mueller, and Bob Schobert. It was intended to allow students to engage in activities of social and service value to a Christian. Included in the Youth Ministry were activities (such as basketball) in the gym, camping trips, and service projects.
Christcare was organized in 1982 as a support group for the sick, elderly, and disabled, as well as their families. These ministries continue as the current “Little Flower Ministries.”
Fr. Heck retired in 1998. This brought about a time of change. After a few short pastorates, Fr. Phillip Reifenberg was appointed as Parish Administrator until 2002. A new chapter began with the appointment of Parish Director, Dr. Alexandra Guliano, with Assisting Priest Rev. Hugh Birdsall, SDS, and Help-out Priest Rev. Norm Oswald, focusing on empowerment of the laity ministry formation, spirituality, and a renewed commitment to living the Gospel in the little way of St. Therese.
Beginning as just a small chapel on Bluemound Road, the “little flower” of St. Therese has blossomed into a lively community of believers. Though there are challenges for the parish, St. Therese has always met them under the inspiration of our patron, St. Therese of Lisieux, following her “Little Way.”