Urban caving: Summerfield United Methodist Church
Fifty-two years ago Neil Young sang “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”.
This is a song that was going through my head after I left my first visit to Summerfield United Methodist Church, 728 E. Juneau Ave.
The beautiful church, hidden in plain sight on the corner of Cass and Juneau, was built in 1904 – a rare local example of a work by Chicago architects Trumbull & Jones – and it’s a stunner inside, with a breathtaking stained glass skylight dome, beautiful fenestration, beautiful woodwork and more.
“That’s the good part,” says Pastor Lynne Hines-Levy as we enter the sanctuary, even before turning on the lights. “That’s the prettiest part. You can see, it’s beautiful, even in the not so bright (light).
At the back of the room is an incredibly detailed wooden model of the church made with a penknife by Wisconsin Telephone Co. employee Wilbur Umble in 1950. There’s even stained glass.
Upstairs, in an adjoining room, there is another stained glass skylight.
When she sees me ogling the elongated dome of the sanctuary, which looks like something straight out of a Parisian department store or a Belle Epoque mansion, Pastor Lynne says, “Isn’t that great ?
But he’s facing the kind of struggles I’ve witnessed in churches of almost every denomination in almost every part of town.
Dwindling membership and attendance, combined with towering and aging – albeit staggering – buildings is a bad recipe for a bright future.
There is water damage in many spaces and, as it naturally follows, crumbling plaster and other issues.
Looking at the windows, including the very beautiful rose window in front of the altar – “the first time I was on the altar, it was hard to concentrate on anything else”, says Hines-Levy – she adds: “Structurally most of our stained glass is starting to give way.
Before COVID, weekly service attendance hovered around 40 people. Of course, when the pandemic hit, the church closed and Pastor Lynne started doing online services from home.
“We are now open again. We opened on the 4th of July,” she says. “We did a good 4th of July service.”
But further damage has been done and now maybe 10 are showing up for services every week. As you can imagine, that doesn’t do much to sustain the building which has suffered from the kind of deferred maintenance that many churches – not just in Milwaukee – have had to deal with.
It has not always been so.
Summerfield’s roots are in the Spring Street (First) Methodist Church – whose history dates back to 1837 and which suffered a fire in 1854 – and the Grove Street Mission at Walker’s Point.
The merged congregation took up residence on Jackson Street – between Kilbourn and State – in the old Universalist Church, which had been moved to the Michigan Street site two years earlier for the spin-off Grove Street congregation.
Shortly thereafter land was purchased on the northwest corner of Kilbourn and Van Buren and a new church was erected there in 1857.
In 1903 the current site was purchased and architects Gilbert Marshall Turnbull and Holabird & Roche alum William C. Jones were hired to design a new building.
The Pearce Brothers were tapped to build the neo-Gothic house of worship, which cost $51,000 to build, including furniture.
The foundation stone was laid in December 1904, the last service in the old building was held on October 4, 1905, and the first in the new building was held four days later.
The church opened a mission in the Italian Third Ward, and as a result, Summerfield became the spiritual home for many Italian Protestants in Milwaukee.
During my visit I picked up a photo album and upon opening it I found myself looking at a vintage copy of a photograph of Reverend August Giuliani and his wife Katherine Eyerick standing with a group of children at the exterior of the Italian Evangelical Church on Rue Van Buren.
A nearby register of baptisms, surely from the mission, was filled exclusively with Italian names.
During the construction of the new church, the organ purchased in 1869 was moved, along with 14 of the 15 stained glass medallions. While the fate of the organ is unknown to Hines-Levy, the medallions survive in a space adjacent to the sanctuary.
The old building, the steeple removed, has been converted into a lodge assembly hall, ballroom and a range of street-facing retail space and therefore no longer needs religious windows. (It was razed in 1940 for the widening of Kilbourn Avenue.)
In the meantime, in the 1920s the present church was redecorated and in 1928 the presbytery was added to the west end of the building. The church’s debt of nearly $20,000 was repaid soon after.
In 1939, thanks to longtime custodian Frank Hudson who upon his death left the church with sufficient funds, the mortgage on the parsonage was also removed in 1939.
In 1935, Immanuel German Methodist Church, on Center and Palmer streets, was merged into the congregation.
The history is long and vibrant and browsing the shelves of the church one will find registers filled with baptisms, photo albums overflowing with snapshots of events and gatherings of all kinds and volumes of minutes of meetings societies of men and women and more. .
But that has changed here in Summerfield, as it has in so many churches.
“We are struggling,” says the pastor. “Because church is not something people want to talk about anymore. People don’t like church. The church is not fashionable.
And the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped.
“When we locked the doors, we locked Jesus inside,” Hines-Levy says, metaphorically. “I said it was time to let him out.”
It’s also time for action, and the church is preparing to carry out much-needed roof repairs.
“People say, ‘you have to do the whole roof,’” says Pastor Lynne, “but we just don’t have the money for it. It’s a $400,000 job. It doesn’t happen.
So they will fix the damaged areas for now and hope for the best.
One thing that hasn’t diminished is the church’s mission to feed the hungry, and when I visited, Hines-Levy and a few volunteers were finishing up the day’s efforts, which include everything from food collection and donations to the preparation and distribution of meals and, sometimes, clothing.
“We try to provide them with a hot meal, usually some kind of salad, some fruit, and some kind of handheld dessert, like cookies,” says Hines-Levy, who also leads a congregation at Cudahy United Methodist.
“We have a clothing room here. When we had in-person sit-down meals, we let them come in and buy things they would need. Now it’s ‘we see you don’t have proper shoes’, or ‘we see you don’t have proper coat, do you need one?’ »
Sit-in meals ended with the arrival of COVID and now everything is take-out. On an average day – Monday, Wednesday and Saturday – Summerfield distributes 30 to 50 meals from noon to 2 p.m.
The program has been running for about eight years and receives goodwill donations from individuals – neighbors, church members, even a group of men working on street repairs, after noticing the line of people receiving meals , approached and handed over $100 to the volunteers.
The generous nature is such that even when I visited for a visit, at least two people also offered to feed me.
“We haven’t missed a single day,” Hines-Levy said. “When COVID hit, we had to think very quickly on our feet. And overnight, we went from a cafeteria type service to this one. Our biggest problem is finding volunteers.
When I first walked in, Pastor Lynne, referring to the decor of the basement fellowship hall, said, “That’s not the church part.”
But as soon as she explained to me what is happening in the space, I realize that more than any stained glass or decorative plaster of vines, this part is really the ecclesiastical part: the part of the building that is , more than any other, at the service of the mission.
(It should be noted here that Goodwill of Southeast Wisconsin was born in Summerfield in 1919 in this same fellowship hall.
So that tempers my sadness a bit when later upstairs Hines-Levy says they talked to the developers about the potential sale.
“It’s multi-million dollar land we have,” she says honestly. “If someone wanted to buy it, tear the building down and give us a little wedge in something new…”
She shrugs and walks away.
From my seat, I look around and see the medallions from the 1850s, the shelves full of photo albums and 150 years of baptism records and I think, as heavy as it makes my heart feel, “she hasn’t wrong”.
What I tell him next is what I tell you now.
For folks who love historic Milwaukee architecture, this is an emergency, and by no means limited to Summerfield.
There are many, many beautiful historic churches in this city, where our families were baptized, confirmed, married, sent to whatever comes next; where our families laughed, cried, prayed, socialized. And they are getting closer to disaster with each passing day. Each time it rains, some more plaster softens and falls to the ground.