Fifty-two years ago, Neil Young sang, “Only love can break your heart.”
It’s a song that kept running through my head after my first visit to Summerfield United Methodist Church, 728 E. Juneau Ave.
Hidden in plain sight on the corner of Cass and Juneau, the handsome church was built in 1904—a rare local example of a work by Chicago architects Trumbull & Jones—and it’s a stunner inside, with a dazzling stained glass window. skylight dome, beautiful windows, beautiful woodwork and more.
“This is the good part,” Reverend Lynne Hines-Levy says as we step into the sanctuary, even before turning on the lights. “This is the beautiful part. You can see, this is 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 pocket knife by Wilbur Umble, employee of Wisconsin Telephone Co. in 1950. It even has stained glass windows.
Upstairs in an adjoining room there is another stained glass window.
When she sees me staring at the elongated dome in the sanctuary, which looks like something straight out of a Paris department store or a Belle Epoque mansion, Reverend Lynne says, “Isn’t that wonderful?”
But it faces the kind of struggle I’ve seen in churches of just about every denomination in just about every neighborhood of the city.
Declining membership and attendance combined with colossal, outdated – albeit stunning – buildings is a bad recipe for a bright future.
In many areas there is water damage and, of course, friable plaster and other problems.
Looking at the windows, including the truly beautiful rose window across from the altar — “the first time I was at the altar, it was hard to focus on anything else,” Hines-Levy says — she adds, “Structural. most of our stained glass is starting to give.”
Before COVID, weekly attendance at services hovered around 40 people. Naturally, when the pandemic hit, the church closed its doors and Pastor Lynne began providing online services from her home.
“We are now open again. We are open on July 4th,” she says. “We did a good service on July 4th.”
But more damage was done and now maybe 10 a week show up for shifts. As you might imagine, that does little to support the building that has suffered the kind of deferred maintenance that many churches—not just in Milwaukee—have faced.
It hasn’t always been that way.
Summerfield’s roots lie in Spring Street (First) Methodist Church – whose history dates back to 1837 and was destroyed by fire in 1854 – and the Grove Street Mission in Walker’s Point.
The merged congregation settled on Jackson Street – between Kilbourn and State – at the Old Universalist Church, which had moved two years earlier to Michigan Street’s location off the Grove Street spur.
Shortly afterwards, a lot was acquired on the northwest corner of Kilbourn and Van Buren and a new church was built 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.
Pearce Brothers were tapped to build the Gothic Revival House of Worship, which cost $51,000 to build, including furniture.
The cornerstone 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 took place four days later.
The church opened a mission in Italy’s Third Ward, and as a result, Summerfield became the spiritual home for many of Milwaukee’s Italian Protestants.
While I was there I picked up a photo album and when I opened it I came face to face with a vintage print of a photograph of Reverend August Giuliani and his wife Katherine Eyerick walking with a group of children outside the Italian Evangelical Church. were on Van Burenstraat.
A nearby registry of baptisms, certainly from the mission, was filled exclusively with Italian names.
When the new church was built, the organ purchased in 1869 was moved, as were 14 of the 15 medallions with stained glass windows. Although the fate of the organ is unknown to Hines-Levy, the medallions survive in a room adjacent to the sanctuary.
The former building, from which the tower was removed, was converted into a meeting room, a dance hall and a series of retail spaces facing the street, eliminating the need for religious windows. (It was demolished in 1940 for the widening of Kilbourn Avenue.)
Meanwhile, in the 1920s, the current church was redecorated and in 1928 the rectory was added to the west side of the building. The church debt of nearly $20,000 was paid off shortly after.
In 1939, thanks to the long-standing caretaker Frank Hudson, who left sufficient funds to the church after his death, the mortgage on the rectory was also retired in 1939.
In 1935 the German Immanuel Methodist Church, at Center and Palmer Streets, was merged into the congregation.
The history has long been vivid and if you browse the bookshelves in the church you will find registers full of baptisms, photo albums filled with snapshots of events and gatherings of all kinds and volumes of minutes of the meetings of men’s and women’s associations and more.
But that’s changed here in Summerfield, as with many, many churches.
“We are having a hard time,” said the pastor. “Because the church has not become something that people want to talk about. People don’t like the church. Church is not fashionable.”
And the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped.
“When we locked the doors, we locked Jesus in,” Hines-Levy says metaphorically. “I said it’s time to release him.”
It is also time for concrete action and the church is preparing for 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 that. That’s a $400,000 job. It’s not happening.”
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 wrapping up the day’s efforts, which included everything from fundraising from food and donations to preparing and distributing meals and, sometimes, clothing.
“We try to get them a hot meal, usually some sort of salad, fruit, and some sort of dessert out of hand, like cookies,” says Hines-Levy, who also leads a congregation at Cudahy United Methodist.
“We have a dressing room here. When we did live personal sit-down meals, we let them go in and shop for things they would need. Now it’s ‘we see you don’t have suitable shoes’, or ‘we see you don’t have a suitable jacket, do you need that?’”
The sit-down meals ended with the advent of COVID and now everything is carry-out. On an average day – Monday, Wednesday and Saturday – Summerfield hands out 30 to 50 meals from 12 noon to 2 pm
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, when they noticed the line of people receiving meals, they walked up to the volunteers and handed the volunteers $100. .
It is so generous that even during my visit for a tour, at least two people offered to feed me as well.
“We didn’t skip a day,” says Hines-Levy. “When COVID hit, we had to think very quickly. And basically we went from cafeteria style service to this one overnight. Our biggest problem is finding volunteers.”
When I first entered, Reverend Lynne, referring to the decor of the community hall in the basement, said, “this is not the church part.”
But once she explains what’s going on in the room, I realize that more than any stained glass or vine decorative plaster, this part is really the ecclesiastical part: the part of the building that, more than any other, serves does the mission.
(It’s worth noting that Southeastern Wisconsin Goodwill was born in Summerfield in 1919, in this community hall.
So it kind of dampens my sadness when later, above, Hines-Levy says they’ve talked to developers about the sales potential.
“This is a multi-million dollar country that we have,” she says truthfully. “If someone were to buy it, tear down the building and give us a corner in something new…”
She shrugs and walks away.
From my seat I look around and see the medallions of the 1850s, the shelves full of photo albums and 150 years of baptismal registers and I think, as heavy as it weighs my heart, “she’s not wrong”.
What I say to her next is what I say to you now.
For people who love Milwaukee’s historic architecture, this is an emergency, and one that is in no way limited to Summerfield.
There are many, many beautiful, historic churches in this city, where our families are baptized, confirmed, married, sent forth to whatever comes; where our families laughed, cried, prayed, socialized. And they are getting closer to destruction every day. Every time it rains, a little more gypsum softens and falls to the ground.