They named it the Riverwest Alumni Association, but the 800-member organization could have been called the Daughters and Sons of Our Lady of Divine Providence (OLDP).
The OLDP congregation resulted from the merger several years ago of the Riverwest neighborhood’s two Catholic – and overwhelmingly Polish – parishes: St. Casimir at Bremen and Clarke streets and St. Mary of Czestochowa, approximately one-half mile north, at Fratney and Burleigh streets.
St. Elizabeth (now St. Martin de Porres), a traditionally German parish whose facilities once included a bowling alley, served other Riverwest Catholics. At Second and Burleigh, however, “St. E’s” was somewhat outside the neighborhood’s boundaries of North Avenue, Capitol Drive, Holton Street and the Milwaukee River. The once heavily Catholic neighborhood, which today counts some 11,000 residents, housed Protestant churches as well.
About 10 years ago the Riverwest Alumni group was born, thanks to the St. Mary of Czestochowa Grade School class of 1941. Members of that and other St. Mary classes were reuniting at five-year intervals. The ’41 grads decided at the time of their 60-year reunion to get together again before their 65th anniversary and to open the gathering to other alumni. Soon, the idea of parish get-together was expanded to a Riverwest neighborhood reunion.
As many as 350 people have attended an annual Riverwest Alumni luncheon, the 2012 version of which is scheduled for Sept. 20 at American Serb Hall (see sidebar).
A quarterly newsletter, Riverwest Connection, is mailed to alumni in 27 states. Among the reminiscences, photos, lists of long-ago businesses and questionnaires in the Connection have been articles by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, former St. Casimir associate pastor Fr. Jerry Hudziak, the late Jesuit Fr. Gene Jakubek, a priest-son of St. Casimir, and articles about School Sister of Notre Dame Austinia Gersheski, a musician whose contributions during 24 years at St. Mary School included organizing a 100-pupil “harmonica band.”
In interviews with your Catholic Herald, Riverwest Alumni board members, whose responsibilities include producing the newsletters and the yearly luncheons, recalled their days in the neighborhood and parishes of Riverwest. Bob Moranski of the St. Casimir School class of ’49, now a Brown Deer resident, called his boyhood parish “the central point of every activity.”
There was the completely nun-staffed St. Casimir School, which then went through ninth grade, as well as the parish Scout troop, CYO and acolytes. Moranski, a septuagenarian, is still an acolyte and has served Mass for four of the last five Milwaukee archbishops. Adult men had the Holy Name Society, adult women the Christian Mothers. Festivals delighted parishioners of all ages.
Moranski fondly remembers his ninth-grade teacher, School Sister of Notre Dame Sr. Pacifica Grupa, who gave him the nickname “Mura” (Polish for “runt”), which old friends call him to this day. He remembers popular Fr. John Kujawa and other priests assigned to St. Casimir, and assisting one or another of them as an altar boy in the Polish ritual of blessing parishioners’ homes at Christmastime.
He remembers spending long summer days swimming in the Gordon Park pool, playing ball at the Pumping Station, playing tennis with schoolmates John Paczesny and Gerald Lebanowski, both future priests.
Moranski’s happiest neighborhood memory, though, would have to be meeting Janet Dopki 60 years ago at Gordon Park. Janet, four years Bob’s junior, has been Mrs. Bob Moranski for 52 years. The couple have five children and nine grandchildren.
For Janet Moranski, Riverwest meant family – literally. Her grandmother lived in the flat above her mother and dad’s duplex. One aunt lived next door. Three others resided around the corner. As far as longtime neighborhood friends, Janet mentioned two, six-decade pals with whom she still gets together: Sylvia Nowicki Kadlec, now living in Oconomowoc, and Phyllis Budzinski Krumplich, of Conover. As children, the three would patronize the sweet shop on Bremen and Locust streets – Locust being, according to Bob Moranski, a sort of “dividing line” between St. Mary and St. Casimir kids’ territories. As adolescents, the trio, students at three different high schools, attended CYO dances together at various parishes.
Alumni association to gather, Sept. 20
MILWAUKEE — Bishop Donald J. Hying will be principal speaker at this year’s Riverwest Alumni luncheon Thursday, Sept. 20, at American Serb Hall Banquet & Conference Center, 5101 W. Oklahoma Ave.
A noon to 1 p.m. luncheon follows registration and socializing. A program, including the auxiliary bishop’s talk, is to begin at 1 p.m. Accordionist Roger Boll will entertain.
Cost is $20. For more information, call membership chair Janet Moranski, (414) 446-9402.
St. Mary’s CYO provided acting opportunities. Janet found time among her studies and job in the Garfield Theater ticket booth for evening play rehearsals under the direction of Fr. Max Adamski. She recalled the associate pastor and his colleague, Fr. Marion Cieslewicz, as “very giving” individuals. Both had come to St. Mary in the mid-1930s, soon after ordination, and were stationed in Riverwest for many years.
“Really good priests,” echoed Don Wyderka, 1947 St. Mary graduate, who added the pastor, Msgr. Joseph Knitter, to the list. “The priests were so darn involved with all of us.”
While Fr. Adamski handled the CYO, Fr. Cieslewicz supervised publication of St. Mary’s Breeze, a newsletter sent to some 600 parishioners in the military during World War II. St. Casimir, a larger congregation, totaled some 700 parishioners in wartime service.
Paul Schramka (St. Mary ’41), Germantown resident and Riverwest Alumni president, recalled Fr. Cieslewicz’s hobby of making movies of parish events.
The School Sisters of Notre Dame, the same order that operated St. Casimir School, provided a “good, solid foundation” for their St. Mary charges, according to Wyderka. “We all had those same values,” he continued. “You kind of yearn for it to be like it was.”
The Brookfield resident, whose “good memories” of the neighborhood include his first car and early dates, married Justine Torner of the St. Mary class of ’53.
Wyderka plays cards with a St. Mary classmate, longtime buddy Walter Handzlik, and plans periodic class reunions with another, Esther Bojar Szczepanski, also a member of the Riverwest Alumni board. Their class of ’47 will meet informally the morning of the Serb Hall luncheon, as will others whose best Riverwest recollections include activities sponsored by the parishes now collectively known as Our Lady of Divine Providence.