Fire in Historic Milwaukee Church Leaves "Hole in City Landscape"

May 17, 2018

The devastating fire that destroyed Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church got us thinking about the many historic churches that call Milwaukee home -- from the Basilica of St. Josaphat on the city's south side to Old Saint Mary downtown.

What role did these churches play in the lives of early Milwaukeeans? How have these 100-year-old buildings withstood the test of time? What can these structures tell us about the city's history?

We reached out to the Milwaukee County Historical Society for answers.

Historic Milwaukee churches built in the late 1800s.
Credit Historic Photo Collection / Milwaukee Public Library

Churches in the early 19th and 20th centuries really served as focal points for Milwaukee's different neighborhoods. As archivist Kevin Abing explains, "for the most part, congregations took it upon themselves to build these houses of worship. Churches were part of the most important elements of their lives -- birth, death, marriages."

Over the decades, both demographics of neighborhoods and church-going habits have changed. As a result, Abing says few of the city's historic churches' congregations have remained the same. "Some have been re-adapted to other denominations or for other purposes. But at least the buildings are still being utilized, but maybe not so much for...original purpose(s)."

What remains of the structures is a testament to the role religion played in people's lives back then, Abing adds. "They put so much time and effort and money into these buildings, it's a definite reflection (0f) what they meant to the people and to the community... it was a really big deal when a new church was being built. People took so much pride in the work being put into these buildings, and it really showed."

As for Trinity, Abing says it's not only a loss for the congregation, but also the city. "It was a historic landmark and, boy, it was just really a punch to the gut to see it go up in flames like that."