Mormons in Milwaukee: A 100-year legacy

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — This city on Lake Michigan's western shore has a history of diverse people — largely of German heritage — combining their resourcefulness to form a thriving society. In some ways, the Church in this area parallels that history.

It has been 100 years since missionaries from the Wisconsin Conference of the Northern States Mission were assigned to work in Milwaukee; April 16 of next year will be the centennial of the founding of the Milwaukee Branch, the first formal organization of the Church in the city.

The first LDS presence in Wisconsin came in the late 1830s, in what is now Burlington, about 40 miles southwest of the city. A year of celebration was observed in 1992 by proclamation of the governor of Wisconsin, and a historical marker was placed in a city park on the bank of the White River. It marks the location where Moses and Aaron Smith established Wisconsin's first LDS congregation in 1837 and attempted to persuade Church leaders to send missionaries there.

But schisms in the Wisconsin membership and the 1847 westward exodus of the Church's main body prevented the Church from gaining a lasting foothold in the state until long after the Church's headquarters had been established in Salt Lake City. The Wisconsin Conference was organized in 1896 in Madison. Soon after missionaries were assigned to labor in Milwaukee, the conference headquarters were established here.

Baptisms came slowly at first in the Milwaukee Branch, which began with seven members and a Sunday School enrollment of 17, according to a history of the Church in Milwaukee written by Mark W. Busselberg, Church Educational System coordinator in Milwaukee, whose parents were among the earlier stalwarts.

"And this is how it remained until 1904, when a missionary who had been serving in Milwaukee by the name of Christopher L. Rueckert was asked by the mission president, German E. Ellsworth, to come back and be the branch president in Milwaukee," Brother Busselberg said. "And this is one of those nice stories of commitment, faith and sacrifice."

Pres. Rueckert had been born in Germany. With his family, he joined the Church there and immigrated to Salt Lake City. At Pres. Elsworth's behest, he brought his wife and children to Milwaukee, where he established a thriving bakery, popularizing in the area the zwieback biscuit, which as a boy he had observed being made in Germany and which today is widely used as food for babies.

"He oversaw the growth of the Church in Milwaukee from 1904 to about 1914, when he died of complications from an appendicitis operation," Brother Busselberg said. "He was a man who loved people and served them by using his business. He would deliver bakery goods to poor people, and that impressed many."

One woman, whose family had been shut out of their church because they couldn't pay the pew fee, investigated and joined the LDS Church through the kindness of Pres. Rueckert, Brother Busselberg related. (Her children, through the invitation of a friend had been attending the branch meetings.) Today, the family of her son, Alan Holt, is among the strong members in Milwaukee.

As the membership grew, the Menomonee River Valley emerged as the de facto dividing point between the Church on the north and south sides of the city. Today it is still something of a division point between wards in the Milwaukee Wisconsin Stake. The north-side portion grew faster and stronger, and the membership gravitated there until the mid 1930s, when a formal boundary was established by the Church.

Meanwhile, immigrants from Germany were flowing into the Church in Milwaukee, especially after World War I, most with the intent of staying long enough to earn money for the final journey to Salt Lake City. But many remained to make Milwaukee their home.

One such person was Adolph Wehrwein, branch president from 1918 to 1935. An unassuming man, Pres. Wehrwein became a forceful, dynamic leader. Missionaries taught him to overcome his nervousness about speaking in public.

With the influx of German-speaking immigrants, some were reluctant to attend Church services because they could not understand English. Those who did come sat together on the right side of the chapel, while others sat on the left. Pres. Wehrwein overcame the disunity by conducting some of the meetings in English and some in German.

"Not only did the German saints learn English, but many English-speaking members learned some German," Brother Busselberg wrote in his history. "Most important, both groups learned to love and appreciate each other."

It was during Pres. Wehrwein's presidency that the north side branch outgrew and sold its meetinghouse. Property was purchased at the convergence of West Roosevelt Drive, West Leon Terrace Drive and North 44th Street. It was during the Depression, but through some bargaining with quarries in Lannon, members secured some distinctive Lannon stone to face the new building instead of the red brick that had been in the original design. Remarkably, in that Depression era, members raised the $39,534.33 construction cost by the time it was dedicated by President Heber J. Grant on June 13, 1933.

A Milwaukee Journal account of the dedication records that immediately after the service, the congregation rose and began talking to one another in the aisles. Seeing the surprise on the newspaper reporter's face, President Grant explained: "Yes, we Mormons are the noisiest crowd going. You see, we don't believe in worshiping the house; we believe in worshiping the Lord."

A symbol of the strength and permanence of the Church in Milwaukee, the building served the members until it was sold in 1986. By then, it was no longer convenient for members to attend services at that location, so the building was sold.

But recent formation of the Milwaukee City Branch has made it necessary to have a building in the neighborhood once again. So the Church repurchased the historic edifice last year — the first to be constructed by the Church as a meetinghouse — and it is now being refurbished for use once again to accommodate the predominantly African-American branch. It still has its stately beauty and, remarkably, tile work above the main door retains the name Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The incident, remarkable as it is, says much about the preservation of a legacy, the link between the past and present and the diverse yet unified people who make up a brilliant tapestry of Church membership in Milwaukee.

Among the threads in that tapestry are these people:

Hans and Walter Kindt are two brothers who were among the second wave of German Latter-day Saints to come to Milwaukee in the 1950s.

In the aftermath of World War II, their family lost everything. Walter, who had been a missionary in Germany was persuaded to come to Milwaukee in 1952 by a fellow missionary.

"So I came and stayed with them in their home," Walter recalled. "And Mark Busselberg's father was the bishop here. When I sat there in Fred Busselberg's ward, not speaking English, I felt the Spirit. I mean, I felt the Spirit!"

"And he was a special person," added Hans, who came the following year with his family. "He comes with his wife, you know, and some of his German friends and picks us up when we arrived here. And it was an experience, because we had a Church building with an organ! That was unknown to us in Germany, where we were always meeting in schoolhouses and such places."

The brothers prospered and flourished in Milwaukee.

Hans became a tailor for a department store. When the store began to open on Sundays, Hans, by then a bishop, refused to work on the Sabbath. Pressure from the store management to conform gave him the courage to start his own tailoring business, which, he said, was a blessing.

Hans, today is a Milwaukee stake patriarch. Just before Fred Busselberg's death, Hans gave him a priesthood blessing, and Brother Busselberg, then a stake patriarch, correctly predicted Brother Kindt would succeed him in that position.

Walter, a sealer for the past 15 years in the Chicago Temple, is manager of advertising production for Kohl's Department Store, having worked in that position under former Milwaukee stake Pres. R. Don Oscarson, former senior executive vice president, who is now in the St. Louis Missouri Temple presidency. In 1969-72, Walter was called as president of the Germany Dusseldorf Mission. Elder Bruce D. Porter, now a member of the Seventy was one of his missionaries.

"Life has been good to us," Hans reflected. "We got through all those trying times, and we have good memories."

Charles Monk came to Milwaukee from Wyoming in 1949 to attend college when Milwaukee was part of the Chicago Stake. He has remained ever since, serving as a bishop, stake president, counselor to a mission president and regional representative.

He well remembers the day in February 1963 when the Milwaukee Stake was created by a division of the Chicago Stake. "Elders Howard W. Hunter and LeGrand Richards [both of the Quorum of the Twelve] were sent here to create the stake. They decided right before the meeting that they were going to divide our ward. I didn't know about it until they asked us to stand, and it was right then that I was sustained as bishop."

Since then, Brother Monk has seen the stake divided to form the Madison, Wisconsin Stake, and the membership proliferate to the point that there are now eight meetinghouses in the Milwaukee Stake and a membership of about 5,000.

Sam Bainson joined the Church in Ghana in 1978 at the age of 22. It was in December, five months after the revelation was announced extending the priesthood to all worthy male members. He was among the group that had been meeting unofficially in the name of the Church.

Brother Bainson was the first missionary to be called from Central Africa after that historic event, serving in England in 1981-83. Afterward, he attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he met and married his wife, who was from Beloit. They have three children.

Today, he is a district sales manager for American Family Insurance.

And he is a stake high councilor with an irrepressible enthusiasm for missionary work. With joy, he speaks of taking a stake mission president's challenge to find someone to introduce the gospel to. He prayed every day that the Lord would lead him to someone. That someone was a former client, Cassie Scaife. She called him one day with a question about insurance. After hanging up, he called her back and said, "Cassie after all these years you've known me, I've not told you about the most important thing in my life. Its the gospel of Jesus Christ. Will you mind if my friends and I come share this important thing with you?"

It happened that she had been praying every night that the Lord would help her find a good Church in which to raise her children. The contact led to her baptism, and she is now in the Parkway Ward. Brother Bainson hopes that her husband, Danny, will soon be baptized also.

"These people were ready," he said. "The missionaries were going to find them. It is just that through prayers and through listening to the promptings of the Spirit, I was able to follow through and get it done. There are probably a lot of people right here who are praying every day to know the gospel. They know they're looking for something diffent. They don't know how, but they are praying that somehow, someday they will be able to find it."

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