In the early 1900’s Archimandrite John Haddad, pastor of the Melkite-Greek Catholic Church in Chicago used to travel occasionally to Milwaukee to minister to the needs of the growing Syrian community. In 1911 Archbishop Mesmer approved the founding of a mission parish under the patronage of St. George the Great Martyr with Father Timothy Jock as pastor. At the time there was only a handful of Melkite parishes in the U.S. and until an eparchy (diocese) was established, the parishes were under the protection and jurisdiction of the Latin-rite hierarchy.
The parish consisted of families from the Lebanese cities of Zahle, Baalbek and the small village of Ain Bourdai. There were also families from the Galilee.
At first the Divine services were celebrated in a rented hall. But by 1917, with the generous help of Archbishop Mesmer, the parish was able to move to a brand new church, designed by the eminent architect, Erhart Brielmaier. The church was decorated in a contemporary Roman Rite fashion. At the time the general opinion was that Catholics of the “Eastern Rites” would eventually become Americanized—and therefore Latinized.
There were three Liturgies every Sunday: two masses celebrated in Latin by Capuchin Franciscans from nearby St. Benedict the Moor, and one in Greek and Arabic, in the Byzantine Rite.
By the 1960’s the neighborhood of West State Street had deteriorated significantly. Many of the Syrian-Lebanese community moved to the suburbs and—as expected—transferred over to the Latin Rite. The remaining community was unable to sustain a parish. In fact, the church itself had deteriorated so much that it was declared unsafe for use. The Divine Liturgy was then to be celebrated in the church hall.
Following Vatican II a new spirit arose among Eastern Catholics: pride in their legitimate traditions. Pope Paul VI approved the establishment of a Melkite Exarchate in 1969, making it clear that the Melkites were here to stay and were not to abandon their rich heritage. Yet for many of the dwindling community of St. George few had an understanding of their own Eastern heritage, apart from their ethnic and cultural pride.
Archbishop Joseph Tawil, a native of Damascus, was named bishop for the Melkites and immediately began a program of liturgical renewal. The western customs that had gradually entered our churches – use of statues, stations of the cross, rosary, recited Liturgies, etc. were to be abandoned in favor of an authentic and pure usage of the Byzantine Rite.
Father Ronald Golini, an energetic young priest, was assigned as pastor of St. George in 1970. With the help of parishioners he refurbished the church with a new free-standing altar and iconostasis. At the same time he began educating the faithful in the richness of their own tradition. Older families began to come back, and new families joined.
In 2011 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of our parish’s founding. A beautiful new iconostasis was installed, as well as a choir stand and a beautiful new bishop’s throne. Some of the original family names are still on the roles. And there are families who are more recent immigrants from the Middle East: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. In addition there are parishioners of virtually every ethnic background who have fallen in love with the rich liturgical and spiritual traditions of the East – not to mention our welcoming hospitality.
Each year we host a traditional Middle Eastern dinner, participate in the Arab Word Festival, the Open Doors Milwaukee tour of churches, and several group tours of the church. Groups also prepare and serve meals for the poor, sick and homeless. Our former Bishop John Elya aptly described St. George as “a parish fully alive!”