Alverno's History

Milwaukee historian John Gurda recalls Alverno history for the College's Community Day

John Gurda's 19 books on Milwaukee's history have chronicled everything from the history of Northwestern Mutual to the building of Saint Josaphat Basilica. His "The Making of Milwaukee", published in 2005,  is considered the definitive history of Milwaukee, and  Milwaukee Public Television premiered an Emmy Award-winning documentary series based on the book in 2006. John has a monthly history column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, leads countless Milwaukee's neighborhood tours, is a fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Arts and Sciences and is an eight-time winner of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Award of Merit. He spoke to Alverno students, faculty and staff at the start of the College's Community Service Day, April 25, 2012.

Whenever I come to Alverno, I always feel a little like I’m coming home. I’ve been involved here over the years in everything from teaching at the Telesis Institute to chairing one of Sister Joel Read’s National Councils.

But I have an even older connection to this particular neighborhood.

•    My first home was 10 blocks away, near 35nd and Forest Home.
•    I started grade school just up the street at Blessed Sacrament.
•    My favorite uncle, a retired police captain, lived just north of Oklahoma Ave., and my closest cousins lived just across 43rd St. on Anthony Drive.  During summers, I was there daily.

My own history is inseparable from this neighborhood's, and so, on a much larger scale, is Alverno’s.

That’s what I want to talk about this morning.

You are Alverno students about to go out and serve the community, so I thought I’d tell you a little bit about how both the college and the community developed.

As always, I offer a view of history as why things are the way they are.

Milwaukee began as three pioneer settlements: Juneau Town, Kilbourn Town,and  Walker's Point.
•    Walker's Point finished a distant third (to this day, half the City's population is on the North Side), but it became a specimen of remarkable diversity.
•    Early on, Yankee, German, Irish, Norwegian, and Czechs dominated its landscape
•    In the later 1800s: Polish, Serbian, Slovenian, and Croatian settlers crowded its homes and churches.

Milwaukee was unmistakably a city of immigrants In 1890, 86% of its residents were first- and second-generation Americans. That pattern was especially strong on the South Side, and many of those immigrants were Catholic.

There was an urgent need for Catholic schools, and that meant there was an urgent need for Catholic sisters to establish and run them.

Enter the School Sisters of St. Francis.

In 1887, 125 years ago, after a couple of false starts in Fond du Lac and then Winona, Minnesota, the School Sisters established a Motherhouse in Milwaukee.

The spot they picked was beyond the city limits.  In fact, St. Joseph’s Convent was built on the site of a beer garden that for years had drawn tired and thirsty city-dwellers out to the peace and quiet of the countryside. That location was 27th and Greenfield.  If you wait long enough, the outer city becomes the inner city.

The School Sisters already ran about 30 schools in the Milwaukee archdiocese. Although the Order’s roots were in Germany, they served the full gamut of local ethnic groups.  Nearby parishes that relied on School Sisters to run their schools included St. Lawrence (German), St. Matthew’s (Irish), and St. Vincent de Paul (Polish). The South Side was a small-scale United Nations, and the School Sisters played a leading role in educating thousands of its youngsters.

They also established, at the Motherhouse, a school of their own, St. Joseph’s Academy and High School for Girls and Young Ladies. (Imagine that on a sweatshirt.)  By 1892 it included everything from kindergarten to a commercial course.

An 1892 ad for the school boasted, “This school offers every advantage, and so far has been quite liberally patronized.” For those of you in the dorms today, boarding students paid, for tuition, room, and board, $35 a quarter?payable in advance. You also could take 22 piano lessons for $10 and French lessons for $2.50.

Education for the community was vitally important, but the School Sisters also educated the educators.

The students of St. Joseph’s Academy included young women who intended to join the order, and these postulants generally took what was called “the English course” to prepare them for classroom work.

Back in those days, a high school diploma was all you needed to teach grade school, and the Academy’s graduates were in high demand. Demand was so great, in fact, that lay students were eventually phased out, and St. Joseph’s concentrated on postulants who intended to teach as members of the order.

Their focus was clearly education, but the School Sisters were not exclusively school sisters. In 1893, on a piece of land adjoining the Motherhouse, they started Sacred Heart Sanitarium. It served patients suffering from conditions like “nerve fatigue” and “general debility,” and its specialty was a water cure imported from Germany, an early form of hydrotherapy.

Within a decade or two, Sacred Heart had become a full-fledged health spa. Non-traditional health care was being practiced by an Alverno predecessor more than a century ago. Those of you in the nursing program might be interested to hear about a few of its therapies, quoted in He Sent Two, a history of the School Sisters by Sister Francis Borgia.
"We give Carbonic Acid Baths after the exact method employed by a famous German resort for the cure of heart troubles… We give Italian Mud Baths, importing the mud from Italy at the cost of $40 per barrel. The Zander Swedish Movement Apparatus represents an investment of nearly twenty thousand dollars. We give Brine Baths, Electric Light Applications, Hay Flower Baths, Sulphur Baths, and numerous other herb and medicated water appliances. Here is a place to rest and get well…"

The Sanitarium provided a practical education for the sisters that would in time become a formal nursing program. It opened a second front for the School Sisters.

A third had emerged even earlier than Sacred Heart. Music was taught at St. Joseph’s Academy from the very beginning. Graduates were expected to master the principles of harmony, and piano students had to demonstrate proficiency on all of Beethoven’s sonatas. (Certainly one of the earliest forms of an Alverno assessment).

And so three separate strands took shape on Layton Boulevard. In a Catholic stronghold like Milwaukee, there was always a critical shortage of teachers, nurses, and musicians, and the School Sisters of St. Francis were a critical source of supply for all three vocations. The Sisters provided the womanpower that kept the Catholic Church going and growing in schools, hospitals, and choir lofts throughout the region.

Following the trend lines in American higher education, all three strands of the Franciscan enterprise grew more sophisticated. Standards were raised, courses became more challenging, and the organic efforts of the early years took on institutional form.

In 1920 St. Joseph’s Academy added a two-year post-secondary program and renamed itself St. Joseph Normal School.

In 1936 the school became a four-year institution under the banner of Alverno Teachers College, a name borrowed from the mountain retreat favored by St. Francis of Assisi.

The Conservatory of Music took institutional form in 1924, and it became the two-year St. Joseph Convent College of Music in 1933.

A nursing program was planned as early as 1915, and the Sacred Heart School of Nursing formally came into being in 1930.

As this trinity of ministries was taking shape in the Teens and Twenties – education, music, and nursing – the South Side was growing around and beyond St. Joseph’s Convent. Once on the edge of town, the Motherhouse became an island in the stream.

To the north was National Park, developed on the site of an old amusement park.

To the south was Layton Park, a Polish-German neighborhood planted in what had been unusually fertile celery fields.

To the west, around 35th and National, was Silver City, so named because of the silver coins that washed across the bars every payday. And beyond Silver City were the industrial suburbs of West Milwaukee and West Allis.

The South Side was still a United Nations of ethnic groups, and the School Sisters were still a critically important presence in dozens of parishes here and far beyond.

For both the neighborhood and the order, the historic patterns of growth slowed to a crawl during the Depression and World War II. For 15 years, people struggled first with the privations of an economic collapse and then with the pressures of a global conflict.

It was after the war that the old patterns resumed.

A series of booms echoed across the landscape – houses, cars, babies – and the South Side changed accordingly. There was a mass movement to the city’s edge, first by homeseekers and then by the institutions that served them.

•    In 1949, for example, Serb Hall was built on 51st and Oklahoma.  Proceeds from its famous fish fry helped pay for its beautiful cathedral, located just next door, in 1957.
•    In 1952, St. Luke’s Hospital moved to 27th and Oklahoma and became the keystone of what we now know as Aurora Health Care.

Alverno responded to the same winds of postwar change, and the decisive year was 1946.

It was in that year that all three strands at St. Joseph’s Convent— teaching, nursing, and music—began to form a single braid. It was in that year that the lay students returned.  It was in that year that the School Sisters bought 50 acres of farmland right here on 39th and Morgan as a place to expand. They had moved to the city’s edge back in 1887, and now they were doing it all over again 60 years later.  

With the completion of the merger in 1951, Alverno College was born. The first campus building was completed in 1953, and the number of lay students increased until they were a great majority by 1965.

You’ve been growing and changing in this place ever since.  

It is here that Alverno developed a pioneering approach to education that has drawn admiring visitors from all over the world.

It is here that Alverno launched innovations like Weekend College, and broadened its scope to include graduate-level programs.

It is here that Alverno has changed to meet the needs of a changing community.

What had once been a thoroughly European city has become a truly global metropolis, with major additions of residents with African, Asian, and Latin American roots.

Remember those parishes I talked about close to the Motherhouse? St. Lawrence’s old home now shelters a Hmong community. St. Vincent de Paul is a Latino parish.  St. Matthew’s, once Irish, is now Prince of Peace and also Latino.

Alverno has shown the same capacity for transformation. This school has distinguished itself as the four-year college with the highest minority enrollment in the state, and most of its students are the first in their families to attend college.

That is a record in which this college can take enormous pride, and it spells nothing but good news for the larger community.

The changes of the recent past reflect a mission that has become part of Alverno’s DNA. Teachers are here to teach. Their yardsticks are not books published or conferences attended, but the development of human beings – young women, and now a few good men, who are competent, confident, and ready to serve.

Today you go out to serve a city that has changed enormously in 125 years. But I wonder how much it has changed essentially.

The needs are great, surely, but there have always been needs: to educate the young, to heal the sick, to lift with song, and to bring light to a world that knows too much darkness.

Your foremothers saw those needs with crystal clarity, and they responded to them with dedication and with distinction.

125 years have passed since a seed was planted here on the South Side. A tradition started on Layton Boulevard back in 1887 continues at Alverno College today.

You are the living embodiments of that tradition. You are the ones who will carry it forward.

Keep that mission. And keep that message in your minds and in your hearts as you go out to serve the community of 2012.