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St. James by Straz Tower closing after 160 years

St.+James+Episcopal+Church+is+home+to+The+Gathering.
St. James Episcopal Church is home to The Gathering.

St. James Episcopal Church is home to The Gathering.

Photo by Wire Stock Photo

Photo by Wire Stock Photo

St. James Episcopal Church is home to The Gathering.

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After standing for 160 years on the 8th block of W. Wisconsin Avenue, St. James Episcopal Church held its last service Nov. 1.

The church that lies between St. James Court and Straz Tower has a historic landmark designation and was sold to a local developer, Josh Jeffers, who plans to preserve the church to be used as a wedding chapel, according to a recent article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The decision to close the church came after years of declining membership and failed attempts to raise attendance.

John and Mary Washbush were members of the St. James congregation who were involved with the church until the very end. The two were on the St. James closing committee, which aided in the transition of the church’s ministries and the sale of the property.

“The parish has been in a development cycle for the past five or six years,” John said. “That didn’t come to the fruition we were hoping for.”

It took over a year and a half to come to the final decision that the church would close its doors.

“That happened this past spring,” John said. “We spent this summer recognizing those who contributed to our ministries and going through the emotional and facilities transition process that goes with dissolving a congregation.”

As one of the lay leaders in the church, Mary was heavily involved in the sale of the building. It has been up for sale since August 2015.

“We originally thought it’d sell fairly quickly,” Mary said. “Three, four or five (potential buyers) came to look, but the space was too large or too small.”

She said the person buying the building was the first serious offer they received, and came after two years of it being on the market.

“The historic designation was a huge barrier for a number of (potential buyers) and us,” Mary said.

Although 25 members were not enough to keep the doors of the church open, the small congregation was still able to support numerous community service programs. Red Door Clothes, Gathering of Southeast Wisconsin and an indigent burial service were among the church’s biggest community outreach programs. When the church closed, a big priority was finding another place for those services to continue.

“We have worked really hard to close well and make sure the people we served will continue to be served. As much good as we have been able to do … through how we have distributed our property and what services we’ve tried to endow,” John said.

During its time open, many Marquette students attended and volunteered at St. James. Its volunteer programs drew many students through their participation in Midnight Run, and some through the celebration of liturgy. Alumna Rev. Dorota Pruski felt the call to her career through her participation at St. James.

“When I was a student, I lived right next to St. James in Straz Tower. I volunteered at the gathering. I was rolling out of bed at 7 a.m. and serving breakfast, and it didn’t occur to me that anything else was happening there,” Pruski said.

Pruski studied political science as a member of the Class of 2006 and worked as a Hall Minister in McCormick Hall from 2008-’10. She started attending services at St. James in 2007 and remained there until she left to attend seminary in 2010. She was ordained a priest in the summer of 2013 and now works at St. Andrew’s Church in Madison, Wisconsin.

“I’m really grateful for the love and support that they showed me (at St. James). It’s through (the congregation at St. James) and my experience in that church that I fell in love with the Episcopal church and found a desire to serve the church in a more significant way,” Pruski said.

Although the closing of the church was an emotional experience for the congregation, Mary maintains that the church’s influence in the Milwaukee community will never go away.

“One of our worshippers said, ‘Each one of us is St. James, and when we leave this space each of us will take that piece with us.’ In that way, St. James can never end,” she said. “Knowing that has made the transition easier for us. As we go out and we form new relationships with new communities, we know that we have St. James with us.”

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1 Comment

One Response to “St. James by Straz Tower closing after 160 years”

  1. Michael J. Burns on December 5th, 2017 9:21 am

    I believe the church in the picture is NOT the one that is closing. you have pictured the Presbyterian church; it is the Episcopal church that is closing.

    [Reply]

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