St. Mark's Episcopal Church – Religious and Community Center
The current chapel of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church was built in 1911. As the congregation grew, St. Mark’s replaced their old guild hall with a new parish hall in 1949. Open to a diverse population, the church now functions also as a community center.
How St. Mark's began in Downer
St. Mark’s was originally formed as a mission congregation in 1893 and had their first small chapel on Greenwich Avenue and Maryland Avenue in 1894. As church membership increased rapidly in 1896, the congregation moved to Bradford and Maryland Avenue. The congregation continued to increase and their chapel was finally moved to Hackett and Downer, its current location. A guild hall was added on the north side in 1903–1904.
The current masonry chapel was constructed in 1912, after the wooden chapel was demolished in 1911. With more than one thousand members at the time of World War II, the church decided to build a new parish hall instead of retaining the old guild hall in 1949.
All photos in this section are reproduced from: St. Mark's Episcopal Church, The Parish Outlook 10 7 (1918), 13–15.
What people think of St. Mark's
Susan Willets, the curator of St. Mark's Art Gallery, talks about St. Mark's Art Gallery.
Architectural Change – Becoming an Open Community Center
St. Mark’s interior has not significantly changed since the construction of the parish hall in 1949. However, the use of the interior space has changed.
The kitchen was remodeled in the 1980s. According to the parish administrator, during the initial years (the 1940s and 1950s), people brought their servants to the kitchen in the parish hall. The servants did not cook in the kitchen, but catered. As a result, the kitchen was not really functional at that moment. The overall interior of the parish hall is barely decorated.
Despite the remodeling, the kitchen is currently not up to code. Although many small businesses are interested in using the kitchen to prepare food to sell, it cannot be leased out for commercial purposes. A culinary class from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee rents the kitchen. Other than that, this kitchen is currently used primarily for holding community events: preparing for coffee hour, receptions for the art gallery, and so forth.
Walls of the Guild Hall and Corridor
The corridor of St. Mark’s parish hall was endowed by the family of Marian McCarthy to be a gallery with hanging molding and track lighting. However, nobody took responsibility for it. When the priest asked Susan Willets to hang her paintings, she agreed and decided to take care of the space. Willets became the curator of the gallery in 2005.
Willets is an artist, who lived very close by Downer 20 years ago and now lives in Riverwest. She devotes a considerable amount of time to organizing six shows per year for St. Mark’s gallery. She expanded the gallery to the walls of the guild hall, where people used to dance. Larger pieces of art fit well on the walls of this spacious room.
Now the gallery is eight years old and known as a great place to hang art. It is patronized by local artists as well as those from surrounding areas. It brings people into the church, creating a reciprocal relationship between artists and St. Mark’s.
The black-and-white photos in this section are reproduced from: St. Mark's Episcopal Church, The Parish Outlook 10 7 (1918), 16–17.
The buildings of St. Mark’s have remained intact since 1949. However, one may see some changes in their outdoors green space.
The Community Garden
The community garden started in the north corner of St. Mark’s parking lot more than ten years ago. Michelle Mooney, the deacon of St. Mark’s, takes care of the community garden. She moved to Milwaukee in 1972 and has been involved in St. Mark’s since then. She also moved close by the church in 1998.
With extensive experience as a community organizer, Mooney’s original idea for the community garden was to make it a cooperative garden with a tithe for food programs. However, running a cooperative requires substantial training and planning. Currently, everyone gets a plot, but people are encouraged to donate produce to the gathering. "I think it's a great asset to the neighborhood," says Mooney. Through this garden and activities associated with this space Mooney has met people she would never have met otherwise.
- City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission, "Final Historic Designation Study Report: North Downer Avenue Commercial District" (Milwaukee: Historic Preservation Commission, 2001), 8–9, 14–15.
- Michelle Mooney, interview by Fran Assa, Daniel Cho and Yuko Nakamura, Milwaukee, June 18, 2013.
- St. Mark's Episcopal Church, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Centennial Celebration 1893–1993.
- St. Mark's Episcopal Church, The Parish Outlook 10 7 (1918).
- Stacy Roller, interview by Fran Assa, Daniel Cho and Yuko Nakamura, Milwaukee, June 18, 2013.
- Susan Willets, interview by Fran Assa, Daniel Cho and Yuko Nakamura, Milwaukee, June 18, 2013.