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ELM GROVE, WISCONSIN: Three years later St. Edmund's still is empty

ELM GROVE, WISCONSIN: Three years later St. Edmund's still is empty
Thistles grow tall while vines wrap around the door

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
April 24, 2014

In December 2011, the parishioners of St. Edmund's Anglican Church were preparing to joyfully celebrate the birth of their Saviour when a Waukesha County Circuit Court judge unceremoniously handed the sweeping church edifice and all surrounding buildings over to the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee as a Christmas present, giving the stunned congregation 24 hours to vacate the property.

An immediate stay from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in Madison bought the congregants about 30 days, but by Jan. 31, 2012, they were tossed out into the winter snow along with their priest -- Fr. Samuel Scheibler -- and their preschool children.

Now another Easter has come and gone -- the third -- and St. Edmund's still stands empty. No one worships in the church. No one raises a voice in prayer, praise and song. The church is as silent as a tomb. The recently remodeled rectory is vacant, classrooms are gathering dust and the preschool has folded. Wild thistles are creeping towards the entrance and a vine enwraps the glass doors.

St. Edmund's is a classic example of a mid 20th Century modern church with a sweeping concrete hyperbolic paraboloid roof. The Elm Grove church was designed by noted Milwaukee architect William P. Wenzler and garnered much attention when it was completed in late 1957. The heavy swooping concrete roof extends 45 feet beyond the altar wall to draw the imagination heavenward. The unique roof was poured first; then the walls were built to complete the building.

Mid 20th Century modern architecture was heavy into exploring the aesthetic possibilities of reinforced concrete. Such modernistic churches dot not only the American landscape but are also architectural gems around the globe.

There is more to St. Edmund's than a decaying awe-inspiring edifice. There is also a small, displaced congregation of loyal Anglicans who have been legally roughshod by the Diocese of Milwaukee in the name of protecting the "work and witness of The Episcopal Church."

In 1874, St. Edmund's Church was originally founded as an Episcopal congregation in Milwaukee. It eventually failed. In 1947 a new group of Christians formed in the Town of Brookfield, a western suburb of the City of Milwaukee. The Village of Elm Grove, with its tree-lined streets and manicured lawns, was carved out of the Town of Brookfield in 1955.

Eventually, the growing Elm Grove congregation raised enough money to build a church of its own on land donated to them at 14625 Watertown Plank Road, Elm Grove's main thoroughfare, linking Milwaukee to Watertown. In 1957, the modern sweeping lines of what would become St. Edmund's took shape drawing the attention of many architectural publications and photo magazines.

Finally in 1962, the growing Elm Grove congregation voted to affiliate with the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee and was given charter by Bishop Donald Hallock (VIII Milwaukee) and revived the name of St. Edmund's Episcopal Church.

In 1976, Fr. Wayne Carr Olmstead became St. Edmund's rector. For 30 years the beloved priest labored in Elm Grove. He preached the Word, celebrated the Sacraments and provided a shield between the increasing spiritual decline of The Episcopal Church and his southeastern Wisconsin parish. His church was closely connected with Nashotah House, just 20 miles away; Nashotah seminarians got of taste of the priestly parish life with Fr. Olmstead as their mentor.

In 2006 the congregation was shocked when Fr. Olmstead died. His ashes are buried at St. Edmund's ... but not for long.

Within two years, it became evident that the reality of the restyled Episcopal Church lead by Katharine Jefferts Schori was not the same as The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America under the leadership of theologically conservative native, Wisconsinite Arthur Lichtenberger, the presiding bishop in 1962 when St. Edmund's first joined Episcopal fold. By 2006, the Episcopal Church was in a theological freefall (both Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Vicky Gene Robinson [IX New Hampshire] were realities) and Anglicanism was fracturing over women's rights, sexual morality, and Biblical teaching.

By 2008, the handwriting was on the wall. Membership was dwindling. In its heyday, the membership rolls topped 200. Later in that year, the membership of St. Edmund's voted to disaffiliate with The Episcopal Church and affiliate with CANA (Convocation of Anglicans in North America.) CANA’s Missionary Bishop Martyn Minns joyfully received them.

St. Edmund's vote to disaffiliate with The Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee and the larger Episcopal Church was 75 to nine -- clearly a super majority. The die was cast and St. Edmund's became the first Episcopal congregation in the State of Wisconsin to leave the mother church over theological differences and Biblical practice.

On February 2009, Bishop Steven Miller (XI Milwaukee) swooped in and filed suit against the congregation demanding the property. Thus began a sad sorted saga of court battles that the Elm Grove congregation eventually lost. The Diocese filed against 15 members of the church -- priest, trustees, vestrymen, members -- as a part of The Episcopal Church's take no prisoners litigation style involving a dozen lawyers and more than 150 recorded court events including: motions, hearing, briefs, notices, various correspondence, responses, affidavits, dismissals, orders, stipulations, conferences, amendments, transcripts, and summary judgment stripping St. Edmund's parishioners of their property and holdings.

The Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee may have possession of St. Edmund's various buildings, its name and charter, but Bishop Miller doesn’t have the souls to keep the church open. In 2009, TEC's ASA graphs showed six members. At that time, St. Edmund's had the lowest ASA of the 57 Episcopal congregations in the Diocese of Milwaukee. TEC's latest 2012 membership graphs do not show any Episcopal presence in Elm Grove, the first in more than 65 years. St. Edmund's went from one of the largest and most vibrant churches in the Diocese of Milwaukee to the smallest. Sadly, it's on the verge of becoming just a footnote in Diocesan history.

Since St. Edmund's Church members were forced out in January 2012, the building has remained empty. It was not a friendly parting. In addition to the unexpected ruling of Waukesha Country Circuit Court Judge J. Mac Davis evicting the parish, the Diocese, itself, was also rather harsh in their handling of the departure. It became a very messy spiritual divorce.

One parishioner told VOL, "We ended up taking a lot of the contents that we had bought from the building and then they demanded we return everything to them ... that took a while ... they had a 15 or more page list of everything they wanted back ... including paper plates, paper cups, sugar, creamers and etc. (unbelievable!)," she recalled. "We had just redone (from top to bottom) the rectory ... our priest's office, the office for the secretary, the educational wing of the building for our day-care, added air conditioning, painted the kitchen, had all the floors professionally polished and redid the chapel in the basement."

After St. Edmund's parishioners were booted from their church, a local Missouri Synod school, Elm Grove Lutheran School, provided classroom space for the beleaguered and displaced Anglican congregation to settle while they licked their emotional and spiritual wounds and sought healing as they began their church-in-a-box experience.

The displacement was devastating. Their priest was overwhelmed and ultimately moved on. One by one parishioners stopped coming -- they moved on, too. Eventually only about 20 souls remained as the Elm Grove Anglican Church struggled to regain spiritual footing.

In early 2013, the Very Rev. Patrick Malone, an Anglican Benedictine priest, came to Wisconsin and took the struggling Elm Grove Anglicans under his wing. Slowly, the shell-shocked congregation and their new priest are re-establishing, stabilizing, painstakingly healing and gradually growing.

On Easter Sunday, 52 souls attended worship at their new location at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation, near the Milwaukee Zoo and Wisconsin Lutheran College, a liberal arts Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod school of higher learning. This time the Elm Grove Anglicans share the Lutheran worship space, not just use a parochial school classroom. This gives a big spiritual boost for the healing congregation to pray in a worship space.

So far, Fr. Malone has been able to double the congregation's attendance figures and is working towards fostering the healing of the deep wounds that his parishioners received during the brutal litigation process. Eventually, he would like to see his congregants spiritually and emotionally healed and get beyond that into making disciples in the Milwaukee area.

"We want to get everybody healed and then we need to let the past go so we can fulfill the Great Commission," Fr. Malone explained.

The small re-establishing Elm Grove Anglican group has adopted the name Holy Cross Anglican Church and remains a part of CANA. The new name was chosen after much prayer and discernment to reflect the fact that Christ's redemptive act took place on the Cross and that the displaced Anglicans, too, have experienced their own cross in dealing with the Diocese of Milwaukee and the litigation process.

However, the Diocese of Milwaukee is not done inflicting pain on the former St. Edmund's group. Bishop Miller has announced that he has intensions of selling the vacant church on Watertown Plank Road -- all in the name of furthering Episcopal ministry within the Milwaukee diocese.

In a form letter penned by the Canon to the Ordinary, Canon David Pfaff explains that the diocesan Executive Council recommends that St. Edmund's "be offered for sale, with the proceeds from any sale being used to support the future ministry of other congregations throughout the diocese."

Therein lies a problem. St. Edmund's has a burial garden for cremated ashes and about 50 former parishioners are buried at their beloved church including their much-loved former rector Fr. Olmstead.

The Diocese proposes to transfer the ashes to St. Alban's, another Episcopal church in nearby Sussex with a 2012 ASA of 30 hardy Episcopal souls. The church dates back to 1837 and has an attached churchyard in which to reinter St. Edmund's parishioners' ashes.

The Diocese plans a Clergy Workday on May 22 in which the "priests and deacons from around the diocese will gather in the spirit of prayer and reverence to unearth the ashes as carefully as possible."

This plan is not sitting well with former St. Edmund parishioners.

"The people are devastated," a former St. Edmund's parishioner lamented. "...that was their loved one's final resting place and they [the parishioners] have no choice ... now they [the Diocese] want to dig up all the graves and take them to a church in Sussex, Wisconsin that has a cemetery."

Canon Pfaff explained that the cost of transferring the ashes would be borne by the Diocese. Former St. Edmund's parishioners who had a spot reserved for their own ashes were assured there would be a place for them at St. Alban's.

"If, however, in light of these developments you would like to make alternative arrangements the Diocese will reimburse you whatever was paid to reserve the spot at St. Edmund's," Canon Pfaff wrote. "Unfortunately, the financial records that would indicate what was paid, and by whom, to reserve those spots, were lost in the course of legal proceedings ..."

The Diocese of Milwaukee plans to have a re-internment ceremony on Trinity Sunday. It is to be lead by Bishop Miller.

"Please know that all those, living and dead, who have been a part of St. Edmund's Church over the years are kept in prayer," Canon Pfaff wrote.

Canon Pfaff did not return a call from VOL.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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