His followers enthusiastically seek him out, no matter where he's preaching. All that adulation is fine, Father Tim Kitzke says, as long as it helps bring people closer to Christ.
It’s a sunny and pleasant Sunday morning in late June, and Rev. Tim Kitzke is in fine spirits. He’s got a good crowd in the pews. And he’s just returned from a four-day Canadian fishing trip with his brother and some friends, a welcome break from his demanding role as co-pastor to four parishes, and as leader of the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese’s effort to restore its relationship with its urban centers.
Kitzke’s relaxed and cheerful, and as he often does, he mines a life experience as material for his homily.
“The hardest thing at the end of (the fishing trip) was, how truthful I was going to be this morning about what I caught,” he tells the 200 to 300 faithful in Downtown’s Old Saint Mary’s Church, where he is co-pastor. He holds his hands out wide. “A 40-inch northern. Do you believe me? I swear to God.” Hard to doubt – a priest swearing to God in his Mass vestments, in the oldest Catholic church in Milwaukee, built in 1847.
Kitzke’s vested in green – it’s the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time – and with his reddish-brown hair and dark-rimmed glasses he reminds you somewhat of a younger Elton John. He’s standing in the aisle in the front of the old church – out among the parishioners, not at a pulpit above them. He’s speaking fast and with energy, and his congregation is right with him, laughing at his tale.
Which of course he turns into a different kind of fish story. As his guide had counseled him when the big northern first struck, he let it run, played it out until, after 45 minutes, it finally came alongside the boat, relaxed and swimming calmly. So does Jesus let our souls run, he tells them.
“But still, you’re caught. Eternal life is ours when finally we reach the boat. We are caught and taken to the eternal catch of heaven. The good news for us on this beautiful morning, we’ve been caught, and we’re not going to be thrown back.”
Unlike Father Tim’s northern pike. It was a catch-and-release lake he was fishing in Canada, it turns out, and he gave the fish a kiss before letting it go. But he doesn’t release the angling metaphor right away. There’s a baptism to perform after the homily, of a tiny girl in a white gown and lacy bonnet. Georgia Frances. She’s been fussing a bit, and her mom has carried her to the back of the church to calm her down. Kitzke calls the family to the front. “We need the minnow,” he says. There’s a big laugh from the crowd, and good feelings from Georgia’s parents, whose wedding Kitzke performed eight years ago and whose first child he also baptized. “Thanks for following directions,” he jokes to them at the end of the christening.
Kitzke’s in his element here. And his rapport with parishioners explains why he’s become so popular that some of his followers – a few call themselves “Father Tim’s groupies” – check online to see where he’s preaching every week. Then they show up, wherever it is, to hear his Good News. My visiting sister Mary, a fallen-away Catholic who attended this Mass with me, can see why, and says she might come to Kitzke’s Masses if she ever moved back to Milwaukee from Arizona. “He’s so alive,” she says.
In the past year, Kitzke’s element has expanded. He’s led parishes in and around the East Side for 17 years but in 2015 took on the additional job of vicar general for urban ministry in the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese – a demanding role at least partly aimed at returning the archdiocese’s attention to the poorest residents of Milwaukee’s North Side, an area arguably neglected by the Church.
Kitzke’s appointment to the vicarship, effective in July 2015, was a case of the old Ben Franklin adage: If you want something done, ask a busy person. He was already co-pastor of four parishes (seven churches) on the East Side, in Riverwest and Downtown. He was the chaplain of the Milwaukee branch of Legatus, an organization of Catholic business professionals, and of the equally conservative Knights of Malta – not to mention of the Italian Community Center and a laywomen’s organization connected to a retreat house called the Cenacle. He was also serving as parish administrator at All Saints Parish near 25th and Capitol.
But Archbishop Jerome Listecki, backed by the recommendations of a 2014 archdiocesan synod, wanted to do something more about the long retreat of the Catholic Church on the North Side. And he wanted to tap the energy of this priest from the East Side who seemed to have connections throughout the city. “Everyone knows Father Tim,” Listecki said in an interview in June, “and everyone’s involved with Father Tim.” Or as Anne Haines, a Milwaukee devotee of the late Catholic radical Dorothy Day, described him: “Tim is a bridge-builder. He does have friends in both ends of the political spectrum … He’s been able to hear the voices of a very broad range of people.”
Kitzke, who turns 57 this month, grew up in South Milwaukee, the youngest of four children of Leo and Mary Ann Kitzke, devout Catholics who raised their kids in the old St. John’s Parish, now long-since merged with three other churches into Divine Mercy Catholic Community. “I’ve wanted to be a priest since I was in the third grade,” he says. His model was St. John’s late pastor, Rev. Bill Heffron, who brought him along on visits to the sick and made him one of his main Mass servers. Kitzke says his faith is the result of the relationships he’s had since boyhood. He quotes Les Misérables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
“I’m not a particularly mystic person,” he says, “but I really love people, I really love relationships and I love the human encounter because it always reveals for me something more than just meets the eye.”
Kitzke’s dad was a factory worker with a 38-year career at Allen Bradley, and for many years he and his wife ran a South Milwaukee tavern, too – Leo’s on Fifth. Kitzke’s sisters and brother remember family devotions that went far beyond Sunday Mass. There were Stations of the Cross, Novenas, Good Friday and Holy Saturday services. His sister Barbara Hadfield, who lives in Minnesota, says her baby brother had lunch daily at the tavern with his mom when he was in grade school, reading the Bible while he ate. He’d walk to school with his other sister, Sue, but she’d make him walk behind. “He’d genuflect at every block,” says Hadfield. Sue Decker recalls playing church with her little brother at home, with candies for hosts and grape Hi-C as the wine. “The ironic thing was, I was the priest,” she says. Tim’s brother, Tom, who played football, basketball and baseball at South Milwaukee High School, tried to interest Tim in sports, without overwhelming success. “He wasn’t the most coordinated guy,” Tom says, though adding that he was a good free-throw shooter, and played tennis in high school. When Tim played Little League baseball, he told Tom his mind would wander to the flower gardening he liked to do. “Tim was always different,” says his sister Sue. “You always kind of knew he was not going to follow the lifestyles we chose.”
Tim Kitzke went into the seminary at 13 – the other three Kitzke kids went to South Milwaukee High, because their parents couldn’t afford Catholic high school tuition. He attended DeSales Prep Seminary in St. Francis – long closed now – for high school and then got undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He studied abroad at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, where he earned a couple of graduate degrees in Catholic theology, and he got a master’s of divinity from St. Francis Seminary in St. Francis. He took a couple of years off in his early 20s and worked as a waiter and bartender in Cape Cod and then Boston. In Boston, things became clear for him. “On July 3, 1984,” he recalls, “I was working a lunch shift. A guy ordered a half-duck with mashed potatoes and peas, and I realized… I forgot his mashed potatoes, so I was walking back to the kitchen, [and] all of a sudden this overwhelming sense of ‘Okay, Lord, okay’ [came over me]. All of a sudden I said, ‘Okay, I’m ready.’”
Kitzke was ordained in 1989, after something of a crisis of faith, the nature of which points up his extremely gregarious personality. He says he told his childhood pastor, Heffron, “I think I’m doing this for the wrong reason” – as an extrovert, he loved to be the center of attention, he says, and he would be right there as a priest. “Nobody cares about your motives,” the older priest told him. “Just do the right thing.” This concern echoes in a story he told on himself in an Easter sermon at Old St. Mary’s this year. His sister Sue, in town with her family for a holiday visit a couple of years before, had greeted him as he got home from church: “The Easter ham has arrived!” You also can hear echoes of it when people, sometimes jokingly, call him a rock star.
In any case, he apparently knows how to party like a rock star. Jane Pankowski, an ad rep here at Milwaukee Magazine, remembers him officiating at her best friend’s destination wedding in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and says she was impressed that he didn’t stay aloof from the guests, but drank tequila shots and margaritas, and danced to salsa music, with the wedding party.
“I try to have fun, but I try to do it moderately,” Kitzke said when reminded of that weekend. “On the other hand, that was really a fun wedding.” Later he added, “Please know that I drink only a few shots. But I want to be a normal priest. I want to be an accessible priest.”
Kitzke started his priesthood at St. Roman on the South Side and then went to Holy Family in Whitefish Bay before landing as pastor at St. Hedwig in 1999. His charge there was the consolidation of three old ethnic parishes on the East Side – St. Hedwig, an old Polish parish on Humboldt and Brady; St. Rita on North Cass Street, an Italian parish; and the historically Irish parish of Holy Rosary on Oakland Avenue. The result was Three Holy Women. In 2006, he took on Old St. Mary as well, and in 2010, he joined Fr. Mike Michalski and another priest as co-pastors of Ss. Peter and Paul on the East Side (a transition not without considerable drama) and of Our Lady of Divine Providence, an earlier merger of the historically Polish parishes of St. Casimir and St. Mary of Czestochowa, both in Riverwest. “The way I put it,” he joked in a March interview, “I was in mergers, and now I’m in mergers and acquisitions.”
This used to be such a Catholic town.
As late as the 1960s, a lot of people still referred to Milwaukee neighborhoods by the names of the Catholic parishes they centered around – St. Thomas Aquinas at 36th and Brown, old St. Joe’s at 11th and Cherry, Saints Cyril and Methodius on 30th and Arthur. There were scores of parishes – ethnic German and Irish ones on the North and East Sides, Polish ones on the South and East Sides and Riverwest, an Italian one on the East Side.
And they were booming. Father Steven Avella, a Marquette University professor who’s written a two-volume history of the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese, says that at St. Leo’s Catholic Church on 25th and Locust, Sunday Masses began when workers from the nearby A.O. Smith factory got off the late shift, and continued on the hour every hour until noon. Parish compounds had bowling alleys, and served as the social centers of their neighborhoods. Couples met at church dances, married in the church, baptized their babies there, and sent them to parish schools staffed by nuns educated at Milwaukee convents. When they died, the priest would conduct a funeral Mass and bury them in a Catholic cemetery. Parishes also could be sources of aid to parishioners, through charity and even parish credit unions, Avella says. The 10-county archdiocese reached its peak number of registered Catholics in 1964, 650,000.
But that was then. Starting in the 1960s and accelerating later, white flight and de-industrialization hollowed out Catholic Milwaukee – its North Side in particular. This despite the efforts of many young priests, including Rev. James Groppi and many members of the Capuchin order, to fight racial injustice and minister to the poor. At the same time, priests and nuns were leaving the religious life, and church after church closed or consolidated with neighbors. The booming parishes now are in the suburbs, or at least on the outskirts of town – St. Mary in Hales Corners is one, St. John Vianney in Brookfield is another. Just a handful of parishes are left on the North Side. As a result, the number of black Catholics has dropped from about 12,000 in 1990 to about 3,000 today, estimates Antoinette Mensah, an ex-officio member of the archdiocese’s commission on black Catholic ministry. And many of those North Side neighborhoods lack the stabilizing, pacifying influence of those big old parishes that anchored them in the 1950s.
“The Catholic Church has been abysmal at serving the central city,” says Andrew Musgrave, head of social justice programs at Kitzke’s four parishes.
That is why, when Listecki was installed in 2010 to replace Archbishop Timothy Dolan, he made a point of saying his first parish Mass at St. Martin de Porres Church on Second and Burleigh streets. It’s also why in 2015 he named Kitzke to be the archdiocese’s vicar general for urban ministry. “The appointment of Father Kitzke reaffirms my own personal commitment to social issues in the central city of Milwaukee and throughout the metro area,” the archbishop said in his blog at the time of the appointment.
The vicarship certainly was warranted – with the gap between rich and poor, black and white, continuing to expand in metropolitan Milwaukee (infamous nationally for being one of the country’s most racially segregated metro areas). But it also is in tune with Rome, where the 2013 election of Pope Francis put new emphasis on ministry to the poor. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was called the “slum bishop” because of his frequent visits to shantytowns, according to a Reuters news story from 2014. And he’s said often since his election that he wants the Catholic Church to be “closer to the poor.”
A more cynical view of the vicarship might be that the re-emphasis on urban ministry was also a means of turning attention away from the wrenching years of priest-abuse scandals and church bankruptcy that have distracted and demoralized the archdiocese and many of its now 570,000 faithful since the abuse first came to light more than two decades ago. Listecki, whose interest in the North Side goes back to his arrival in Milwaukee, rejects that idea. “I ain’t pivoting,” he said in an interview in late June. “I’m doing the things that I know that I’m supposed to be doing.” Still, he agreed that the recent final bankruptcy settlement was likely to free up the energy that the Church had been putting into the scandal and its fallout.
The vicar general’s role has been a big challenge for Kitzke. I first heard about it well after his appointment, from my cousin Torrie Pheister and her husband, Tom. The priest was a longtime friend of the Pheisters’, going back to the time he was associate pastor of their then-parish, Holy Family. They told me in December that since he’d been appointed vicar general the previous summer he’d been working himself ragged attending multiple meetings on the North Side, and also praying with others at the sites of some of the city’s homicides – of which there were 145 in 2015. The priest was so worn out from his multiple duties, the Pheisters said, he’d fallen asleep at their kitchen table. He’d also told them about one murder scene where he’d prayed, and a boy had approached and asked, “Do you know what happened here?” – a question Kitzke found troubling because the boy seemed so young to be exposed to this violence.
Hanging over Rev. Tim Kitzke’s work as vicar general for urban ministry has been the impending appointment of one or two auxiliary bishops in Milwaukee. Archbishop Jerome Listecki’s nominations (nobody’s saying whose names are among them) have been sent to Rome, but no appointment had come down from Pope Francis as of deadline. The archdiocese’s last auxiliary, Donald Hying, was made bishop of Gary, Indiana, in 2015. Kitzke’s name has been among those mentioned in speculation about new auxiliary appointments (other names have included Rev. Jeff Haines, rector of St. John Cathedral, and Rev. Javier Bustos, the archdiocese’s vicar for Hispanic ministry). In several interviews, Kitzke never said he wanted to be a bishop – and he did say he gets the most pleasure from his role as a parish priest. Still, I’ve heard him referred to as the archbishop’s “fair-haired golden boy.” And if the call came, it would be hard to resist – not least because Kitzke’s friends do say he’s quite bad at saying “no.” If he got the appointment, he could stay in the vicar general role, but he’d be less likely to continue as pastor to the entire East Side.
In an interview in March, Kitzke still seemed to be struggling to find his way in his new role. He said he was working 60 to 70 hours a week and still didn’t have a clear blueprint for what his job as vicar general entailed. “The archbishop gave me this new title,” he said, “but with no job description. And he said, ‘Just kind of see what comes to you.’ That’s pretty much where I’m at right now, still doing the relationship-building.”
Besides his meetings on the North Side (including with Andre Lee Ellis’ central-city mentoring group, We Got This), he’d had talks with Milwaukee County officials to set up a deal by which the Catholic Church would hold funerals and burials for people who die homeless (an agreement that hadn’t been finalized as of deadline). He was on the archdiocesan priest placement board, and the board of Seton Catholic Schools, an organization that is making over Catholic education in the city. He’d also represented the archbishop at some meetings. “The parishes are doing okay,” he said in March, “but this new initiative, the work is so daunting.”
In an interview in June, though, he seemed to be more settled into his role. Earlier in the year, he had talked with Listecki, who was open to defining his role to take better advantage of two of his main strengths – organization and administration. Listecki said of the exchange: “Tim was [saying] I can’t do this, it’s too much. I calmed him down. I said that Jesus died on the cross, and [Tim is] not the Messiah.” The job, Listecki said, is “to help move the needle, not to solve all the problems.” It’s to shine a light on the problems of the city. Or as Kitzke likes to say, “I’m in sales, not production.”
In any case, since sorting the job out with Listecki, Kitzke has added three more central-city parishes to his administrative duties as new pastors take over at those locations. “I’m kind of a fixer,” he says. “I’ve been a pastor so long I kind of know how the systems work.” (He’s a champion fundraiser, as well.)
He was also helping bring in three new, young pastors at six parishes in Bay View, St. Francis and Cudahy, using his collaborative experience on the East Side as a model. And he’d been meeting with another pastor and some young Catholics to talk about a storefront presence in the booming Third Ward – something like a Christian Science Reading Room, he says.
The Riverwest Food Pantry, which has used space in two of Kitzke’s churches, represents another significant outreach to the central city. Milwaukee native Vincent Noth heads a team that serves some 12,000 people a year in a basement of a building in the St. Casimir’s Church complex (one of the seven churches Kitzke serves as co-pastor) and at Gaenslen School, both in Riverwest. Noth’s group sees food as an “entry point” to connect with poor people and help them in other parts of their lives. The group has launched two residential “mission” communities of young adults who work with them, and each week large contingents of volunteers from other churches, many of them suburban, come to help. At the start of each pantry session, Noth talks about how the pantry is a “community of generosity.” At the end, he talks to new volunteers about what they’ve seen. Most of the shoppers at the pantry are black, and most of the volunteers are white, and he lays out the statistics for black poverty in Milwaukee, and talks about the effects of segregation here. “We’re in trouble, guys,” he said at one of his so-called “101 talks” in July. “Our state is in trouble. Our city is in trouble, and we need an army of people to fight to try to bring justice to the poorest of the poor.”
“Part of the vicarship,” Noth said in an interview in March, “is about the urban parish and how it can reimagine itself, and make an impact in the neighborhood beyond just offering the sacraments… We’re past the point where we can look the other way, when one in eight people that rent will experience an eviction this year, when there are certain neighborhoods where six out of ten black kids will do prison time.”
It’s possible that efforts like this could multiply in the area, because Noth and his colleague Musgrave, social justice coordinator for Kitzke’s four parishes, are on a special committee charged with developing social justice programs for the entire archdiocese. “I am excited about what we have the capacity to do,” Musgrave says.
It must be said, not everybody is a fan of Kitzke. Bob Graf, a longtime Catholic activist and frequent demonstrator, published a blog post soon after the vicarship was announced, pointing out that the archbishop had appointed the pastor of white East Side parishes, and saying he could have done more for the central city by keeping a different priest, Rev. Carl Diederichs, as pastor of the North Side’s All Saints Church; Diederichs, who’s in his 70s, is a former Capuchin brother with a long history of ministry in the black community. Diederichs himself, who left the archdiocese after being removed from All Saints, is unhappy about how word spread about financial problems at All Saints – caused largely by the departure of a group renting a parish school building – and he suspects Kitzke, who works as that church’s administrator (and is credited by many with helping pull it out of its financial crisis), of helping spread it.
In his response to Diederichs’ concern, Kitzke held his thumb and finger an inch apart and said, “All Saints was this close to foreclosure… That’s why I was called in. I never accused him of ineptitude… They were three months behind on a million-dollar mortgage, and had $95,000 in unpaid bills. Father Carl – I was nothing but a good fellow priest to him.”
Among other non-members of “Father Tim’s groupies” are several people familiar with Ss. Peter and Paul, which Kitzke joined as co-pastor in 2010, who say he mishandled the departure of two paid parish staff members in 2012, a circumstance that caused rancor in the parish. Kitzke announced a new staff for his four affiliated parishes at Palm Sunday Mass without mentioning that the two – including a woman characterized as the “face of the parish” – weren’t rehired. Many parishioners strenuously objected, there were meetings, and some who attended felt Kitzke was defensive. Some families left the parish as a result of the dispute, and donations fell sharply for at least a time, I’m told.
Fran Findley, who served several years as president of that church’s parish council, says the parish had a tradition of collegiality between priests, staff and laity, but that went by the boards when Kitzke and two other priests ran the show. “He never really asked for input,” she says, and when they disagreed over something, “I was ignored.”
“He seems like a very outgoing, loving priest,” says Findley, “but he has zero respect for the laity and the laity’s opinion – and women especially.”
Kitzke’s response to this critique is telling. “Decisions were made that needed to be made in terms of a pastor forming his own team,” he says. “We went through due diligence with the interviews. We even had people from all the parishes on the interviewing teams. Parish councils do not hire or fire anyone. This is not a Protestant church. This is the Catholic Church. Parish councils can give input,” but authority rests in the priests, who have “holy orders.”
“There are still people that won’t talk to me there,” he says, adding: “No one should be the face of the parish except Jesus Christ.”
He also says, “The woman-man thing is very unfair.”
One final knock on Kitzke: His admitted love for being center stage rubs some people the wrong way. But this is an issue that he’s thought about carefully, going back to his doubts before his ordination in 1989.
“[If] there are people who say you’re a rock star,” he says, “everyone knows you, yeah, that’s fine, it’s kind of funny, it’s past being flattering, but on the other hand, it’s also past being worrisome. I know deep down in working with my spiritual director, there’s ego, but there’s no way for any of us that there can’t be ego. And the end result is, is the world a better place because of my efforts, and because of my popularity? Are people closer to Christ because of that, and I think that people would say, ‘Yeah,’ and I can sleep at night.”
Criticisms aside, though, most of the concern about Kitzke these days is with how much is on his plate. Some of it because, as many of his friends point out, he’s not good at turning down requests. Bishop Donald Hying of Gary, Indiana, a seminary classmate, says of him, “His gift and his burden is that he always says ‘yes.’” Tom Kitzke, who works part time now as a maintenance man at Ss. Peter and Paul and sees his brother more often than his other relatives do, says Fr. Tim is trying to go to the gym more often and eat better, to keep the job from wreaking havoc on his health. But he also says that Tim’s not coming over as often as he once did to relax on his day off with Tom and his wife in South Milwaukee. And even Archbishop Listecki concedes that he’s given Kitzke a great deal to do. “Some people think I’m riding him into the ground already,” Listecki said in June.
Antoinette Mensah, who works with him on black Catholic issues and sees the many other things he’s up to, says, “We keep Father Tim in our prayers, because he’s got a lot to do, and the issues that need to be addressed aren’t light issues.”
But burdened or not, a limelight-seeker or not, Kitzke clearly still takes pleasure in the human contacts he makes traversing the city as a priest. One Tuesday in July, he gave an invocation to help dedicate a garden at the new Sojourner Family Peace Center on Sixth and Walnut. At the event, he huddled with District Attorney John Chisholm, whose son had received First Communion from Kitzke years before at a convent in St. Francis, and with the president of the foundation that had helped launch the Sojourner center; one of the foundation’s originators had been a Kitzke parishioner. He shook hands warmly with Mark Thomas, a center executive who told me Kitzke helped him through a tough time between jobs, and had been like a second father to Thomas’ son over the years. “He’s a rock star,” Thomas said of Kitzke, more than once. Then on the way out of the building the priest greeted one of the receptionists, whose wedding he’d performed eight years ago, it turned out (“You were a beautiful bride,” he told her), and a young man whose uncle Kitzke had just buried with a memorable homily. The third person at the front desk was just happy she’d come in to work early enough to meet him.
It all looked like urban ministry to me. If, yes, by a rock star.