Of all the European immigrants who settled in Milwaukee, Italians were among the last to arrive. The vast majority came from Sicily, and their numbers didn’t exceed 1,000 until the 1890s – decades after Germans and Poles had locked down first and second places in the city’s ethnic hierarchy. The newcomers’ neighborhood of choice was the Third Ward, a working-class enclave settled by Irish immigrants in the 1840s. The Irish left in droves after a catastrophic 1892 fire, and the Sicilians poured in behind them, turning the Ward into Milwaukee’s Little Italy, a dense community of simple homes, small businesses and one humble Catholic church.
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Blessed Virgin of Pompeii, pictured here in the mid-1960s, stood on the west side of Jackson Street between Clybourn and St. Paul. Its modest scale reflected the modest circumstances of its founders. The church was built in 1904 for a total of $10,000, and it had room for about 200 congregants, squeezed tightly into the pews. The building’s architect, Erhard Brielmaier, was a master of versatility; he also designed The Basilica of St. Josaphat, which had a seating capacity of 2,400 and a final cost of roughly $600,000.
Blessed Virgin of Pompeii became the social and spiritual anchor of the Italian community and remained a touchstone even after many of its members moved to the Lower East Side. But even the most cherished buildings can’t withstand the march of “progress.” In 1967, the church was demolished to make way for Interstate 794 – shortly after being declared the city’s first official landmark.
TAKE A CLOSER LOOK:
- The angel perched high above the main entrance was relocated to St. Rita Church, Pompeii’s daughter parish on Cass Street, after the 1967 demolition.
- Pompeii was known as “the little pink church” after its Cream City brick was covered with paint.
- These members of a parish religious society have gathered to carry an image of their patron around the Third Ward, a tradition renewed at every Festa Italiana.
IN COLLABORATION WITH MILWAUKEE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY