History of Wilmette’s Saint Joseph Church

by Most Rev. Francis Kane,
former pastor

The official history of St. Joseph Parish begins on November 21, 1845 when Fr. Gerhard Plathe of Boston was appointed as the first pastor. However, history is seldom that simple. In fact, the roots of the parish go back even further. Moreover, the tale of St. Joseph is one of the most fascinating stories of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Fr. Plathe arrived at what would become Ridge Rd. and Lake Ave. by stagecoach or horseback in November of 1845. This was even before there was a railroad to serve the area. His first official act was to celebrate mass in a little log chapel just north of Lake Ave. and Ridge Rd.

The early settlers who were here to greet him came from the region of Trier, Germany. They were farmers and predominately Catholic. They also believed in the principle that “if you build it, they will come.” So they had constructed this small log cabin chapel in 1843. It was for the itinerant priest on horseback who came occasionally to say mass in the village.

In that same year, the new diocese of Chicago was created. Bishop Quarter, the first bishop, had just two priests and five parishes to cover the entire northern tier of the state. Little more than a year after the diocese was founded, he established the first new parish in 1845. It was St. Joseph in Wilmette with its little log cabin chapel.

The parish flourished and the first St. Joseph Parish School was organized under the direction of lay teachers in the mid 1850’s. In September of 1877, the School Sisters of St. Francis came from Milwaukee to staff the school. They remained for more than one hundred years.

The parish grew incredibly over the first twenty-five years of its existence, but there were “challenges”. Several new parishes were divided off from St. Joseph to serve the growing Catholic community on the North Shore. For the priests who ministered here, the work was overwhelming and the conditions were harsh. In the twenty-five years, nine different pastors served the parish. Some lasted less than a year.

To accommodate the increasing population, a larger frame church replaced the log chapel in 1850. In 1869, St. Joseph built its first permanent, brick church. While the structure was impressive, it was problematic. Construction was poor. Financially, it was a disaster. Some walls had to be torn down and rebuilt. It proved too much for the pastor at the time and he resigned, broken in body and spirit. This Church lasted for little more than sixty years. The story of its replacement is one of the great legends of the Archdiocese. But more about that later.

In 1872, a young priest of the diocese, who had been born in Germany, was sent to St. Joseph to rescue the parish from its building and financial disasters. His name was Fr. William Netstraeter. He was German speaking, which was essential since most of the parishioners still spoke the language. The bishop promised him that if he stayed for two years and did a good job, he would be made pastor of a coveted city parish. Fr. Netstraeter did an excellent job, but he did not want to leave. In fact, he stayed for the next fifty-two years!

It would be an understatement to say Fr. Netstraeter was an extraordinary man. Along with his duties as pastor, at one point Archbishop Feehan asked him to serve as editor of the New World. English was Fr. Netstraeter’s second language. However, he was undoubtably chosen to be the editor, not because of his journalistic talents or the eloquence of his language skills, but because of his financial abilities.

Fr. Netstraeter was also remarkably active in the community. He served as mayor of Wilmette three times! In 1899, he and two other respected leaders created a local community high school. It was called New Trier. There was no local cemetery for non-Catholics in the area and the St. Joseph Cemetery was rapidly filling up. Fr. Netstraeter started a cemetery to respond to this need. Today, it is known as Memorial Park at Ridge Rd. and Old Orchard Rd.

At the turn of the century, tuberculosis was a terrifying disease. Contemporary wisdom prescribed bed rest and isolation in a sanitarium. Fr. Netstraeter prevailed upon the School Sisters of St. Francis to open a facility in Wilmette just north of Lake St. on Ridge Rd. Unfortunately, the Village Board could not be persuaded to approve the undertaking and the Sisters abandoned the project. The land stood vacant for many years. However, in 1916 he encouraged the Sisters of Christian Charity to utilize the land to build their motherhouse and novitiate. It became known as Mallinckrodt College.

Fr. Netstraeter also had a “hobby” of dealing in real estate. He would buy land in the village and then sell it to people immigrating from Germany. This enabled him to increase the parish census. Since he did not take a salary, it also enabled him to support himself. When he died in 1923, he had what amounted to a respectable fortune of $300,000. In his will, he left it all to St. Joseph with the stipulation that the money be used to build a new church to replace the church building he had come to rescue fifty years before.

Taking the place of Fr. Netstraeter was another remarkable pastor, Msgr. John Neumann. In a sense, Msgr. Neumann has never received proper credit for his enormous contributions. The entire parish plant: the school, the church and rectory, the convent, and the annex next to church were all built while Msgr. Neumann was pastor.

For these building projects Msgr. Neumann used some very ingenious financing. In 1934, the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression. Still, St. Joseph desperately needed to replace its school. By selling subscriptions for bonds, Msgr. Neumann built an extraordinary building which remains “state of the art” to this day. President Roosevelt sent a letter commending the people of St. Joseph for their foresight and courage because it was the only public building constructed in the Midwest that year.

The building of the church, which is shrouded in legend, is more intriguing. It involved finances, but not in a way you might expect. Fr. Netstraeter had left all his money to the parish to build a new church. However, Cardinal Mundelein, who was the bishop at the time, never quite got around to this project. The diocese had put all its resources into establishing the seminary at Mundelein. Then, the terrible depression hit, and the church at St. Joseph remained unbuilt.

At this same time, Hitler began his alarming rise in Germany. Cardinal Mundelein was of German ancestry and he wanted people to know he held Hitler in utter contempt In a speech in New York, Cardinal Mundelein compared Hitler, who fancied himself an artist, to a house painter or wallpaper hanger and not a very good one at that. Hitler was ridiculed in the international press after the speech. The story is told that Hitler vowed to get even with Cardinal Mundelein and sent agents to Chicago to see if they could uncover some scandal. The only irregularity they discovered was the will of Fr. Netstraeter which had never been executed. Supposedly, Hitler forced the relatives of Fr. Netstraeter who still lived in Germany to sue the Archdiocese in order to embarrass Cardinal Mundelein. Even the Vatican heard of the suit. Fortunately, the case was thrown out of court. Still, the Vatican told Cardinal Mundelein: “build the church.” And so on the eve of World War II, the magnificent Church of St. Joseph was built and no expense was spared. It was dedicated by Cardinal Mundelein in late September of 1939. It was to be his last public appearance. The Cardinal died suddenly just a few days after the dedication.

After the war, Msgr. Neumann built the convent and the annex to the church. It is said Msgr. Neumann and a team of parishioners raised the money to build the annex attached to the church on one Sunday afternoon in 1960. It was needed to meet the challenge of the booming population which had turned Wilmette from a sleepy farm village on the outskirts of Chicago to one of the great suburbs of the city.

As the parish grew, the number of young families moving into the parish brought great life to St. Joseph. With the blessing of Msgr. Neumann, Msgr. Reynold Hillebrand, who was the pastor of Sacred Heart in Winnetka, began a discussion group in 1947 with young Catholic couples mostly from St. Joseph under the leadership of Pat and Patty Crowley. It was the beginning of the Christian Family Movement, or CFM, which eventually spread worldwide.

In 1964, Msgr. Neumann died and Msgr. Charles Meter became pastor of St. Joseph. He too, was larger than life. Msgr. Meter had grown up in Wilmette. He had taught for many years at Quigley Seminary. He also served as director of Music for the Archdiocese and conducted the Cathedral Choristers. He enjoyed a national and international reputation as a preeminent musician.

Msgr. Meter was able to put his talents to work in St. Joseph at a critical moment in the history of the parish. It was the time of Vatican II with monumental changes in the liturgical life of the Church. Msgr. Meter helped to guide the parish through these great changes. At the same time, he successfully oversaw the transition of St. Joseph into a great suburban parish.

In 1981, Msgr. Meter retired and Fr. Donald Cusack, the rector of Quigley Seminary became the pastor. Again, it was a time of transition. Fr. Cusack was the first non-German pastor of the parish. The Sisters of St. Francis, who had staffed the parish school for more than one hundred years, were not able to continue their service to the parish. It was also the end of the post World War II “baby boom.” The dramatic demographic shifts in the population meant that there were far fewer children. Along with several public schools in the village that closed, St. Joseph School was forced to shut its doors in the Spring of 1986. After guiding St. Joseph through twelve years of change, Fr. Cusack completed his two terms as pastor in 1993 and retired to become chaplain at St. Therese Hospital in Waukegan. He died November 17, 1996. On October 6, 1998, Msgr. Meter, who had continued to live at the parish, also passed away.

Since 1993, much has transpired. The parish marked its 150th anniversary with great celebration in 1995. The school, which had been shuttered for ten years, has reopened. It began as a preschool in 1996. Then in 1998, the school was completely renovated and updated to serve children in preschool through eighth grade. The school population has already reached over 300 students and continues to grow. The Religious Education Program has also experienced a tremendous growth. It has more than doubled in size since 1998. The convent was also reopened in 1997 to house the Sisters of Christian Charity.

It has been an incredible story. While these few pages touch on some of the highlights, a book could certainly be written about it. More importantly for us, it is our turn now to write the next chapter in the history of this great parish.