A Brief History
Casa Romero Renewal Center utilizes an historic School Sister of Notre Dame convent. Built in 1888 under the guidance of Mother Caroline Friess, the School Sisters continuously lived in the convent for over 100 years. By the mid 1990’s, however, the parochial school at Holy Trinity-Our Lady of Guadalupe had closed and the sisters had moved on to other ministries. The convent stood vacant and vandalized.
In June, 1996, Fr. David Shields, SJ was making his annual retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
One evening, as the summer sun set over lovely Lake Winnebago, Fr. Shields was listening to the story of the martyrs of the University of Central America (the six Jesuits and two women) in El Salvador. Deeply moved by what he heard, he uttered a barely articulated prayer to participate in the graces of this event. The moment passed. Life went on. But in retrospect, Fr. Shield’s remains convinced that Casa Romero is the fruit and answer to that halting lakeside prayer, “I want some of that.”
In May, 1998, while working at nearby St. Patrick Parish, Fr. Shields toured this old wreck of a building. For him, however, it was what he calls his “Dulcinea Moment,” an enchanting experience of ‘what could be’ without clearly seeing what actually is. So, he wondered if this old house of many prayers might not be rehabilitated for the benefit of the local Hispanic families. Initially, the idea never wandered beyond imagining an entity more extensive than the parochial.
And so it was that in May, 1998, a group of five from Holy Trinity/Our Lady of Guadalupe parish met over lunch to discuss how this empty building might become life-giving again. Fr. Mike Michalski (pastor), Ms. Eloise Sasmano-Willimason (parish council president), Mr. Fred Hang (parishioner), Mr. Pedro Martinez (Archdiocesan Director of Hispanic Ministry), Mr. Roberto Cortés (District 14 Archdiocesan representative, and Fr. David Shields, SJ (associate pastor of St Patrick Congregation) decided to explore options for making “modest repairs” to the building and starting an urban renewal center for local Hispanic families. This idea was presented to the District 14 pastors and was seen as a good thing, though it was clear that the parishes could not fund the project.
Mr. Luis Barbosa, an architect from BMR Associates, was contacted to propose some plans for minimal remodeling. Barbosa involved Mr. Petrin Razo of Razo Construction as the general contractor. Between themselves, these two experienced builders were certain that the priest had no idea of what he was getting into and that he would soon lose interest. They were half right. It’s just that the priest didn’t know enough to quit.
Then volunteers got involved. The Ignatian Associates arrived, children and all, to “clean up and clear out” years of detritus. Other volunteer groups, including Notre Dame Sisters who had lived there when it was a convent, came to help. Mr. Jim Ewens initiated the wood-stripping. After a century of occupation and numerous coats of white, green and pink paint, it was time to bring back the natural wood. It would take almost a year and a half to restore the whole house. Bill and Lynn Wagner gave hundreds of hours to this project. And many more volunteers came…
Moving forward, an advisory board was formed to guide the process and to raise the necessary funds for the “simple renovations.” Mr. Fred Leyva and Ms. Katie McManus, along with a representative of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, joined the original five.
However, the “simple” idea continued to evolve. Each step taken relentlessly pushed the center to separate from the parish and to incorporate as a 501c)3. And so it was that after two years of continuous effort by many people, sufficient money was raised to rehab the facility.
Casa Romero Renewal Center opened in July, 2001.
The center has taken Bishop Oscar Romero, the bishop-martyr of San Salvador, El Salvador as its inspiration and formal patron. Killed on March 24, 1980 as he celebrated Mass, he was known as an advocate for his people: “You are the voice of those who have no voice,” Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ once told him.
Casa Romero Renewal Center sees its mission to renew and form individuals, to strengthen families, and to build community, especially in Milwaukee’s Latino community. Since its inception, the center has endeavored to provide an accessible and affordable meeting place in the midst of the city’s urban scene. Through its creative and original bilingual programming, Casa Romero strives to offer spiritual formation to leaders in the Latino community.
Casa Romero is listed by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee as a Catholic retreat center in the archdiocese and considered one of five retreat houses at work in the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). However, the center is not financially supported by either the archdiocese or the Jesuits, or any other entity, but raises its own funds through events, individual gifts, grants, fees and the free-will offerings of participants.