The foundation of Gesu Parish stretches back to the year 1849, three years after Milwaukee was incorporated as a city. Bishop Martin J. Henni built St. Gall’s Church on Second and Sycamore (present-day Michigan) Streets. This parish community was primarily English-speaking people of Irish heritage living on the near south and west sides of the city.
In 1848, Bishop Henni received a gift from a Belgian benefactor for the endowment of a Jesuit college in Milwaukee. In 1855, Henni offered St. Gall’s to the Jesuits. Bishop Henni was impressed by the world-wide accomplishments of the Jesuits and their strong commitment to education as well as ministry. He hoped that by offering St. Gall’s to the Jesuits, that much-needed schools and colleges would soon follow.
The Society of Jesus accepted Bishop Henni’s offer, and began a thriving parochial ministry in Milwaukee. In 1857, St. Aloysius Academy, the predecessor of Marquette University High School, opened. Seven years later, St. Aloysius was renamed St. Gall’s Academy and moved to a larger building. The charter for Marquette College was secured by 1864. St. Gall’s parish grew so rapidly that in 1869, they built a brick church. Within 10 years that church exceeded its capacity and in 1875 a second Jesuit parish, Holy Name Parish, was built at 11th and State Streets, next to Marquette College.
Within fifteen years, Holy Name Parish had grown so much that it too, built a second church. By this time the Jesuits were operating four grade schools—two at St. Gall’s and two at Holy Name—and Marquette College, which was a six-year combined high school and college. Bishop Henni’s hopes in bringing the Jesuits to Milwaukee were being realized.
Around that same period, land just north and west of 12th and Wisconsin became available as the Wisconsin State Fair grounds moved to West Allis.
The Jesuits bought this property in the hopes of building a church and eventually moving the college there as well. Plans were made to reunite the two Jesuit parishes into a new parish with the name Gesu. Gesu is the Italian name for Jesus and is also the name of the mother church of the Jesuits in Rome where the Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius, is buried.
The cornerstone laying ceremony on May 21, 1893, was a grand event by all newspaper accounts of the day. Thousands lined the streets, took part in a parade, and waited patiently during a two-hour ceremony. Gesu Church was completed and dedicated on December 16, 1894.
In 1899, Gesu Grade School was built on 13th and Michigan Streets and was served by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The school building included a social center with bowling alleys, a gym, running track, and meeting rooms. It was operated as a “tuition-free” school and after sixty-nine years of service, closed in June of 1968. To this day, Gesu has an active Alumni Association, many of whom remain close friends. The site of the Grade School is commemorated by a stone marker donated by the alumni.
By 1906, Marquette College was built next door to Gesu Church and had a charter from the State of Wisconsin to confer degrees and to enlarge its scope to that of a university. In 1925, the University and the High School separated, and Marquette High School moved to 34th and Wisconsin Avenue.
Today, the Society of Jesus sponsors six separate ministries in Milwaukee: Marquette University; Marquette University High School; Cristo Rey High School; Nativity Jesuit Middle School; St. Patrick’s Parish and Gesu Parish. Gesu is Jesuit-sponsored parish of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, serving the city but most especially its neighborhood, including Marquette University.