By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Apr 04, 2004 at 5:22 AM

While the Muzak jingles, employees at Stemper's Religious Articles talk about -- what else? -- Easter. But this family-owned company in Bay View, officially called the T.H. Stemper Co. Quality Church Supplies, enjoys a brisk business regardless of the season.

Since 1946, Stemper's (1125 E. Potter Ave.) has furnished churches and clergy throughout the Midwest with all of the items needed to run a sanctuary. Co-owner Peter Stemper admits it's the kind of business that no one thinks about owning and operating. After all, who questions where communion wafers come from? (Which, for the record, are available at Stemper's in two flavors -- regular or wheat -- and sell in a big plastic jar for $8-10.)

Stemper's has the largest selection of liturgical garments (robes) in the country. Most of these vestments are imported from Belgium and Holland. Bronze, wood and marble sculptures of the holy family are also imported from Italy, Germany and Spain.

Ornate tabernacles, candlesticks, chalises, books, cards, rosaries, crosses, art -- including a fantastic selection of Latin American religious folk art -- and thorn crowns are also available.

"And we also sell an awful lot of candles," says Stemper, the grandson of the company's founder.

In 1911, T.H. Stemper, a teacher and organist, purchased the bankrupt European Art and Statuary Company. In 1913, he purchased a religious goods center, and in 1946 combined the two businesses into one.

Today, Stemper's daughter, Jean, and her six sons -- including Peter -- run the company. Most of the seven great-grandchildren are already helping out and will be the fourth generation of Stempers to manage the family's business.

The Stemper family is Catholic, but the business is non-demoninational, serving religious structures and leaders of many different faiths.

The 90-something-year-old company offers a mail-order catalog business, restoration service, engraving shop and consignment center selling a rotating selection of used church furnishings like nativity scenes, pews, candle sticks and statues.

"Many churches find the consignment center very helpful," says Stemper, who has worked in the spiritual shop since 1975. "Especially churches that couldn't otherwise afford these items. We believe in restoring and reusing."

Restoration is a lucrative aspect of the business, and a few of the six Stemper sons are skilled in refinishing brass and bronze appointments, replicating sacred vessels and restoring statuary.

Over the years, Stemper and his brothers have worked with a number of churches that were vandalized.

"Remember that nut in Baraboo?" he asks. "We worked with them to replace their statuary after it was vandalized. Most church supplies are made with quality materials, and are meant to be restored."


These days, it's not just clergy and grandparents from the "old country" shopping at Stemper's. Many young people -- especially teenagers who call themselves "straight edge" -- are just as likely to pick up a book or a piece of spiritual art. Also, icons like the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart have become increasingly popular aesthetics, even appearing on T-shirts and as the subject of tattoos.

This is good news for Stemper's, an innovative Milwaukee business that continues to change with the needs of its ever-evolving clientel while staying committed to the original mission. Amen to that.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.