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On May 15, 2018, fire raged through Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1046 N. 9th St., just about gutting the towering gothic structure designed by architect Frederick Velguth and built in 1878.
In the days that followed, damage was assessed, and amazingly, while the roof was destroyed – along with the stained glass windows and the smaller of two steeples – the wood choir loft and pulpit and other sacred objects inside the sanctuary survived.
The devastation was intense, but so was the congregation’s intention to rebuild, and the effort to begin cleaning up the mess so that work could begin was quickly initiated.
Within less than a year, some of the church's artwork and objects had already been restored and returned.
Paris’ Note Dame Cathedral suffered a similar fate 11 months after the fire, bringing Trinity's tragedy back into focus.
In the four years since the blaze Trinity’s congregation has adapted – holding services first off-site, then in a narrow hallway in a more recent church addition – and worked hard to save its historic home, making it water tight to prevent further damage.
For a history of the church, including pre-fire photos, check out this Urban Spelunking story.
I went back in May 2021 for an update, which you can read here, and a few days after the fourth anniversary of the blaze I returned for another.
The biggest sign of progress is the undercroft chapel, which now has an organ and provides the congregation with a temporary worship space inside its home while it waits for the sanctuary above to become habitable again.
Services take place here on Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and ring with the sound of that organ and a small set-up of pipes, which were donated by Our Saviors ELCA, which was closing, and by organ tuner Stanton Peters.
At the moment, the sanctuary is still packed with scaffolding making it difficult to see much. But you can clearly spot the pulpit and choir loft parapet.
The congregation is committed to as faithful a restoration as possible.
Rev. M. Douglas Peters, Trinity’s pastor since November 2019, points out that the walls will be plaster – not drywall – and there will again be under-pew heating pipes, though likely with hot water rather than steam. The capitals on the pillars have survived, too, and remain in place.
As much woodwork was rescued as possible and will be put back in place, with new pieces replacing lost originals. The same will be true for plaster details. New materials are being created from casts of originals.
With work continuing apace, Peters says that the project is entering a new phase.
“We're shifting into campaign mode, as now I've got a more clear picture where we're headed,” he says, as we don our vests, protective glasses and hard hats to enter the sanctuary.
“We held off because we didn't know how much we needed," he adds. "And now we know how much we need, and now we know what the process is going to be and what it's going to look like.”
What Trinity needs is $6 million, which includes about $1 million for the kind of work that needs to happen to gain occupancy, $2 million for an organ suited to a church like Trinity and another $3 million for “the pretty stuff,” like stained glass, pews, woodwork and finishes, plus the cupola and steeple.
But the priority expenses right now are the ones required for the congregation to get back into the sanctuary for worship. Doing that as quickly as possible will help allay costs of the project, Peters says.
“Essentially if we can get the scaffolding out, because that's a very expensive rental that we have to pay for every month, that will obviously cut off a lot of the expenditures,” he says. “So as soon as we can get a final paint on the ceiling, we can drop the scaffolding.”
The congregation is hoping it can raise enough to be back in the sanctuary relatively soon. The rest of the work can then follow at its own pace.
“If we had all the money today, it would take us two years at the minimum because we need to have the (organ), and that takes two years to build,” says Peters. “But ultimately if we were able to raise the first million dollars, which is our first goal, so that we can get occupancy, we think that we would be able to be into the building probably by July of '23.”
Trinity is hoping for individual gifts, but also funds from grants and philanthropic foundations, as well.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck campaign,” Peters says. “This church has been a beacon in Downtown Milwaukee for so long. And especially now, as we're seeing, it's been a rough couple of years here, but it seems to be getting really, really tough the last couple of weeks, with everything going down on the street.
“We need this church to be restored. And it needs to be done.”
Peters is optimistic for the future of the church and for the fundraising campaign.
“The way I've looked at it, approached it, is I'm just grateful anyone's involved,” he says. “I want to take it that the glass is half full, because ultimately it's not my glass to fill. It's our Lord's. And He's going to fill it according to His good and gracious will.”
If you’d like to donate, please visit trinitymilwaukee.org.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.