I have always loved the word serendipity. For one thing, it’s fun to pronounce, being a kind of combination of serene and zip-a-dee (as in do dah!); it combines a happy sense of well being with a frisson of excitement. But more than the word, I love the phenomenon of finding something valuable or agreeable that I wasn’t even looking for.
So it was with the Golden Jubilee Book of Monsignor Edward J. Blackwell With a Sketch of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Milwaukee, by the Rev. Peter Leo Johnson, D.D., 1937. I do keep an eye on eBay for books in my specialty area of Milwaukee history, but I don’t generally purchase parish histories. I have no reason for avoiding them except that they usually seem to be priced at about what I think I could sell them for, and I have to at least pretend that I’m trying to make a profit at this bookselling stuff.
However, this book was listed several times, at a diminishing price every time, and I finally “bit.” I bid, I won, I paid, and in due course, the the package arrived. I was, as is often the case, disapointed to see that the seller’s “very good” was my “good”, but the book is scarce, the content desirable, and I think it will sell, so oh well.
As I examined the book more closely, I found that the name of the “jubilant” Rev. Blackwell looked familiar but it took me some time to place it. I finally found it on a copy of my grandmother’s marriage certificate. On the 17th of April in 1917, the Rev. Blackwell joined my ancestors in holy matrimony. My grandparents’ nuptials were among the 1,416 marriages performed at St. Thomas Aquinas parish by 1937.
This was not only interesting, but a genealogical tidbit that was new to me, since my grandparents’ place of marriage had been recorded by a genealogist as St. Thomas, rather than St. Thomas Aquinas. It also was interesting because I knew that my grandmother had worked in Milwaukee as a maid before her marriage, and the location of the parish would give me some idea of where in the city she might have worked.
St. Thomas Aquinas parish was established by the Rev. Blackwell in 1900 to serve the English speaking Catholics in northwest Milwaukee, and it made it almost to the century mark. But in 1994, it was merged with five other parishes to form All Saints congregation. Wherever the church building had been, it was no longer easily Googled. However, I was able to find a reference to the parish in an old obituary from 1950, which gave an address: 35th St. and Brown Ave.
A quick tour with Google street view confirms that the building still present on the corner of 35th and Brown, though minus its cross on top, is unmistakably the same as that pictured in the 1937 Golden Jubilee book.
St. Thomas Aquinas was an almost new church when my grandparents were married there. A look at the picture in the book provides a view of the main aisle as they must have seen it on their wedding day.
The aisle is long and majestic, and I imagine my grandmother as a young bride, walking down toward her husband to be, on her father’s arm, past the pews filled with family and friends. Perhaps she was thrilled, perhaps scared, probably a little of both. And now I can join her, in my imagination, through the serendipitous discovery of this little book that I almost didn’t buy.