Yesterday’s Milwaukee

Milwaukee & Rock River Canal, 1870

Near what is now Cherry St., and the fabulous Notre Dame convent atop the hill.

By - Sep 7th, 2016 10:14 am
Milwaukee & Rock River Canal, 1870. Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

Milwaukee & Rock River Canal, 1870. Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

The last photo in this series on the Milwaukee & Rock River canal is of a section which first began planning in the late 1830s. This photograph is a stereoview, circa 1870. This is at the southern terminus of the ill-fated canal, located approximately where the Cherry St. bridge now stands.

This is a view of the Point St. bridge. The shed in the left foreground is actually on a small island created by the canal. It is connected to the end of a wooden swing bridge, turned to accommodate boat traffic. Across the river is a busy sawmill, but the dominant brick structure here — at the top of the photo — is a convent.

This is the Notre Dame convent, established by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1850, at the southwest corner of Milwaukee and Knapp streets. Their leader, Mother Caroline Friess, had “arrived in Milwaukee with funding from King Louis of Bavaria to establish the first Motherhouse of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in the United States,” as the website Milwaukee Murmur recounts.

“Under her leadership, the convent at 1324 N. Milwaukee St. grew from ‘a little pioneer home hidden under mighty trees’ to the ‘house with four chimneys’ to a massive red brick complex that dominated the lower East Side skyline.” The original convent building from 1850 was incorporated into the one you see in this stereoview, which is a later and far larger structure. This is the west facade, which was constructed between 1852 and 1862. This section of the convent housed the St. Mary’s Institute, a boarding school for young ladies.

The convent’s chapel “contained more than 5,000 authenticated relics of saints, and its infirmary was marked with a mammoth stone crucifix that stood for 100 years,” Milwaukee Murmur recounts. “For decades, it was one of the largest buildings in the city, and a well-known landmark for navigators. The Notre Dame Convent was not just a place of worship and study, but a finishing school for girls from Milwaukee’s most elite families, including the daughters of Solomon Juneau. It was described as a ‘city unto itself,’ housing not only students, but over 150 nuns (active, retired and infirm.) The sisters were totally self-sufficient, serving as their own chefs, gardeners, bakers, cobblers, seamstresses, barbers, printers, and musicians.

“On June 17, 1873, a ‘supernatural miracle’ was reported here when a 19-year-old girl in the final stages of consumption was totally healed by the appearance of the Virgin Mary.”

The school, however, would close in 1886 and was converted for other convent purposes. The sisters would open a second school in Prairie du Chien in 1872 that would become the predecessor for Mount Mary College (now University) which would relocate back in this area in 1928.

But the convent remained at this location until it was demolished in the 1950s and the nuns were relocated to another of their convents in Elm Grove, WI. “When the Sisters built the $6 million Notre Dame of the Lake in 1957 – now the home of Concordia University in Mequon – their 106-year-old convent was left behind,” Milwaukee Murmur recounts. “Incredibly, this majestic old building became a symbol of ‘blight’ and a target for modernization. Workmen surveying the building in 1958 were struck by the pristine condition of the convent interiors, which were decorated in European hardwoods, elaborate marbles and ancient stained glass.” Yet the entire complex and everything in it, “including the fountain and all of the wrought ironwork, was destroyed and sold for scrap.”

By 1960, a home for the elderly named “Convent Hill” arose at this location. Some of the old convent’s bells do survive and are sheltered in a small tower on the site. That – and a history display in the lobby — are all that now remain of the once huge complex envisioned by Mother Caroline.

Jeff Beutner is a collector of photographs, postcards and stereoviews of old Milwaukee. This column features these images, with historical commentary by Beutner.

3 thoughts on “Yesterday’s Milwaukee: Milwaukee & Rock River Canal, 1870”

  1. Mary Beth Leitzmann says:

    I graduated from Mount Mary and thoroughly enjoyed this amazing history if the sisters. They were strong dedicated women. Mr Buetner are you related to Ray and Marie Buetner? They would have been your great grandparents. My grandmother was a Buetner. Thank you

  2. Casey says:

    What a sad story aboit the demise of what couldve been a historic gem for this city.

  3. Loreen Kay Riemer says:

    I visited my great, gray aunt who was in charge of the Norte Dame Motherhouse in the late 40’s or 50’s. Her name was Sister St. Francis Xavier.
    Would love to find any info about her.
    I do remember attending her funeral @ the elegant Motherhouse @ that time

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