Celebrating 150 faith-filled years

Parkside Church marks long legacy with new name, new pastor, same mission

PARKSIDE COMMUNITY UCC Pastor Michelle Freeman, who joined the congregation in January, and Council President Mark Gierach stood outside the current sanctuary (below), which was built in 1995 as part of an expansion. Photos by Sam Arendt

THE ORIGINAL ST. PETER’S CHURCH building is shown in 1868 when it was founded and before the steeple was added (top photo). The original church serves today as the church’s fellowship hall and is still decorated with original stained-glass windows. (Below) Members of the St. Peter’s Church admired produce and canned goods donated to Deaconness Hospital in Milwaukee by church members in 1942. The spirit behind the annual collection continues as the church hosts the Saukville Community Food Pantry in its basement.

ST. PETER’S CHURCH CONGREGATION (top photo) gathered outside the church in 1928 to mark the church’s 60th anniversary. (Below) Saukville Community Food Pantry volunteers helped distribute food last week at the church. Bottom photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press Staff

After 150 years, the congregation of Parkside Community United Church of Christ in Saukville, formerly St. Peter’s UCC, is celebrating its history while at the same time “boldly looking toward the future.”

Beginning with a new name and a new pastor.

Pastor Michelle Freeman joined the congregation in January as its first woman pastor and its first African-American pastor. Plus, she’s from Texas, which probably makes her the first pastor from the south, she said.

“I definitely am a whole degree of different. It just required me to change my wardrobe, like actually buy a long coat,” said Freeman, who grew up in Austin and moved to Saukville from Houston.

The other big change was renaming the church from St. Peter’s to Parkside.

The name change occurred in October last year and was the result of a visioning process begun earlier in 2017, Freeman and council President Mark Gierach said.

“The primary reason,” Gierach said, “is you would have visitors come in and confuse us with St. Peters (Catholic Church) in Port Washington and many times the name St. Peters is associated with being a Lutheran or Catholic church. We thought it was time to change that and have us come up with something that would set us apart from other churches.

“Now seemed it would be a good time celebrating the previous 150 and moving into the future as Parkside.”

The name Parkside is self-evident due to the church’s location next to Grady Park in the center of the village.

“It was a discussion that took place over a year’s time,” Gierach said. “The congregation looked at a number of names. There weren’t any major controversies over the change.” 

Freeman said the name also fits with the future vision of the church, “being green, being progressive in the community. It was a very deliberate decision. 

“It was surprisingly not controversial” she said. “It was a very amicable decision.”

The church was founded in 1868 by German Evangelical Lutheran settlers. It underwent several denominational mergers over the years until it became part of the United Church of Christ in the second half of the 20th century, which today has about 1 million members nationwide.

The church is located where it originally was founded at 166 W. Dekorah St. in Saukville, except that the original church structure now constitutes the fellowship hall while today’s sanctuary is part of a 1995 addition that tripled the church’s size.

The Saukville Community Food Pantry is located in the church basement.

Hosting the food pantry is consistent with the church’s long-term goal of being missional in the community, Freeman said, something that attracted her to the congregation.

“Parkside has always had a really, really good mission and was looking for  a pastor that would help them pursue justice work,” Freeman said. “It’s a very progressive community with a progressive message. That’s the part that has been rewarding and enriching for me, that we have the opportunity to do this work together. It’s an extension of what they’ve always done, we’re just taking it to a different level.”

Other community mission activities include hosting a twice-monthly community meal co-sponsored with other area churches, a meal for senior citizens, an annual school supply drive, after school programs and a senior resource center, said Gierach, whose wife, Nancy, grew up in the church and whose family have been members for the past 90-some years.

“This church in the last probably 15 years has become a very heavily mission-driven church both inside and outside the facility,” he said. “The building is open to the community. That has become a focus of the church.

“In 2014 the church became open and affirming — open to all races, all sexual orientations, handicapped accessible. Open to everyone. That was a large statement the church made.”

That extends to the calling of their new pastor.

Freeman was called on Nov. 5 last year and began at the church in January. For the past 22 years she has been married to her wife, another UCC pastor currently working as a hospital chaplain in Evansville, Ind.

“This is my first call to lead a parish,” Freeman said. “I was doing a lot of interfaith and lay ministry work. I’m really enjoying it.

“Moving from an area of 7 million people to a town of 4,500 that shuts down about 7 to 8 p.m. every night is a big change, but I’m excited about this congregation,” she said.

“In our denomination you have to be called,” as opposed to being assigned to a parish. “So if you’re there it’s because they want you,” Freeman said. “It actually shocked me they wanted me, that they would pick, not so much, a female, but they picked an African-American. I thought that was very much in left field for them. But so far it’s been a good thing.”

Freeman said she is one of only two black female UCC pastors in Wisconsin. There is just one male African-American pastor in Wisconsin, she said.

Like many traditional churches, membership and average Sunday attendance at Parkside has suffered in recent decades, Gierach said. Today, active membership stands at about 150 and weekly attendance averages about 45, he said.

“Family life used to revolve around the church, whatever church that may have been,” he said. “Today there are many competing activities that are put as a priority before church.”

The church’s history can be viewed inside its walls. One display documents the church’s history and includes mementoes from its past. Fellowship hall still displays the church’s original stained glass windows and the names of its foundational families that donated them.

The big anniversary celebration is planned for Oct. 28, Freeman said. That will include a sit down dinner and members of the Saukville village government are expected to attend.

Other events marking the 150th anniversary include a community walk on July 29, an Aug. 5 visit from former pastors, and an outdoor worship service at Grady Park on Aug. 12, which will include a blessing of the animals.




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