A block or so from the mysterious old building we featured in a previous article, lies another historical curiosity. It’s easily spotted as you exit I-794 at Jackson/Van Buren (due to construction this is currently an on-ramp), and it’s passed by thousands of cars daily. In 1967, a marker was placed here under a freeway overpass.
It’s an odd place for the little “Pompeii Square” if you’re unfamiliar with Milwaukee’s immigrant past.
The Third Ward, currently an expensive and trendy neighborhood just south of downtown, was at one time the home to most of Milwaukee’s Italian (Sicilian) immigrant population. This heritage is still carried on just a couple of blocks south at the Italian Community Center. Until 1967, however, the focal point for the Italian community was Our Lady of Pompeii Catholic Church and Parish.
Built in 1904, the Little Pink Church was a huge part of many prominent Milwaukee Italian families who are still around today. Father James Groppi, one of Milwaukee’s civil rights leaders, was baptized there. Alioto, Carini, Sparacino, Sanfelippo: the list goes on.
In the 1950s and 60s, Italian families started moving away from the downtown area. At the same time Urban Renewal was taking hold in Milwaukee political circles, and freeways to/from the booming suburbs were the new standard. Consequently, the slowly decaying neighborhoods, such as the Third Ward, were slated for the wrecking ball, starting with the Little Pink Church.
Our Lady of Pompeii was torn down not to build the on/off-ramp in its place today, but instead for the never-completed Park Freeway. The city tried in vain to stop the demolishing, naming the church the first ever Landmark of the City of Milwaukee in 1967 -just weeks before its destruction. Many artifacts, including the original bell, were saved and are housed at the Italian Community Center.
Today, all that remains on the site of this cultural hub is a sign, a couple of benches, and a small, dated monument with an homage to the original Rose Window (which needs a good cleaning). Around it, construction rumbles and cars whiz pass. Even though this space is tiny and oft-overlooked, the members of the Little Pink Church would be happy to see how successful and prevalent their Italian (ahem, Sicilian) descendants have become in this city.