Capuchin Community Services with two locations, House of Peace and St. Ben’s Community Meal, dates back to 1968 when the House of Peace was founded by Capuchin Friar Brother Booker Ashe.
House of Peace
The House of Peace Community Center opened its doors in the last week of February 1968 in a storefront at 1835 West Walnut Street. It was an outreach ministry of St. Francis of Assisi parish at 4th and Brown Streets. At the time of its opening, the near north side was almost certainly the most unstable neighborhood in Milwaukee. Milwaukee had been racked the previous summer with civil disturbances which claimed the lives of a number of citizens and police officers and which resulted in the looting of businesses and the destruction by fire of many properties. Racial tensions were high and animosities, distrust, and despair were common.
A St. Francis parish bulletin from the summer of 1967 reveals much about those times:
This bulletin is being typed on the afternoon following the disorders on Third St. The silence is incredible for a summer day in the city. The only sounds we hear are the barking of the janitor’s dog and the chirping of two birds in the maple tree outside the office window. Last night was different. Then everything was noise and confusion. Yes, we were on Third Street during the disorders, which lasted from about 11:00 to 12:30. They were not as simple as a mob scene depicted in a movie. . . . Some were there to simply to share the excitement. They did not want to miss anything. . . . Many were there as spectators, not participants, helpless in their anguish as the disorders slithered up and down Third Street.
Perceptive enough to recognize who would be the real sufferers, they still felt resentment at the official show of force. . . Some participants seemed like psychotics whose personality disorders were exposed by their emotional frenzy and yelling. A man who attempted to attack the Capuchin Pastor was bleeding from cuts on his hands and arms he apparently didn’t even feel. His eyes were dilated, his shirt soaked with sweat, and his voice was harsh with incessant shouting of obscenities. Some pulled the man away from the Capuchin Pastor and tried to restrain him. Others took the friar across the street as the man still hurled stones at them.
Indeed, a riot is not a simple thing.
It was in that social setting that Father Wilbert Lanser, OFM, Cap., and a fellow friar conceived the idea of a community service center as an outreach of St. Francis parish. Brother Booker Ashe, O.F.M., Capuchin, was commissioned to open and minister to those who would frequent it.
Brother Booker was 36 years old when he opened the House of Peace. He and the House of Peace became alter egos for the following three decades. Over those 30 and the years hence, the mission of the House of Peace has evolved with the felt necessities of the times.
The core mission has been focused and stable: assisting those with basic subsistence needs. This mission is based on the gospel message of Matthew 25: 31 et seq.
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'"
The House of Peace has always been a place where those who are blessed with more than they need have shared with those who have less than they need whether the need is food, clothing, emergency financial assistance, nursing assistance, a shoulder to cry on or a friend to lean on. The House of Peace has ever been a place of help.
In the early years, the House of Peace was also very much a place of growth, learning, and healing.
The House of Peace was devoted to developing African-American empowerment. A black cultural library was developed, consisting of books, records, tapes, periodicals, films, and cultural artifacts. The House of Peace also regularly conducted workshops and other group sessions devoted to discussing issues of black identity. When the neighborhood had an abundance of children and adolescents and precious few programs to provide for them, the House of Peace stepped in to fill the needs. The first Christmas the House of Peace was in operation, it helped 120 families with food and 160 with toys. In 2001, 700 families received food assistance at Thanksgiving and Christmas, with another 600 families receiving Thanksgiving food assistance at the House of Peace through the generosity of Milwaukee’s National Basketball Association franchise, the Milwaukee Bucks.
Much has changed since those first years.
- When the city of Milwaukee decided to widen Walnut Street into a boulevard in 1974, the original storefront was torn down to facilitate the widening. An anonymous donor provided Br. Booker with the money to buy another storefront at 1702 W. Walnut Street, where the House of Peace has been located ever since.
- On September 9, 1983, an intense middle-of-the-night fire almost destroyed the center. That fire, however, triggered an outpouring of gifts and donations that not only provided for the rebuilding of the House of Peace, but also made an extension of the building possible. The first phase extension was completed in 1984; the second in 1991.
- Shortly before Christmas, 1994, a multi-vehicle collision in the intersection of 17th and Walnut propelled a flat bed truck carrying a backhoe through the walls and windows of the House of Peace. None of the staff was injured, but the damage to the premises and contents exceeded $100,000. Virtually every part of the building was affected: structural walls, heating, plumbing, electrical service. Again, an outpouring of support occurred from the community and friends of the House of Peace.
The most challenging change, however, came in 1995 when Brother Booker became significantly impaired by a series of small strokes, compounded by the effects of diabetes.
In September 1995, he was relieved as director of the House of Peace and made director emeritus. His duties were assumed by Br. Al Veik and a fellow friar. On Monday, October 23, 1995, Booker moved to St. Fidelis Capuchin Community in Appleton, Wisconsin. In June 1997, Charles Holton assumed the duties of executive director. He led the ministry ably until he retired in December 2000. In that same month, Brother Booker died, bringing to a close the long first chapter in the history of the House of Peace and bringing into greater saliency the question of how the House of Peace will continue his ministry at a time and in a neighborhood in which human subsistence and spiritual needs are in many ways more demanding than in 1968.
To face the challenges of a House of Peace without Br. Booker, the House of Peace then welcomed Charles Clausen as its next executive director. Mr. Clausen led the ministry with a great deal of innovation and dedication until his retirement from the position in May of 2003. It was then that the Provincial Council of the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order appointed Brother Mark Carrico, O.F.M., Capuchin, who served the ministry until September 30, 2009. Br. Mark passed away November 2013.
In 2009, Gerri Sheets-Howard was named executive director of the House of Peace. She has served the House of Peace since 2001. Gerri has a BA in Business Administration and Masters of Divinity Degree. Gerri retired in 2017. Br. Rob Roemer was appointed ministry director for Capuchin Community Services in 2017. Linda Barnes was named Assistant Director and currently manages Capuchin Community Services House of Peace location. In 2019, Br. Robert Wotypka became ministry director for CCS. In 2022, Fr. Mke Bertram, OFM Cap., pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Parish and St. Benedict the Moor, became ministry director of Capuchin Community Services.
St Ben’s Community Meal
The roots of St Ben’s Community Meal are found in the hearts of Michael and Nettie Cullen. In 1966, inspired by the philosophy of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, this Irish immigrant couple founded Casa Maria House, located about a mile from St Benedict the Moor Parish. Casa Maria's purpose was to promote the practice of direct and personal sharing with people experiencing poverty by receiving guests in their kitchen for a meal.
A growing number of men, women and children from the neighborhood joined them for this daily meal, and it rapidly outgrew their small space. They were forced to seek larger quarters. In collaboration with Capuchin Alex Luzi and after much prayer and reflection, St. Ben's Community Meal was moved to its current location on November 13, 1970.
From the beginning, there was a strong emphasis on the community aspect of the Meal. This was evidenced on two fronts. First, sponsor groups from a variety of churches, organizations and civic groups throughout the wider Milwaukee community committed to providing the Meal from Sunday through Friday evenings. Secondly, a sense of community and relationship was generated within the Meal hall itself as sponsors, volunteers, guests, and staff came together to enjoy a nutritious meal in an environment of hospitality and safety.
Now over forty-some years later, St Ben's and its many supporters continue to host the Community Meal, Sunday through Friday from 5:15 to 6:30p.