What's the History of Pompeii Square in Milwaukee?

Dec 2, 2016

The sign reads Pompeii Square. Many people have zipped past this tiny strip of green space while exiting 794 on their way to Summerfest or the Milwaukee Art Museum. And, many may have even wondered.. 'What is that?'

Joan Nink did, so she reached out to WUWM's Bubbler Talk to find out the origin of Pompeii Square.

No, this isn't the site of a volcanic eruption. It was actually where the first Italian church in the City of Milwaukee once stood.

The Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Church
Credit Pompeii Men's Club

The Blessed Virgin of Pompeii, which was also known as the little pink church, had a pink façade and interior.

Domenic Foti grew up near the Third Ward, and he says the church served as the hub of social activity in Milwaukee’s original Italian neighborhood. "I was baptized at the church,” he adds.

Today, Foti is 83 years old, and occasionally drives down from Cedarburg to visit the park.

He says the Third Ward looked much different 50 years ago. The area consisted mostly of the church and modest homes. But Foti says by 1967, the city was changing, and the Blessed Virgin of Pompeii became a casualty.

Construction workers demolish Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Church. The church was demolished in September of 1967 for freeway construction.
Credit Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Progress meant to the city of Milwaukee that they had to renovate the area and they wanted to put in an expressway. In order to do that, they had to tear down a bunch of old buildings, including the old Pompeii church and that was sad,” Foti says.

The demolition prompted Foti and some of his childhood friends to form the Pompeii Men’s Club. It meets once a month and is dedicated to supporting civic organizations in Milwaukee.

Domenic Foti at Pompeii Square.
Credit Marti Mikkelson

“We needed to find a way to stay together. Therefore the Pompeii Men’s Club was formed in 1968. We raise money for different charities throughout the city and this fiscal year alone we’ve donated in excess of $20,000 to St. Joan Antida High School, the Italian Community Center,” Foti says.

Foti says the Men’s Club’s also decided to preserve the history of the little pink church. So, the group raised enough money to place a concrete monument near the spot where the church once stood. Embedded in the structure is a replica of the stained glass window that adorned the front of the church.

Foti says after the monument went up in 1977, the Pompeii Men’s Club approached the county executive about turning the land into a park.

The replica of the stained glass window that adorned the front of the church.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

“We went to the county of Milwaukee and sat down with Bill O’Donnell and we asked if we could do this and they agreed that we should have a park strictly called Pompeii Square,” Foti says.

Today the small green space holds two wooden benches, the concrete memorial to the park’s namesake – the Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Church, and overgrown shrubs which the county promises to manicure in spring.

Foti says next July will mark the 50th anniversary of the last Mass celebrated at the little pink church. He says the Italian Community Center will host a special remembrance, and he and some of his old buddies plan to be there.

“Hopefully it will be a wonderful day and we’ll be able to keep the memory of the old Pompeii Church alive and well,” Foti says.

Have a question you'd like WUWM to answer? Submit your query below.

_