Two schools in cities right next to each other on the north side of Milwaukee County, less than two miles apart and both on the same street, Capitol Drive. Divided by the Milwaukee River, today the two cities are a diverse mix of economics. Shorewood is in fact a 15,000+ person village. It is a city, population size, but because if the size of land (Only composed of 1.59 square miles) the people who inhabit the area considered Shorewood to be a village.
The area around Messmer is/was a bit of mixture of residential mainly to the west and south of the school and industrial to the east north of Capitol Drive. This main street that connects the two schools is a heavily traveled thoroughfare that today bridges the two schools. But it wasn’t always that way.
Until the 1970’s the area around Messmer was heavily white but that began to change. More and more blacks moved north into the neighborhood and whites moved out. Like Milwaukee King, which is located about 11-blocks west and three blocks north on Capitol Drive, Messmer experienced the same change in the racial makeup of students beginning in the mid-1960’s. And like Shorewood football, Messmer had also declined.
Opened in 1926 and named Diocesan High School, the schools name was renamed in 1928 to honor the then current Milwaukee diocese Archbishop, Sebastian Messmer who would pass on in late 1930. 1930 was the first season of varsity football for the school and for the next eight seasons the Bishops were pretty much in the middle and lower part of the then five to six member teams of the Catholic Conference. After only one win in 1938 Messmer had 14-returning lettermen going into the 1939 season. The Catholic Conference was formed in about 1931 with Milwaukee Marquette, St. Francis Pio Nono, Milwaukee St. John’s Cathedral, Racine St. Catherine’s and Messmer. St. Stanislaus joined in 1939 and would later change the school’s name to Notre Dame. There were other Milwaukee area Catholic high schools playing football but because they were smaller schools with new programs, they weren’t officially part of the Catholic Conference.
The 1938 final standings for the conference showed Marquette (5-0-1) and St, John’s Cathedral (4-0-2) in first place, Pio Nono (3-2-1) in third place with St. Catherine’s and Messmer (Both with 0-5-1) in last place. You will notice that they show each team playing six conference games. This is confusing. St. Stanislaus played all five of the official conference teams so that makes five “conference” games. Where did the sixth conference game come from? Did they include St. Benedict, a smaller boarding school for black students and located near Marquette University. Not all of the conference teams played St. Stanislaus and I can’t determine for sure the sixth team. There was controversy that year as several teams were caught with playing an ineligible player.
The numbers on the 1939 football squad swelled from 33 to 45 including the 14 returning lettermen and as a result, even after a winless 1938, the team was picked by the other coaches in the league to win the title. The Bishops didn’t disappoint. They rolled to a final 9-0-0 record under the direction of Coach Orv Dermody. Five players would earn first team all-conference and two more made the second team.
Now this is a bit confusing. Or was it? According to a November 6, 1939 story in the Racine Journal Times the records for the teams showed that St. Johns finished with a 4-0-1 conference record and was in first place having defeated Messmer by a score of 7-0. Messmer was in second with a 4-1-0 record followed by Pio Nono (3-1-1), Marquette (2-3-0), St. Catherine’s (1-4-0) and St. Stanislaus (0-5-0) in last place. Two days later it was announced that Messmer had been declared the conference champion when St. John admitted that two starters in the previous Saturday’s victory. This was the third time in four seasons that St. John’s had used ineligible players. The final records for the two schools involved showed Messmer with a 5-0-0 record and St. Johns dropped to a 3-1-1 final standing. This was Messmer’s first title, and they were awarded the Knute Rockne trophy, an award given to the yearly football champion in the early years of the Catholic Conference. Messmer had a 2-0 season opening game win against Whitefish Bay, a 13-6 win over Neenah, followed by a conference 32-18 win over St. Catherine’s. Next, they blew out St. Benedict’s 45-6, then a close 7-0 win over Pio Nono, took Marquette down 20-6 before stomping St. Stanislaus 39-0. They lost to St. John’s 7-0, a loss that was reversed and then they played Prairie du Chien Campion and beat that squad soundly in the season finale 32-7. This would be the first of only two titles the Bishops would win. They would be declared the Catholic state football champions. Their next conference and state championship would come in 1947.
That year,1947, brought changes to the Catholic Conference. Some teams such as Pio Nono closed in 1941 and then reopened as St. Francis Minor Seminary. Don Bosco was opened nearby as a new school. In 1965 DeSales Preparatory Academy opened in place of the Minor Seminary and Pio Nono reopened. Don Bosco and Pio Nono later merged and eventually became St. Thomas More. Confused? Well, it was a confusing time for Catholic schools. St. Stanislaus became Notre Dame and Milwaukee Pius XI joined in the early 1940’s and would forge a second place 1947 spot in the league standings.
Racine Journal Times Nov. 3, 1947
As you can see by the standings, Messmer went through the seven-game league schedule undefeated but with one tie. And you will see that the tie was with seventh place Don Bosco. While doing research for my book I found a citation that showed Messmer went 8-0-0. However, that citation was incorrect and the Bishops didn’t play a non-league game that year plus there was a tie in their record. Just about every game was a battle going into the fourth quarter or to the very end. They opened with a come from behind 14-13 win again Marquette, then another close 6-0 win against Pius. Notre Dame fell 19-6 and then they took down in another come from behind win over St. Francis, 12-7. The only big scoring win was the 26-6 win over St. Catherine’s. Game #6 saw Don Bosco take the Messmer down to the wire and the Bishops tied 0-0 in a rainstorm. The season final was against St. John’s and the gas in doubt before Messmer pulled ahead 24-0 in the fourth quarter.
Not much in offense, only 101 points scored with allowing only 32. Six members of the Bishops squad, three backfield and three linemen made the All-Conference team out of eleven overall team members. They were a very highly thought of team and were ranked with Madison Edgewood as the 1947 Catholic state champions.
Messmer would after 1947 be a middle-of-the-road team, never again to be the conference champion. That is, until they merged football squads with Shorewood in 2002. More about that in Part 3. Yes, two more to come, one about Shorewood and then Messwood (The football merger).