Former priest wanted to change the world
WAUWATOSA - The first time Bill Sell remembers hearing the words "social justice," they were spoken by Eugene Bleidorn. Sell was a student at St. Francis Minor Seminary, where Bleidorn, a Racine native, was teaching in the mid-1950s. The things Bleidorn said stuck with Sell.
Bleidorn died last week of complications from a fall. He was 94. A former Catholic priest, he was responsible for an inner-city Milwaukee parish during the tumultuous civil rights era, a period when Milwaukee had been dubbed the "Selma of the north."
It was his "principled stand" on civil rights issues like school integration that left a lasting impression on people like Sell, 71, who remains a community activist to this day.
"He was always making us conscious about social justice, that idea. He was the one who lit the idea in my mind," said Sell, a former priest who lives in Bay View. "I really liked his style and I appreciated it later on. He was both understated and principled. Wherever he went he built this strong following of people."
Bleidorn wanted to change the world, according to his nephew, Steve Bauer, a Racine native who now lives in Illinois. He thought he could do it as a priest.
The oldest of eight children, Bleidorn and his siblings were raised to question things, Bauer said. They were also raised devout Roman Catholics.
Bauer, 59, is now piecing together parts of his uncle's history online. It wasn't until after Bleidorn died that his nephew decided to Google his name.
He was surprised at all the results. He knew about most of it, but was surprised to find it all online, including newspaper and magazine articles detailing the things that happened at St. Boniface Church in Milwaukee, where Bleidorn was head pastor. The church was active in the city's civil rights movement in the 1960s.
It was there that Bleidorn worked with the Rev. James Groppi, an assistant pastor who led a highly publicized march in 1966 to protest several Milwaukee County judges' membership in a whites-only club. The march brought national attention to Milwaukee, along with members of the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and the National Guard.
Bleidorn's family was concerned for his life during that period, Bauer said. At the time, Bleidorn was holding the church together and deflecting much of the concern and criticism raised about the work Groppi was doing, Sell said.
Bleidorn was kind of a rebel, according to Bauer, someone who led more from the heart. He thought "since rules were made by men they should be changed when they don't fit the times."
One of the rules he wanted to change: the one that kept priests from marrying. Bleidorn was unsuccessful in promoting his belief. He eventually left the priesthood and married his wife Mary Agnes in the early 1970s.
"My uncle was trying to change the world. It is a big world that is not an easy thing to do. It was a lifelong task for him to change the world for the better," Bauer said.