The Community of the Living Spirit (CLS), located in Waukesha, Wisconsin, was founded in 1971 by former parishioners of St. William's Catholic Church. The founders had two primary purposes in mind: a commitment to personal religious or spiritual growth through liturgy and education, and a ministry to the spiritual and physical needs of fellow human beings. Intrinsic to these two purposes was the desire for church members themselves to be involved in planning and facilitating organizational, liturgical, educational, and social justice activities. The hope was to employ the gifts and talents of all members of the congregation and to use a more celebratory style of worship. Along with this was an insistence on the intellectual freedom to question and reconsider the traditions and theologies of the established church.

The impetus for creating this type of community can be found in the spirit of the times. Not only was it a direct result of the aggiornamento, or “open window” approach to church practice stemming from Vatican II, it also reflected the progressive tones of other challenges to social structures such as the civil rights, feminist, and anti-war movements of the 1960’s. Open-mindedness was heralded by many with great enthusiasm and led to spirited discussion across many here-to-fore closed boundaries. In the world of religion ecumenical dialogues commenced and interest grew in learning more about religious traditions of the world. This led to the realization by many that there are a multitude of valid pathways for the search for meaning, truth, and spiritual growth.

This spirit of the times had, of course, cast its impressions on many of the parishioners of St. William’s as well. A popular six-week adult education class offered by associate pastor Dean Marek called “The Liturgy Series,” for instance, which delved into the historical development of the church, profoundly affected many as it demonstrated the merely human origins of rituals and beliefs that had always been viewed as somehow divinely ordained. Wanting to continue learning, and desiring to express new ideas in a venue that provided the freedom to do so, a fairly large group - after receiving permission from the Milwaukee Archdiocese - held liturgies in the St. William’s school gym. The first of these more informal and “contemporary” liturgies was held on November 29, 1970.

The inspiration found in progressive ideas, the upbeat music (featuring guitars and drums!), and the sense of involved community found in this gym liturgy had great appeal. When the St. William’s Parish Council threatened to “close it down,” believing it to be too innovative, most of the people who had been attending it voiced their desire to continue in some way. This propelled the group to form a steering committee which would explore the possibility of founding a separate parish. At first the committee attempted to gain the approval of the Priests Senate, but when the Senate’s reaction indicated little chance for ultimate approval, the steering committee, meeting at Maureen and Ken Turk’s home in early July, decided to forge ahead. As an early essay states, “On that evening, July 1, 1971, the seven families represented at the meeting pledged themselves to secure and support a new community to be called ‘The Community of the Living Spirit.’ This name was chosen because those present felt that the Holy Spirit had inspired them toward their action. The intent of this group was to provide the impetus and funds to get the new community started.” (The Founding of the Community of the Living Spirit – written in 1974 or before) The seven families referred to were Maureen and Ken Turk, Joanne and Mike Riordan, Patty and Bill Downham, Pat and Ted Memmel, Theresa and John Levenhagen, John and Nancy Kendziorski, and Marge Bergman. Dean Marek, later the same evening, was informed of the action of this group and was asked to become the minister for the new community. He accepted.  (Already in August Dean left St. William’s and was given a part-time assignment at St. Mary’s Academy by the Milwaukee Archdiocese - with the understanding that he was free to do what he wished in his “free time.” This was taken as tacit approval of his engagement with CLS.)

The first CLS liturgy was held in the Waukesha YWCA on Sunday, July 25, 1971, with an attendance of about 250 people. The large number of people attending was a surprise. It was known that there was interest but whether or not people would actually take the step to participate was another question entirely. This demonstration of active interest represented a good deal of boldness on the part of many people - their lifelong commitment to their Catholic tradition created a sense of anxiety upon joining a church not officially sanctioned by the Catholic hierarchy. CLS was viewed by many in the greater community in a variety of interesting and controversial ways - as a group of “hippies,” as a cult, as definitely a fringe element in daring to step beyond the authority of the Church. One person recalls actually shaking with apprehension when the decision was made to found CLS - not only was this break with tradition a personal issue, there were also the possible criticism and hurt feelings of family members and friends to consider. But the strong sense of community, the desire for greater personal involvement, and the opportunity for significant spiritual growth overcame these very real concerns.   

Informational and organizational meetings were held on July 21 and August 19 at the Waukesha State Bank, with more than 100 interested people indicating their support and their willingness to work on creating the structure and the spirit of this new venture. First officers for the new community were Ken Turk, president; Bill Downham, vice-president; Edna Furrer, secretary; Hank McCabe, treasurer; and Janice Levenhagen, youth vice-president. The first Board Meeting was held on September 9, with committee chairs chosen: Jerry Wright, membership; Marilyn Baus, education; Ann Miller, community witness; Louanne Jozwiak, liturgy; and Mike Riordan, treasurer. Much thoughtful work was put into writing the CLS bylaws as well, with the finalization and approval of the constitution and bylaws occurring at a general meeting on April 27, 1972. The writers of this document were Bill Schuster, Al Kasprowicz, and Betty Schattl.

And the new community thrived, reaching a membership of about 300 people by December of 1971. Its success was definitely due to the talents and commitment of all the people working together in an atmosphere of support and encouragement. The leadership of Dean Marek was a key component in that he was immersed in the progressive ideas of the day and as minister conveyed them with great competence, creativity, and enthusiasm. Others, of course, were just as gifted and informed and ably added their expertise to the venture. The many, many opportunities for creative expression not only benefited the community, it also brought forth talents in individuals that had previously been untapped. Both children and adults benefited greatly through such experiences as learning to create slide presentations, to speak or do readings during liturgy, to teach, to sing, to act, to write, to make banners and other artwork, and to learn various dances (often thanks to Ruthe Browne!). Confidence-building, mutual empowerment, and a greatly heightened sense of one’s gifts and abilities were - and still are - the frequent consequence of involvement in these kinds of activities.

Since one of the primary purposes of CLS was to minister to the physical needs of fellow human beings, the activist and organizational talents of many were also put to use immediately as CLS took on many community action projects. CLS members helped establish agencies such as the Food Pantry (started by Buck Houston and Dave Helling - and first located in the basement of Fairview House, Dean Marek’s home!), The Women’s Center (Anne Beyers was one of the five founding mothers), and Hebron House, all of which continue to flourish and are still meeting the needs of the Waukesha community and beyond. Other social action projects included the White Rock School breakfast program, a clothing center, the purchase of a bus for La Casa de Esperanza, and a moving committee (Katy Furrer recalled that her dad, Ed, bought an old truck just for this purpose!).

Many people attracted to CLS were involved in the larger social issues of the day. Kate Jolin led the way in anti-war education, for example, and many were involved in the civil rights and women’s movements. They received support and encouragement from others at CLS, which served to strengthen their resolve. Their example also raised the consciousness of many and helped create interest in these causes. CLS people also worked on political campaigns to support the election of various members - Meg Kasprowicz and Dean Marek for school board, for example, and Anne Weiss for alderwoman.

Given continued membership growth – about 400 members by the late 1970’s - and the surge in community projects, additional leadership was needed and former nun Mary Ann Ihm joined Dean Marek as co-minister in about 1978. Mary Ann brought a wealth of educational and liturgical experience to CLS.

The founders of CLS had decided to rent rather than own a building so that a good portion of funds could be used for social action in the greater community. Therefore, CLS has held Sunday liturgies in a variety of places through the years: the YWCA, Mount St. Paul College, White Rock School gym, Carroll College, Riverwalk Apartments Community Room, Shear Class Salon, La Casa de Esperanza, and the ARCh building (Association for the Rights of Citizens with handicaps). In the early years Fairview House became a meeting place for choir practice, committee work, and educational programs. It housed the CLS office as well, with Edna Furrer as the first secretary.

Education has held a predominant place throughout CLS’s history. In the early years there were comprehensive child and adult programs, including well-attended and enjoyable retreats at such places as St. Amelian’s (Camp Villa Jerome) and Camp Byron. There have been substantive offerings such as church history and world religions as well as classes of the “self-help” variety so prevalent in the 1970’s. (“Twilight Renewals” and “Adventures in Self-Disclosure” are just a few rather interesting recollections!) Many “Rap Groups” were also formed, which provided mutual support and a venue for the exploration of many topics. One of these groups, now called the “Spirit Sisters,” is still going strong and has been together for over 40 years! Various theologies - liberation, feminist, creation spirituality, eco-theology, the universe story, evolutionary faith - have been studied through the years and many books have been discussed, with discussions continuing unabated even today.

Music has also been liturgically important. Dean Marek - music director as well as minister - was a talented musician who, with input from choir members, selected meaningful and energizing contemporary church music and directed a fairly large choir as well as string and wind ensembles for special occasions. These early days saw a fairly rigorous appraisal of the language used in songs and an easy ability to change words when exclusive language or questionable theology was apparent. Cedarburg music teacher Marilyn Schmit became the next music director, providing talented leadership for about three years. Bonnie Birk assumed this position next, in about 1985, and has provided music direction, song selection, wording revision, and guitar accompaniment right up to the present.

As the years went by, CLS continued to operate without the approval of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. With Dean Marek, a priest in good standing as its spiritual leader, Catholics were comfortable with the arrangement, while many others, of course, were unconcerned since CLS called itself ecumenical, was committed to inclusivity in all areas, and was therefore open to people of any faith. However, when Dean decided to leave, many from the Catholic tradition left as well, and membership went into a steady decline from about this point. (Dean had been suspended by the Archdiocese “principally for officiating at ‘non-canonical’ marriages” [Waukesha Freeman 8-29-83] and went on to take a church-sanctioned position. While now retired, he had been director of chaplain services at Mayo Clinic for many years and still maintains contact with CLS, returning for anniversary celebrations and officiating at CLS weddings and funerals.)

Even though smaller in numbers, the people remaining continued with great enthusiasm and vitality, and those who joined in the ensuing years added much to the CLS experience. In 1983, after Dean left (Mary Ann had resigned a few years previously), Lutheran minister Ed Ruen became CLS’s next spiritual leader. His experience as the director of the Next Door Foundation in Milwaukee added much to his ministry with CLS. The next minister, United Methodist Jenny Schroeder, was engaged by CLS in 1986. Compatible with the CLS vision, Jenny did much of her ministry in the wider community and in ecumenical groups.

For a few years, starting in 1988, space was rented for the church office in the M&M building in downtown Waukesha, a place where many agencies worked to meet community needs such as food, clothing, and housing. Also in the M&M building was the Waukesha Center for Peace and Justice (now the Plowshare Center), which was started by CLS members Kate Jolin, Alice Foley, Joanne Riordan, and Julie Vogelsang. This center is dedicated to working for peace globally, locally, and personally through education, communication, and the establishment of a resource center. It was at about this time, also, that CLS’s long-term relationship with the Hmong community began, given impetus by the tireless work of Georgeian Krabath. This entailed many enjoyable Christmas parties and picnics, highly informative talks given by Hmong representatives, gatherings to provide support for college students, money collected to rent garden plots, provide rice, school supplies, and college textbooks, and donations of clothing, furniture, and appliances. One of the best parts of this relationship for CLS members was receiving the bounty of fresh vegetables from Hmong gardens!

Linda Vincent became the CLS administrative secretary in 1988, replacing Alice Foley. Linda still holds this position - a longtime legacy of greatest efficiency! 

In 1992 Ed Kurth, a married Catholic priest, briefly joined CLS as its spiritual director, and in early 1993 Dick Bidwell, a Lutheran minister, assumed that position. Dick served until 1999, adding much to the CLS experience through his great kindness and his dramatic, yet down-to-earth homiletic style. Craig Bergland, of the Universal Anglican Church, served as CLS minister from the fall of 1999 until the spring of 2008. Craig’s well-delivered homilies on social justice issues were very much appreciated by CLS members.

In about 2003 CLS became involved, through the leadership of Kate Jolin, Laraine O’Brien, Katy Furrer, and Linda Johns, with SOPHIA (Stewards of Prophetic, Hopeful, Intentional Action), which is a group of congregations along with La Casa de Esperanza that works together on issues of social concern such as TIP (treatment instead of prison), racism, immigration reform, health care reform, affordable housing, transportation, and school funding. CLS has also for many years supported, through monthly or yearly donations, the Waukesha Food Pantry, Cooperating Congregations of Greater Waukesha (now the Hope Center), the catholic Worker House (which closed in 2020), Project Reassurance, School Social Services, Hebron House, The Women’s Center, La Casa de Esperanza, Plowshare Center, and St Joseph’s Medical and Dental Clinic (now Waukesha Free Clinic). Other activities that benefit the workings of CLS itself have developed through the years - Linda Savin-Parker sent hundreds of beautiful custom-made cards, for example, and Marilyn Baus and Ellen Schuster organized countless social events, including yearly anniversary picnics or parties that have been enjoyed by many past as well as present CLS members.

When Craig Bergland left in April of 2008, CLS members gathered in small groups to discuss the future of CLS, wondering if we had the resources to continue since we had become rather few in number. But through many enjoyable and enlightening conversations we decided that with the talent and enthusiasm inherent in our group we would do without a minister for a while and act as liturgists and homilists ourselves. Given the many interests and talents of CLS people, this worked out beautifully; better, in fact, than anyone had imagined! Also, however, there was a desire to experience new insights and perspectives that could be gained from theologically trained ministers, so a decision was made to hire a minister who would provide liturgies for just two Sundays per month. Financially, this would also allow continued funding for social justice causes.

As it turned out, two ministers were found who, starting in January of 2009, were responsible for just one liturgy each month. One was Irene Senn, who was the Director of the Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. She brought a fine mixture of her own knowledge and experience to CLS, but resigned after one year due to the demands of her other job. The next minister hired at this time was Sharon Sullivan, a former Dominican nun with a long and full teaching and ministering career. She continues to enrich the CLS experience with her expertise, her delightful sense of humor, and her wonderful feminist spirit!  In early 2010, Katherine Zakutansky, an interfaith minister with a focus on the underlying spirituality common to all religions, was hired to provide one liturgy per month. She, too, brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to CLS!

CLS in 2021, as it celebrates the fiftieth year of its founding, is a small community                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (with about twenty-five active members), and an aging one, yet it endures as a vibrant, helpful, and spiritually enriching entity. The basic goals of its founding families have been met - and have indeed been surpassed in ways that could not have been foreseen - in that CLS is entirely self-directed, it still spends a good portion of its money on social justice causes, it places great emphasis on mutual support, and has developed an atmosphere of freedom whereby life’s meaning is explored through beliefs ranging from Christian to atheist. The years ahead promise to be good ones!

(by Bonnie Birk, with excerpts from earlier histories written by unknown authors!)

Addendum:  Below is a delightful historical poem that was unearthed in late 2016! It was found in Rita and Gus Wendt’s belongings - no one knew there was still a copy in existence!! The poem, set in a a ‘rap’ rhythm, was composed and performed by Linda Vincent, Gus and Rita Wendt, and Sam Arreola for the CLS 20th Anniversary Celebration! And it is quite a treat!!  (See ending photos!)

 CLS 20th Anniversary, July 20, 1991


Community past,

It’s like walkin' so fast.

Here’s a story of 20 years.

Listen closely with your ears.

It all started out with a bunch of folk

Who were tired of waiting for change from the Pope.

From St. Williams to the Y we gathered.

And CLS was all that mattered.

Dean Marek was the first spiritual leader,

Mary Ann Ihm, Ed Ruen, Jenny Schroeder.

In between there were guests

They all contributed to CLS.



We all contributed to CLS.


After the Y, there was Mt. St. Paul

Where we gathered, one and all.

Then on to White Rock, another gym

We played and prayed under the rim.

Prairie, Carroll, Bethel and Chapel Hill

Wherever there’s a vacancy, there’s a will.

Setting up chairs they’re never in line

We’re off to a park cuz we’ve got the time.

Bethesda, Frame and Horeb, too

Are places we’ve met to name a few.

The places never mattered, but as you can guess

They all contributed to CLS.



We all contributed to CLS.


Turk, Vis, Levenhagen, Kosednar, Dahl,

Cissne, Labinski, that’s not all.

Vincent, Baus, Sumera, Foley

Sounds like the list of holy, holy.

Weiss, Weiss, Weiss, and Weiss.

Ed three times, Anne once or twice.

Meske, Helling, Mather, Banda, Enck

Those were the presidents, we think.

They gave their time and heavens yes.

They all contributed to CLS.



We all contributed to CLS.


Who can forget the softball teams

No. 1 and No. 2 were really screams.

A party at the Pfister when who should appear

Superman, of course, what a dear.

A talent show was our big gig.

Remember the cleaning woman and her wig.

Brewers games and square dances too.

Do si do and skip to m’ lou.

We go to plays and hayrides for fun

There’s hardly a thing we’ve left undone.

The places never mattered, but as you can guess

They all contributed to CLS.



We all contributed to CLS.


We gathered together for retreats

Sharing cooking, dishes, bunks without sheets.

Our wakeup call was really unique

Banging kettles together so we couldn’t sleep.

Freezing in our cabins, undressing in the dark.

St. Amelians, what a lark!

Villa Jerome, Camp Byron, Green Lake

Cousin Center, eternity at stake.

Meditation on our spiritual journey

Building friendships while pancakes were burning. 

We gathered together and yes

They all contributed to CLS.



We all contributed to CLS.


Liturgy’s what we’re all about

Sometimes they get a bit stretched out.

Singing, praying, dancing, swaying

Acting, slide shows, musicians playing,

Candles lighted.  Readers chosen.

In our mind these mem’ries frozen.

Baptism, communion, confirmation

Christmas, Easter and wedding occasions.

Seder meals on Holy Thursday

Helped on our liturgical journey.


Other things that we have done

Starting the Food Pantry for one.

Social services needs we filled

Clothing Center we helped to build.

Moving stuff from here to there

Peace and Justice because we care.

We did all this for Community Witness.

We all contributed to CLS.


We all contributed to CLS!!!

IMG 6865

© Bonnie Birk 2012