Branch History Milwaukee Lodge
The Milwaukee Branch of the Theosophical Society has been actively involved in the Milwaukee area since Nov. 17, 1910. Our charter was signed by Annie Besant. Educational programs to encourage comparative study of world religions, philosophy and science are offered on a regular basis and are open to the public.
Our history of theosophy in Milwaukee begins before this branch was chartered in 1910. The Brahmana Theosophical Society of Milwaukee was founded in 1888, but was dissolved 8 years later when it severed ties with Adyar, along with 82 other lodges and became part of what is now known as the Pasadena Theosophical Society. Five lodges loyal to Adyar were held together by Alexander Fullerton in New York.
A lecture tour in 1897 by Annie Besant and Countess Wachtmeister resulted in the growth of the society; by 1901 the Society had grown to 74 branches. In 1907 the headquarters moved from New York to Chicago. Annie Besant made another lecture tour in 1909 with Milwaukee being her first stop. In 1910 the Milwaukee Lodge officially came into existence on November 17, which is Founders Day. The charter lists ten names “and their associates” as founding members. It was signed by Annie Besant.
1910-1940 Henry Stillman, Growing membership
In 1913 the Milwaukee Lodge was meeting at 559 Jefferson St. Sunday evenings at 8 p.m. At the 1917 Convention in New York, programs were established to aid war efforts of the Allies in WWI. Milwaukee President Henry M. Stillman wrote a letter to President Wilson and another to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Most lodges were active in war work, such as rolling bandages and writing to soldiers.
In 1921, membership in the American Section rose to a high point of 8,713. Milwaukee had a real theosophical revival. When Mr. L.W.Rogers visited on May 13 & 14, the Conservatory of Music Hall was rented. The average adttendance was 400, 225 new names were added to the mailing list and a beginners’ class of 116 was formed. Early in 1926, the lodge moved to the Fine Arts Building on Oneida Street. 150 people could be seated comfortably, and the lodge already had 104 members. Milwaukee benefited from its proximity to the new headquarters in Wheaton, IL with a steady stream of lecturers: L.W. Rogers, Edward L. Garner, Geoffrey Hodson, and George Arundale visited in the late 1920s.
Between 1930 – 1939 membership began to decline with the Depression and as a result of Krishnamurti’s resignation from the Society. In 1937, young Joy Mills heard Mary K. Neff, who aroused her interest in Theosophy. Mary was an American lecturer and historian, who had assisted CW Leadbeater in Australia.
1940 – 1960 Joy Mills, Caroline Tess & WWII
In 1940 John Toren visited Milwaukee and organized a Young Theosophists group which met weekly to study. The YTs included Joy Mills and Caroline Tess, best friends who had attended the same teachers college. They performed Puppet Shows with original music by Lillian Zimmerman. The lodge was busy, with library hours expanded to include weekday evenings as well as Saturdays. A beginning class in Theosophy ran from January to April. Fritz Kunz and Emily Sellon launched the journal Main Currents in Modern Thought, which was used in Milwaukee as the basis of some interesting programs.
The Second World War saw a new range of lodge activities supporting the war effort, such as distributing leaflets to servicemen. Mrs. Marie Thompson presented the lodge with a very beautiful s flag “to give the room an added touch of patriotism.” Many members were in uniform. One was Gilbert Tess, Caroline’s brother. Another was Jack Bruce, ilk Americanwho was a second-generation Theosophist. He joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Iceland where there was little action and much time to read. His favorite Theosophical author was Geoffrey Hodson. Jack married Vera Bruce. Both of them, and also their son David, served as Presidents of the Milwaukee Lodge. David is now the National Secretary of the TSA.
After the war, the Young Theosophists enjoyed the return of Jack Bruce from service. He was also active with the Theosophical Order of Service, packing parcels for the relief of Theosophists in Hungary who were then living in dire circumstances. The Society shipped 15 tons of food, clothing, and other goods to Europe.
The Milwaukee Lodge met in the Bar Association Building during the 1950s. Lodge members started what they called “Copper Bowl” fundraising – instead of exchanging Xmas gifts, members donate pennies to a copper bowl to finance distribution of scented soaps and candies to old ladies at Milwaukee County Infirmary. Joy Mills continued to be very active on the HQ staff and as a speaker. Her Milwaukee friends Caroline Tess and Marcella Schmitt were also on the staff.
1960 – 1990 Golden Anniversary, Purchase House, Lillian Scott Leenhouts, Kathleen Hitchcock, Vera Bruce
The Lodge celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on November 17, 1960. Mr. Harry Stillman, the only surviving charter member, spoke to the members on the early years of the Lodge. In 1962, the national library was expanded using a design by Lillian Scott Leenhouts of Milwaukee. She was the first woman architect to be registered in Wisconsin, a member of the Society of Woman Engineers, and was partner with her husband in an architectural firm. She is best known for the design of solar-heated homes, and she also designed the Adyar Library. Meetings from the 1960s until 1985 were in the Bockle Building, 2266 North Prospect.
The Milwaukee Branch celebrated its 70th Anniversary in 1980 with a special two day program. Kathleen Hitchcock Warrick was one of the most prominent members in those days, serving as president and a frequent lecturer. She was well known for teaching yoga on television. Kathleen opened the 70th Birthday Celebration with her introduction of the guest speaker, Dora Kunz. Dora spoke on healing. Diana Mueller (now Diana Cabigting) performed beautifully on the harp. She and Vera Bruce served as discussion leaders for films. Hazel Koals, Jim Zinzow and Kathleen Hitchcock Warrick spoke on the Three Objects of the Society.
Mrs. Abbenhouse was among many prominent lecturers to visit Milwaukee in the 80s. Maria Parisen spoke on Therapeutic Touch, Ralph Hannon on contemporary science, and Shirley Nicholson on Ancient Wisdom. John Abbenhouse gave a workshop on “The Voice of the Silence” and “The Secret Doctrine.” Lillian Leenhouts discussed “Architecture as a Reflection of Spiritual Growth,” including a slide show of homes and buildings she had designed. Vera Bruce gave a monthly healing meditation in a format created by Geoffrey Hodson, invoking angelic forces. In 1985 the Milwaukee Branch purchased a house at 1718 E. Geneva Place as a permanent location. Two upstairs bedrooms were rented out to UW-Milwaukee students.
1990 – Present: Vistas Journal, Parliament of World Religions, Centennial
During the 1990s, the lodge published a nice journal called Vistas. Visiting lecturers included Dr. C. Ton Phan from France, Enrique Renard, Bing Escudero, Dorothy Abbenhouse, Tony Lysy, Pedro Oliviera, Maria Parisen and Willamay Pym. There were also Seymour Ballard, Clarence Pedersen, Ed Abdill, and Rohit Mehta, and Dr. William Metzger. Local lodge members were also lecturers; among them were Hazel Koals, Geneva Rice, Vera Bruce, Eloise Smith, Ronald Banister, David Bruce, Joy Zick, Jan Lunde, Susan Miller, and Kathleen Neuman. Several lodge members attended the 1993 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. Book sales were held several times during this decade and luncheons (everyone brings a dish to pass) at the end of each fiscal year.
The 2000s continued to be very busy. The program committee reached out to surrounding local community leaders for lecturers. These included Rabbi Yoseph Samuels, Steven Vedro, Philip Mereton, and Jay Cleve. New members to the lodge also contributed including Art Bartling, Bob Bendykowski, Tom Wroblewski, Vivian Faye, William Rogers, Ph.D., David Margetta, Jeanie Dean, Phoenix Suvayas, Diana Soria Newman, Peig Myota, and Stephen Dicke. National speakers included Tim Boyd, Richard Smoley, Kurt Leland, James LeFevour, Rubin Cabigting, Glenn Mullen and Jon Knebel. The Milwaukee Lodge Centennial was held November 17, 2010 at the War Memorial. Lodge president, Thomas Wroblewski, introduced the main speaker, Betty Bland. Janet Kerschner, TSA archivist, gave a wonderful history of the Milwaukee Lodge, much of which has been included in this history.