St. Joseph's Orphanage Chapel: A Rare Example of North American Rococo

The chapel interior before it was dismantled and sold.

The chapel of St. Joseph's Orphan Home that was once located in Superior, Wisconsin showcases a rare example of the rococo in North America.  It was so rare that there was nothing like it in the United States before or after.  The entire chapel with its ornamental works, reliefs, altars, and statuary were produced in the studios of the Daprato Statuary Company in Chicago and New York.  Daprato had the distinction of being granted the title "Pontifical Institute of Christian Art." Above the main altar was a statue of St. Joseph seated in a chair with Our Lady on one side and Christ on the other.  

Lady altar.

Visitors to the fourth floor, two-story, 50' x 100' chapel were impressed not only by the next level decoration, serene beauty, and artistic scope, but also the smaller scale pews that were sized for children.  The rich ornamentation in sculpted effects were all made of a man-made composite material known as "rigalico," believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. (made of asbestos, cast in large bronze molds).  Following is information given on the chapel from a catalogue of the Daprato Company that accompanied three photos of the interior of the chapel: 

"Main altars, side altars, railing, with all reliefs, statues and ornamentation, produced in studios of Daprato Statuary Company, Chicago, New York.  Main altar Rigalico with gold mosaic ornamentation.  Interior decorations designed specially for His Lordship, Rt. Rev. Joseph M. Koudelka, D.D." (Source: Creations in Ecclesiastical Art, pp. 214-216).  

The bishop who built the orphanage was a poor immigrant who came to America at age 14.  From 1913-1922 he was Bishop of Superior and set out to build the orphanage to answer an urgent need in the local area.  The total cost was $190,000.  With his own funds the Bishop furnished the interior of the chapel at a cost of $42,000.  The chapel was known by the children as the "Chapel of the Angels," on account of the statuary.  The bishop had a special love for this chapel and chose to have his body lay in state here after his death while his nephew celebrated a Requiem Mass for the repose of soul before the official funeral that was held at the Cathedral.   

Holy Family altar.

The Italian Renaissance style cream brick orphanage was built in 1915 and dedicated in 1917.  The chapel was completed in 1919.  From the front it was one of the prettiest buildings in town, with a segmental arch arcade, crowned with a statue from New York of Our Savior welcoming the children under a 30' bellcast dome capped by an oxidized copper cupola.  Up to 200 children lived at the home at one time.  The orphanage was under the care and direction of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur of Cleveland until 1942.  Then the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi came from Milwaukee until 1963 when orphanages were phased out by the government and children were placed into foster care.  

A rare color image of the main altar.

The bells came from Baltimore in 1920.  They were salvaged in 1983 and placed in the Cathedral of Christ the King in Superior.  They were three in number: Joseph, Mary, and Gabriel.  

In 1987 the interior of the chapel was salvaged by Architectural Antiques, LLC.  Photos of the salvage can be seen here; enough to bring tears to the eyes.  The chapel was gutted and the three altars and other various pieces of the chapel were sold to a group of independent Traditional Catholics in Spokane, Washington, for a school located in an old Jesuit seminary, seen here.  Below is what their chapel looks like, with pieces salvaged including the altars and various statues of angels.  Tragically the orphanage building was razed in 2003 and is today is an empty lot.  At 63,000 SF it was one of the largest buildings in the city and the chapel was one of the most artistically significant in the nation. 

What is left of the main altar as it appears today.

Two famous personages came to visit the orphanage while passing through town, Babe Ruth and later Bob Hope.  Babe Ruth had spent time in an orphanage and so it  had special meaning for him.  Photos of the orphanage can be found here.  There are several rare photos that can be seen online.  More info on the history of the chapel with photos can be seen here.  

Chapel view front.

Chapel view rear.

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