Grandeur and Devotion: St. Josaphat Basilica in Milwaukee

Only a handful of churches in the United States, eighty or so, enjoy the privilege of being designated a basilica. Basilica status is granted by a papal brief. It bestows and affirms preeminence among churches and is considered a special honor. Ideally, in addition to their beauty and historical significance, basilicas also strive to become vibrant centers of Christian culture and piety. Among North American churches, St. Josaphat Basilica, built by Polish immigrants in Milwaukee, WI, is a veritable architectural, artistic, and cultural treasure. A must visit destination for anyone who has interest and takes pleasure in visiting beautifully built and decorated churches.

St. Josaphat’s was built at the end of the 19th century under the direction of its devoted pastor, Fr. Wilhelm Grutza and his trusted architect Erhard Brielmaier. The concept was to erect a large edifice based on the plan matching grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome – this was both to establish an undeniable connection with the Church of Rome but also to solidify the idea that for people who had to flee their homeland, for people without a country – this parish church was now both Safe Harbor and a new Motherland.

The original building was going to be constructed out of brick, but when Fr. Grutza found out that Chicago was razing U.S. Post Office and Customs House and selling materials at fraction of their value, he made a decision to save the parish substantial amount of money and secure these high quality materials. He purchased all carved stone, wooden doors, bronze railings, light fixtures, and even door knobs. All salvaged materials were delivered to Milwaukee on 500 railroad flatcars.

The construction of the church took a little over a decade and was carried out under a diligent care of the architect and the pastor. The church was built by the parishioners, both men and women, mostly unskilled labor who volunteered their time and frequently all their resources, some mortgaging out their homes to also contribute financially. The interior architecture turned out impressive indeed, voluminous and resonating with the familiar aesthetics of St. Peter’s in Rome. A well-crafted replica of the famous statue of St. Peter is installed in the narthex of the church, and its right foot is worn out, in much the same way the original in Rome has been lovingly erased by millions of pilgrims and visitors.

The interior of the church is defined by the truly magnificent soaring dome, opulent sanctuary with central deis and an impressive ciborium, four prominent lateral shrines, carved stone pulpit, as well as gorgeous stained-glass windows from Austria. The walls and the ceiling are enriched with numerous murals and decorative paintings, but these were all added over time, well after the church was dedicated in 1901. The neo-gothic stations of the cross are in the transept, seven stations on either side. Two monumental paintings – replicas of important 19th century paintings from Poland hang in the clerestory – one painting is of General Kosciuszko and the other one is the acclaimed Rebuke by Matejko. The original of the Rebuke is housed in the National Gallery in Warsaw and to see its exact replica in St. Josaphat is both a surprising and moving experience, especially for those of Polish heritage. The painting represents an historically and emotionally significant scene when Fr. Piotr Skarga, famous priest and orator, admonished Polish aristocracy to take better care of their homeland lest in falls in the hands of foreign powers. We know from history that this is precisely what has happened, and Poland was partitioned among Russia, Germany, and Austria for 123 years, so this image is a particularly evocative and powerful statement both of regret but also of hope that God will restore Poland’s freedom. A grace Poland finally received in 1989.

St. Josephat’s Basilica is currently under ministry of the Order of Conventual Franciscans as well as care of St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation whose mission is the preservation, restoration and enhancement of the Basilica of St. Josaphat as an historical landmark and center of spirituality.

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