A Treasury of Liturgical Art at St. Mary's in Wausau, Wisconsin

One of the more beautiful parishes in the United States surely must be St. Mary's Oratory in Wausau, Wisconsin under the care of the Institute of Christ the King. The history of the church is one of both tragedy and revival. The church was erected in 1892, replacing a pioneer style wooden church that had preceded it.  The new church was built in gothic revival form, which was reaching its height by this period of time, and was considered an extremely fine example of such in the region. Tragedy and loss struck in 1953, however, when the church suffered a catastrophic fire, effectively gutting its interior.  After the fire a new mid-century style was adopted for the parish, one which combined gothic elements with some of the styles that had been popularized by the Liturgical Movement at that point of time.  However, that wasn't the end of the story. 

We can be certain various renovations were made in the 1970's and thereafter, but the renovation we are most interested in are those which took place under the aegis of the Institute of Christ the King after they were given the church to use as an Oratory in 1999 under then Bishop Raymond Burke.  The Institute in their own words about the renovations:

The Scholz Family Foundation obtained a long-term lease from the diocese for St. Mary’s and immediately began a complete restoration of the entire church. Through a singularly generous donation, the Scholz Family Foundation was able to bring St. Mary’s back to an even greater splendor than its original beauty. Walking through the doors of St. Mary’s now reveals the magnificence of authentic High Gothic architecture; the three altarpieces reproduce original works of art from the fifteenth-century Blutenburg Chapel in Bavaria, and the high altar features a statue of the Madonna and Child dating to the 1480s, just before the discovery of the Americas. The tasteful stained-glass windows, depicting the life of the Virgin Mary, were retained from the renovation of the 1950s. Painted rib vaults and new, traditionally carved statues of the Apostles complete the interior decoration.

American and European artists, craftsmen and architects collaborated to bring this unique project to a successful conclusion. On May 31, 2003, Bishop Burke consecrated St. Mary’s in a solemn ceremony, one of the most impressive rites in the Catholic liturgy.

The parish is not only noteworthy for the beauty of its architecture and its altarpieces, but also the other liturgical furnishings that have been commissioned or acquired for use here. One example of this which recently came to light is of a splendid green solemn Mass set with matching antependium that utilizes a Renaissance era inspired velvet fabric with Turkish design influences -- which were quite popular in Renaissance Europe by way of the Venetians.  Here is a look at just that (and do also take a look at how all of these various parts come together to create an impressive and moving whole):

Other examples abound showing the care and detailed consideration which is put in to the sacred liturgy and the corresponding nobility, quality and beauty of the liturgical arts here. 

Of course, it is the altarpieces that are the star of this particular liturgical production, taking their influences from the Low Countries of Europe with their resplendent altarpieces.

The main altarpiece features a statue of the Madonna dated to the fifteenth century -- a piece that was salvaged from an antiques market -- while the left panel depicts the Annunciation and the right the Coronation. (When the two doors of the triptych are closed the mood turns more somber, depicting Our Lady of Sorrows and the Passion.)

The panels found on the two side altars are equally as beautiful -- and, pleasingly, they are not merely ornamental but are attached to altars that are actually still put into proper liturgical use.

The panel depicts the Fourteen Holy Helpers and Christ the King

The Trinity

Worth noting in all of this too is the intricate woodwork found around these pieces. 

While so much neo-gothic can fall into the cookie cutter "gingerbread gothic" mode, the parish of St. Mary's in Wausau demonstrates how much richer expressions are indeed still possible today.

Do you like Liturgical Arts Journal's original content? You can help support LAJ in its mission and vision to promote beauty in Catholic worship either by: 

You choose the amount! Your support makes all the difference.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.