For a number of years, when the annual downtown Bastille Days Festival rolled around, the Cathedral Parish of Saint John the Evangelist mostly shut down. Oh, there still was the celebration of the Eucharist on Saturday evening and on Sunday morning, but the massive influx of crowds accompanied by the issues of noise and congestion were thought not to be very conducive to the normal flow of parish life.

That all changed following the “Year of Faith” called by Pope Benedict XVI for 2012 and the promulgation of the Apostolic Exhortation the “Joy of the Gospel” by Pope Francis in 2013. With the admonition to “open wide the doors” of the Church in order to take the Gospel out to the people, the leadership of Cathedral Parish decided to invest all of its resources into welcoming and extending hospitality to the thousands and thousands of festival attendees who came to East Town to savor French culture, music, food and beverages.

The results of the evangelization in recent years have exceeded expectations, and this summer’s edition of Bastille Days clearly was the most productive ever in engaging guests to encounter the Gospel in the environs of the Mother Church of the archdiocese. Never before have such numbers of people taken advantage of the opportunity to learn about and experience the Catholic faith in the heritage, beauty and spirituality of the Cathedral community.

There was a wide variety of offerings shared by the Cathedral parishioners and archdiocesan volunteers in the midst of the four days of festivity of the French gala. The most recurring offering was ongoing tours of the Cathedral Church. Each and every day there were four to five hours when festival-goers could saunter through the sacred space aided by a printed “self-guided walking tour” or conversations with a number of docents scattered about the building. I spent a total of 17 hours in the crypt of the Cathedral sharing the history and stories of the bishops of the archdiocese who are laid to rest there. In addition to commenting upon the splendor of the building and its religious art, a common response was grateful acknowledgment of the role which the Catholic Church has played in the overall life of the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin.

Another offering of the Cathedral during the celebration of Bastille Days was a sampling of some of the fine arts which are part of the tradition of the congregation. There was a program of selections by French composers performed by the Michigan-based duo of Nicholas Schmelter on organ and Tyler Kivel on piano during Friday afternoon. On Saturday afternoon, Michael Batcho, the director of music of the Cathedral, shared a diverse menu of sacred pieces highlighting the virtuous capability of the church’s two organs. And, on Sunday afternoon, the Cathedral’s bell ensemble, led by its director, Sallyanne Hassert, delighted visitors with a bright array of musical chimes. Those who frequented the performances expressed appreciation for the opportunity to listen to some melodies which were more spiritual and more contemplative than the sonically elevated concerts taking place on the Festival stages.

Yet another offering of the Cathedral was the celebration of the Eucharist in the French language as part of the Mass of Anticipation at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday. Fr. Steve Lampe, a professor of Biblical theology at Cardinal Stritch University and a gifted linguist, presided at the Mass. He was accompanied by a special choir which sang liturgical hymns and acclamations of Frankish origin either in the language of French or Latin. A common refrain spoken about this annual event is gratitude, as those with French ancestry or training in high school or college language studies note that seldom is there available a Mass done in their linguistic style.

Still another offering of the Cathedral on Saturday and Sunday was “Coffee in the Garden.” Festival goers are invited to sample hot and cold specialty coffees and refreshing lemonade in the serene setting of the Prayer Garden, which rests in the middle of the Cathedral block. This provides a brief respite from the rather rollicking elements of Bastille Days, and those who take advantage of this more gentle opportunity appreciate the chance for quiet conversation or time to meditate amidst the Garden’s Stations of the Cross and statues of Christ the Servant, Mary Mother of the Clergy and Pope St. John Paul II. Friends of the Cathedral from St. John Vianney Parish in Brookfield host this event, and they encourage those who enjoy the refreshments to consider making a donation to the Open Door Café of the Cathedral, which offers a nutritious and delicious free, hot lunch six days a week to those who are poor and in need.

The signature event of the evangelization effort of the Cathedral Parish during Bastille Days was an experience known as OremusMKE. This is a prayer service held on Friday evening of the Festival from 7-9 p.m. Potential participants are met on the front sidewalks of the Cathedral by a group of friendly volunteers (i.e., comprised of Cathedral parishioners, young adults of the East Side, permanent deacons), who offer a votive candle to everyone they greet and invite them to come into the church to light the candle, place it upon the steps which surround the altar of the church and offer a prayer for peace or their own personal intercession. It has been said that every heart carries within it a prayer and that adage was manifested bountifully. People of every age, gender, race, culture, religion and other persuasion streamed down the aisles of the church seeking to lift their petition to the Lord. A total of more than 1,800 candles were lit throughout the evening.

Members of the Cathedral Parish Mission Committee were present during OremusMKE as well serving as “guardians of open beverages,” so that participants could set aside their drink and focus on the lighting of their votive candle and offering of their special intention. Many grateful users of this service expressed their appreciation by making a donation to the Sister Parish of the Cathedral and the Archdiocese, La Sagrada Familia in Sabana Yegua, Dominican Republic. Literature with background information on the Sister Parish and the amazing ministries taking place there also was distributed.

Overall, a total of nearly 7,000 people visited the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist during the four-day run of the Bastille Days Festival. An abundance of these guests took the time and effort to say “thank you” to one of our hosts, going out of their way to express how much the spiritual interlude meant to them. Also hopeful were inquiries made about the possibility of scheduling a future wedding in the Church and requests for information about having a baby baptized. And, perhaps the summation of the impact of the evangelization effort was expressed best by a guest leaving the Church following the OremusMKE prayer service on Friday night, who, with tears in her eyes and a smile on her face, was heard to say, “I feel so welcome here. I think it is time that I come back to the Catholic Church.”