William Fotsch, his wife Geri and son Tom took a tour of the Basilica of St. Josaphat in 2008. Being an engineer, William, a member of St. Mary Parish in Elm Grove, appreciated the immense work and beauty of the building and wanted to add his own little piece – air conditioning – to the stunning landmark on Milwaukee’s south side.
Soon after, he began accomplishing that task.
But in 2011, before seeing the basilica get the much-needed air conditioning, William died at age 80. Although he didn’t get to see it for himself, the basilica announced on Easter Sunday that the Fotsch family has promised to finance the new air conditioning in memory of their patriarch, William.
Conventual Franciscan Fr. Michael Glastetter, pastor, who made the announcement during Mass, said applause erupted from the congregation.
Calling the donation, “the next step in a long line of generous donors,” Fr. Glastetter told your Catholic Herald it’s a tribute to the Fotsch family.
The donation will make worshipping at the basilica much more comfortable, especially during hot, summer days, he said.
“It’s pretty unbearable,” he said of the temperature in the basilica during the hot weather, adding, “We try to keep things as brief as possible.”
When it’s especially hot, Fr. Glastetter explained there might be less preaching, less music on some of those days. “We are very mindful that everyone is taken care of and has what they need,” he said.
In donating the gift of air conditioning, Tom Fotsch, a member of St. John Vianney Parish in Brookfield, told your Catholic Herald that his father felt it was a shame the basilica wasn’t air conditioned and couldn’t be used to its fullest extent.
“Ultimately this helps preserve the building for a longer period of time,” he said.
Fotsch said his family’s motto, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” was a driving force for his father and the rest of the Fotsches.
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“This is an opportunity for us to give back for some of the many blessings that we as a family have received,” Fotsch said. “We want to be able to give that back to the community…. Some folks quite honestly can’t go to the basilica in the summer because it’s too warm for them.”
Fotsch is one of eight children of William and Geri who raised their family with strong Catholic values.
“It meant a lot to my mother that we try to make this a reality as quickly as we possibly could,” Fotsch said. He added that his mother, Geri, was the driving force behind getting this project underway and that she deserves as much credit as his father.
Describing his father, “Pa” as fun, but very demanding, Fotsch said he often took interest in things that no one else would.
“It was on Pa’s bucket list,” Fotsch said of the air conditioning for the basilica constructed in the late 1800s. “I think it’s something that we need to continue and preserve.”
For the members of the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation, the contribution to this “distant dream,” changed the plans for the current renovation projects.
Susan Rabe, executive director of the foundation, said they planned to upgrade the interior lighting, add lighting to the Portico and bell towers, restore the sacristy and stairwell stained glass windows, restore exterior masonry and improve the sound system –– before working on the air conditioning.
“They brought the project on the bottom of the list to the top,” Rabe said.
The Fotsch family asked the foundation not to reveal how much the installation will cost, but Rabe noted it is the single largest financial gift given to the basilica in his history.
During hot summer months, Rabe said the basilica temperature would be, “As hot as it would be outside, if not a little hotter. ”
She explained the stone used to build it would act as an incubator for heat.
“So if it’s 90 (degrees) outside for a week and 95 percent humidity, the inside of the basilica can feel that same way or even worse,” Rabe said.
The biggest challenge now is installing the air conditioning system without changing how the basilica looks on the outside or inside.
“Anything that we do to it, whether restore or enhance is always kept with the architectural significance of the building,” Rabe said. “We can’t disturb or change the way the basilica looks inside just to get air conditioning in.”
Fotsch agreed his father would never want to change the appearance of the basilica.
“You have to make sure you respect and maintain the architectural integrity of the facility and do that with the modern aspect of air conditioning is not a simple task,” he said.
Rabe said they hope to begin working on installing the air conditioning by the beginning of summer, with the hopes that it will be completed by early fall.
She hopes the generosity of the Fotsch family will bring additional support for the basilica’s other projects.
“We need the community to meet the Fotsch family and help us complete these important preservation and restoration projects,” Rabe said. “They want the community to be inspired by this gift.”
The Fotsch family agrees.
“We hope that if somebody is inspired by this, to be able to continue in their own way to the basilica … or other areas of the community. If that inspires them, fantastic,” Fotsch said.
What started as an idea to bring some comfort to the people in the pews, has become a family’s legacy to their father.
“We’re excited that we can see my dad’s wish and dream come forward to a reality,” Fotsch said.