Historically, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist has shied away from planning major events during the weekend of Bastille Days.
“With the noise and the hustle and the bustle and concerns about space, in the old days, we used to shut down,” said Fr. Jeff Haines, the cathedral rector.
Other than celebrating regularly scheduled Sunday Mass, the mother church of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee would be shut up and empty during the weekend’s festivities — a beautiful but non-participatory witness to the divertissement in Cathedral Square.
Last year, things began to change. The parish set up tables and chairs and invited the crowds into the prayer garden, offering coffee and water for a free will donation to the cathedral’s Open Door Cafe ministry.
It was such a success that this year the cathedral is increasing its efforts dramatically, planning a weekend of events that will make the city’s most sacred space more accessible than ever to people of all faiths who are downtown July 9-12.
Fr. Haines called Bastille Days “a prime evangelization opportunity” and said that the weekend’s rigorous schedule is reflective of the cathedral’s mission as a whole, which is to be a home away from home for Milwaukee’s Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
During that weekend, festival-goers will find the cathedral’s doors will almost always be physically open.
“We want to take every opportunity we get to have someone come through our door and make possible in whatever way we can a chance for them to encounter Christ, the prince of peace, and to find that peace in their life,” Fr. Haines said.
Perhaps one of the more distinctive experiences offered will be Oremus MKE, held from 7 to 10:30 p.m. on Friday, July 10 (Benediction will take place at 10 p.m.). During this time, the cathedral will be open to the public for quiet prayer and contemplation. Young ministers of hospitality will be stationed on the sidewalk outside the cathedral, inviting people into the church to light a candle and offer a prayer for peace.
Priests will also be on hand to talk with visitors and even hear confessions, and there will be an opportunity for
adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the cathedral’s day chapel.
Past Oremus events in Milwaukee have been held at St. Hedwig and St. Mary of Czestochowa; like this one, they are organized with the help of youth from Three Holy Women Parish, Milwaukee Young Adult Ministry and seminarians from Saint Francis de Sales Seminary.
Deacon Andrew Linn, who is helping organize Oremus, said the tranquility of the cathedral – in the midst of a festival – is a beautiful juxtaposition, one that is a perfect metaphor for the mission of the church itself.
“It’s a beautiful experience, because a lot of people who are not religious, and certainly a lot who are not Catholic, will come in, and they’ll experience, maybe, a little, a tiny aspect of what we do in the church,” he said.
“You get all shapes and sizes and different flavors of belief or unbelief, but everyone’s welcome,” said Fr. Haines. “We’re just excited about inviting people to have a chance to come to know Christ — and, through the warmth and the hospitality of the people, no matter where we are in our faith journey, everyone knows the yearning and the need for peace.”
The Coffee in the Garden experience will also provide Bastille Day attendees with a chance for a break from the festival, which draws about 250,000 visitors a year.
Coffee in the Garden will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, July 11 and Sunday, July 12, and like last year, guests will be invited to enjoy special seating in the cathedral’s prayer garden, but this year the menu has gotten a makeover. Specialty iced and hot flavored coffee drinks will be offered, and guests will be able to order drinks inspired by the java preferences of Fr. Haines, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki and Bishop Richard J. Slkba.
All proceeds from the Coffee in the Garden will benefit the cathedral’s Open Door Cafe.
Those who plan to register for the annual Storm the Bastille 5K Run will also have an opportunity to ensure that their efforts benefit the Open Door Cafe. All runners registering online will be invited to make a contribution to the ministry, which was founded 20 years ago by Fr. Louis Koran, a retired priest living at the cathedral. In 2002, the Open Door Cafe was given a permanent indoor home at the Weakland Center, where hot meals are served Monday through Friday to the city’s poor and homeless. It is estimated that the ministry served 57,000 meals last year.
Milwaukeeans have ample opportunity to experience the Divine Liturgy in languages such as Latin, Polish and Spanish, but this weekend the cathedral will hold the area’s only Mass celebrated in French, Saturday at 5:15 p.m.
The tradition of the French Mass during Bastille Days, said Helen Gadbois, time and talent coordinator for the cathedral, is one that goes back decades in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The Mass used to be celebrated at Old St. Mary’s, but the attendance was so great that a larger venue was needed.
“It’s always a big crowd,” she said.
Fr. Steve Lampe will celebrate the Mass for the third year a in a row. Fr. Lampe, who is fluent in five languages, including French, said that what makes this liturgy unique is the fact that French is not a language Americans commonly encounter, especially when it comes to the Mass.
“Unless you live in New England, French is not easily experienced in our country, even though we have roots from the French explorers, as the names of many places give witness,” he said. “The Mass in French, joined with Milwaukee’s festival tradition, celebrates the universality of the church.”
Fr. Lampe urged those who have no familiarity with the French language to attend.
“The same text and the same structure is used, but now in a different language,” he said of the liturgy. “Thus, there is something familiar and comforting about it, while also being new and intriguing.”
The liturgy will also feature classic French hymns selected by the cathedral’s director of music, Michael J. Batcho. Regular Sunday Masses will be celebrated in the cathedral at 8, 9:30, and 11 a.m., July 12.
Also on Saturday evening, the cathedral will hold its sixth annual French Dinner. This year’s theme is “An Evening in Paris,” whose wine and food has been carefully selected and prepared by Pfister Hotel chef Brian Frakes and his staff. Ticket sales are closed for this year, but parish leadership urges anyone interested to consider attending next year’s event.
Gadbois described the dinner as “an opportunity to bring new friends to the cathedral” and said that the evening is designed especially with non-parishioners in mind.
The cathedral will also be open for tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday.
All told, the cathedral will be open close to 40 hours during Bastille Days. It’s an unprecedented effort mounted by ministers of hospitality, tour guides and over 75 volunteers.
“We would hope that this would be an opportunity for parishioners who are here all the time … but also people who are here infrequently, people who just come here for major celebrations, and people who are here for the first time,” said Gadbois. “The archbishop always makes a point of calling the cathedral your second home, and that’s the point that I think we’re trying to get across. The cathedral belongs to everybody.”
Fr. Haines put it simply: “Come home!”