After a decade-long absence, the carved wood sculpture of the crucified Christ once again adorns the cross in the Mater Christi Chapel at the Cousins Center in St. Francis.

The Corpus and the cross on which it hangs in the Cousins Center’s Mater Christi Chapel were recently restored to their original, 1963 condition. (Submitted photo courtesy of Dean Daniels)

The Corpus and the cross on which it hangs in the Cousins Center’s Mater Christi Chapel were recently restored to their original, 1963 condition. (Submitted photo courtesy of Dean Daniels)

Since about 2004, the Corpus has resided at Three Holy Women’s Holy Rosary Church on Oakland Avenue. It was loaned to Holy Rosary in anticipation of the sale of the Cousins Center, which was put on the market in 2006 – thus leaving the Mater Christi Chapel cross bare during a decade that included what was arguably the most difficult period in the history of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: the aftermath of the resignation of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland in 2002, the fallout from the clergy sex abuse scandal and the 2011 declaration of bankruptcy.

So it is more than simply an aesthetic alteration to once again see the crucified Christ, called a Corpus, on the chapel’s cross. It is also a poignant sign of life for the Cousins Center, home to the archdiocese’s central offices.

“The archbishop talked about, at the Archdiocesan Synod (in June 2014) that this was a new Pentecost for the diocese,” said Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for the Office of the Archbishop. “And maybe the Cousins Center is a part of that, as a physical sign of our presence in the community, that people know there’s a centralized Catholic center.”

Corpus reinstalled March 30

The Corpus’ return was the result of a “hallway conversation” between the archbishop and the director of the archdiocesan Office for Worship, Dean Daniels, said Daniels. The archbishop was hoping to enlist a friend of his, a sculptor, to create a corpus for the empty cross in the chapel.

“At that point, I said, we have the Corpus for that cross,” said Daniels.

It was in 2004 that then-Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan gave Daniels the somber task of cataloguing every piece of art housed in the Cousins Center with the intention of distributing them among parishes in the archdiocese. It took Daniels two months.

“We knew that we were going to be having finance problems, and so in preparation of having to pay these fees – this was before bankruptcy – we started to think, this building has to be sold. There’s no way around it,” Daniels recalled. “We started thinking, what can we give to parishes?”

Originally claimed by Fr. Kitzke

The Corpus was quickly claimed by Fr. Tim Kitzke, pastor of Three Holy Women Parish. He had a sentimental connection to the Corpus, he told the Catholic Herald.

“The Cousins Center used to be De Sales Prep Seminary (which opened in 1963), and that’s where I went to high school,” said Fr. Kitzke. “That crucifix was the first crucifix that I prayed in the presence of when I was a seminarian, oh-so-many years ago – in the fall of 1973 when I got to the seminary.”

The Corpus was subsequently loaned to Three Holy Women Parish, and was displayed at its Holy Rosary site.

“It was a wonderful way for us all (at Three Holy Women) to pray for vocations, with the seminary connection,” he said.

But when he heard that the archdiocese was thinking of bringing the Corpus back, he didn’t hesitate to do everything he could to facilitate the move.
Crucifix ‘has to go home’

“When I heard that we (the archdiocesan offices) were staying at the Cousins Center, immediately I thought, ‘Oh the crucifix has to go home!’” Fr. Kitzke said. “I thought it was a wonderful symbol. It was a no-brainer. That’s where it belongs; it’s where it first was, and its connection to our history, and we’re praying that God will lead us forward into that wonderful chapel and the Cousins Center will just be a great place for the church in service to the Gospel.”

Fr. Kitzke and the parishioners of Three Holy Women financed the transportation of the Corpus back to the Mater Christi Chapel for its March 30 reinstallation, a gift that saved the archdiocese thousands of dollars.

Conrad Schmitt Studios donated its services for the restoration of the red disk behind the Corpus. The disk, enclosed by a brass ring, needed to be repainted, said Kevin Grabowski of Conrad Schmitt, a process which required a close match of the original paint color.

“Obviously, our history is here in Milwaukee … certainly rooted in the Catholic Church in Milwaukee here,” said Grabowski. “Whenever we can do things in our backyard that help out, that’s always a nice thing — to give back a little bit.”

Little things start to come back

For Daniels, who took the lead on essentially emptying the Cousins Center of its Catholic artwork in anticipation of a possible sale, the return of the Corpus is especially sweet.

“It’s a great joy,” said Daniels. “When I first came to this building, before I worked here, for a music and worship congress, it was 1996, something like that. This building was filled with life. It was filled with artwork … and then when I came to work here, in 1998, and the building was still filled – we had food service in the cafeteria, with cooks on staff; it was filled with life. We were doing a lot of things for parishes and good work.

“And then as everything started to unfold with the clergy sex abuse, and Archbishop Weakland resigning and (Archbishop) Tim Dolan coming to be with us, and Archbishop Dolan seeing what was on the horizon, that we were going to have financial problems – it became rather a depressing place to work. It’s wonderful to start to see little things come back … the archbishop used the term ‘Jesus coming home.’”

There are also plans to install statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph on either side of the sanctuary in the Mater Christi Chapel; these statues were recently found in the old print shop at the Cousins Center, said Daniels, and because of their size, the walls in the chapel will need to be reinforced to bear their weight.

There is a small group of archdiocesan staff, led by Fr. William Kohler, Moderator of the Curia, who are in the beginning to explore how to get artwork back in the Cousins Center.

“Every single room in the building had a crucifix in it; we took all the crucifixes out and we gave them to parishes,” said Daniels. “Well, we’re a Catholic institution. We need our symbols in our places. Fr. Kohler has pulled together a group of people, four or five of us, to start to talk about how do we make this building look Catholic again.”

A new Pentecost for the Cousins Center

Long-term plans for the use of the Cousins Center are slowly being explored as the archdiocese emerges from its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, said Topczewski.

A Plan of Reorganization for the archdiocese was approved by the federal bankruptcy court Nov. 9, 2015.

“This moment can be for us a new Pentecost,” wrote Archbishop Listecki in his weekly communique, “Love One Another,” on Nov. 10, 2015.

Topczewski confirmed that the Cousins Center is no longer on the market, though the archdiocese did emerge from bankruptcy $7 million in debt and is carrying a mortgage on the building.

“I think we have a sense of the archbishop’s vision for it, and the question will be, how does that vision unfold and at what pace?” said Topczewski. “Because we have to remember, too, something very important is we don’t want to invest resources into bricks and mortar when they can be invested into service and outreach and ministry.”

But it has long been Archbishop Listecki’s intention, added Topczewski, to restore the Cousins Center to its place as “a central hub for the Catholic community.”

“When Archbishop Listecki arrived, I think he saw … that people identified with it,” he said. “His goal was to try and preserve that for our future, in hopes that it could not only house the central offices but eventually house other Catholic organizations or entities to make this a kind of a hub of Catholic activity.”

Any kind of steps to bring other Catholic groups into the building is in the very preliminary stages, he added.

“I think it will kind of unfold organically from there as to what makes sense,” he said. The archdiocese is in the process now, he said, of optimizing the efficiency of the layout of its various departments. “When we were downsizing, in hopes of moving, we consolidated even within the building. We want to look at how that space can be best utilized … even the way groups are positioned … you want offices in proximity to those they most do ministry with.”

The archdiocesan offices have been housed at the Cousins Center since shortly after the Archdiocesan Synod of 1987, according to Topczewski. In 2007, 10 departments moved to the St. Joseph Convent on Milwaukee’s Layton Boulevard, returning in 2011.

Center hosts conferences, meetings

The center is used for functions like the Engaged Enrichment conferences, day retreats for parish and school groups and archdiocesan meetings.

“It’s a convenient, comfortable place for people of the diocese,” said Topczewski. “It’s familiar to people. People know where the Cousins Center is. We found … even people who are on the outskirts of the diocese, once they come in so far, they say, I’d rather just go to the Cousins Center, I know how to get there, I know where I’m going.

“There is a sense of energy now that (the bankruptcy) process is finished, and that because of the bankruptcy process being finished we can now return our focus to that charitable and spiritual and educational mission of the church. For many Catholics, that’s embodied first in their parish but, for many people, especially leadership of parishes, the Cousins Center kind of has embodied that for decades and decades. I think if we had lost that it would have been another kind of blow to the morale.”