One of the country’s oldest Polish American churches has a towering problem.
Years of wind and rain, freezing and thawing, have gnawed at the stone and roof ledges of the Basilica of St. Josaphat, forcing emergency repairs to the exterior masonry, including renovation of the stone and roof ledges.
The 250-foot Polish cathedral style dome in Milwaukee’s Lincoln Village neighborhood is one of the most identifiable in the city. Architect Erhard Brielmaier designed St. Josaphat in the late 1800s to resemble St. Peter’s Basilica.
Once plans were complete, Fr. Wilhelm Grutza, pastor, learned the Chicago Post Office and Custom House were to be razed. He purchased it for $20,000. The building was dismantled and re-claimed materials were loaded on 500 train cars and shipped to Milwaukee. The architect altered his blueprints to include the salvaged materials and kept the design true to the original model.
Ground was broken in 1896 and the church was completed in 1901; it remains the largest church in Milwaukee and the second largest steel domed structure in the United States, behind the U.S. Capitol.
The basilica holds a special place in the heart of Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki.
“St. Josaphat Basilica symbolizes the dedication of our forefathers, and is an important spiritual and cultural landmark for the church in southeastern Wisconsin,” he said. “Being Polish myself, I can identify with the rich and proud ethnic heritage dreamed about and that eventually built the basilica. Since then, generations of Catholic immigrants have filled the basilica with over a century of rich history and strong faith.”
Inspection revealed structural issues
Conventual Franciscan Fr. Michael Glastetter, pastor, and members of the St. Josaphat
Basilica Foundation discovered during an inspection last year that mortar is missing in some of the joints and pieces of the ornate trim are falling off piece by piece. The roof is also in disrepair and water damage threatens the interior.
“Loose pieces are regularly removed during inspections and these areas need to be addressed,” said Fr. Glastetter. “Loose pieces need to be removed and rescued and replaced. This is needed to slow the loss of building ornamentation, prevent water infiltration and improve safety.”
The foundation is seeking help in raising $7.5 million to preserve the basilica and ensure it remains open.
Bus shelter resembles historic landmark
To inaugurate the fundraising campaign, named “Renewing a Destination of Inspiration,” the foundation embarked on the effort by utilizing a bus shelter in Cathedral Square, on the corner of Wells and Jackson streets. Clear Channel Outdoor and Zizzo Group designed the shelter to resemble the basilica.
Recreated in the back of the shelter is an image resembling stained glass from the basilica and when bus patrons look up from the inside, the roof looks like a close-up replica of the basilica’s domed ceiling.
The bench was recreated to resemble a pew. Panels on the side advertise the foundation’s fundraising campaign.
Next to the “Save Our Sanctuary” appeal and an image of the basilica, there is a high-tech way to donate. People sitting at the bus stop can donate by scanning the QR code with a cell phone. Additionally, smart phones enabled with near field communication (NFC) can connect with the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation to make a donation.
The recreated bus shelter will remain open for 10 weeks. About a dozen of Clear Channel’s [su_pullquote align=”right”]The Basilica Visitors Center is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well as during weekend Mass times. For more information: www.TheBasilica.org To donate to the “Renewing a Destination of Inspiration” campaign, send a check to: 620 W. Lincoln Ave. Milwaukee, WI 53215 call (414) 902-3524 or visit the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation: www.TheBasilicaFoundation.org[/su_pullquote]digital billboards will also share information about the effort.
According to Susan Rabe, basilica foundation president and CEO, the need for repairs is acute if the basilica is to remain one of the most revered arts and cultural destinations in the nation. As a performance venue, the basilica is regularly used by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Bel Canto Chorus and is home to the Basilica Choir.
“The most critical area of the basilica is the east side and the south end of the east side where we actually have sections of stone falling away,” explained Rabe.
This renovation follows the foundation’s 1991 promise to the community and the basilica to never let it fall into serious disrepair again. Since then, the foundation has made other repairs and additions to the basilica, including the John Paul II Pavilion and Visitors Center in 2000 and most recently, adding portico and bell tower lighting.
“This was a promise made to save the basilica when we worked on the first project that cost several million dollars in preservation back then,” she explained. “Our whole purpose for being is the preservation and restoration of this building.”
There are sections of the building where the stone cannot be restored and needs to be replaced. Due to the urgency of the situation, scaffolding was erected May 18 and the foundation went public with the need for help.
“We are addressing the urgent, priority areas,” said Rabe. “That in no way encompasses the whole need of the building. It is more of a Band-Aid, but we will be replacing a lot of stone this summer. There are five crucial areas that are scattered around different elevations, most on the east and southeast elevation. Basically, you can pick a spot and there is an issue.”
Fr. Glastetter explained addressing the external issues will help preserve the beauty of the basilica’s interior.
Exterior of dome will be illuminated
“It is also hoped that we will be able to properly illuminate the exterior of the dome,” he said. “Carefully balanced textural lighting will articulate the dimensional details of the dome and elevate it to its proper place in the Milwaukee skyline.”
Work on the exterior of the basilica will continue through the summer months, but maintenance is ongoing, explained Fr. Glastetter.
“A long-term maintenance plan has been created through the efforts of the Franciscans and the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation and we are always looking ahead at the next 20 years so we can be prepared, and so that the basilica will never fall into a state of complete disrepair,” he said.
During summer, areas of priority will be slated for repair with the first phase goal of $2.5 million covering the soft Ohio sandstone damage.
“After this, our next priority will be masonry and roofing, flashing, calking and all that goes with it,” said Rabe. “And then the lighting of the dome. The donors are excited to see the dome light the skyline in Milwaukee because right now the dome is dark. We hope to get support of that and have the funds to repair the stained glass windows in the stairwells and some of the pavilion windows.”
She added that Conrad Schmitt, which has been a basilica “partner” since 1926, will do the stained glass work.
Reaching top will be challenging
In addition to the fundraising, the greatest challenge to this project is reaching the top of the basilica.
“The building is so massive and it will be challenging to get the scaffolding right and getting up there and transporting stone,” said Rabe. “The tricky part is pulling pieces out and getting new ones in because it is such a large building and it has so many intricacies up there.”
Foundation board member John Rodell, managing partner at The Rodell Group, agreed, adding the scale and the way the historic building is constructed lends to great responsibility in the preservation efforts.
“We are sensitive to the materials we use and how we assemble the materials,” he said. “We are limited as far as modifying the building from its original character and we have to pay close attention to what we are doing. The building is comprised of Ohio sandstone and, thankfully, we found sandstone that is a direct match to the stone the original building was constructed with.”
He added that high quality materials are being used in order “to keep the building going on in perpetuity.”
Preserving historical churches is important to the faithful and to the community, explained Archbishop Listecki.
“Our Catholic churches house our traditions, our faith and our beliefs,” he said. “It is our responsibility to preserve them as a community, not just because of our faith, but in memory of our ancestors and with the same joyful hope for generations to come.”
Feedback on the project and the bus shelter ad campaign has been favorable and many people have remarked to Fr. Glastetter on the beauty and uniqueness of the installation.
“It is truly one of a kind,” he said. “The bus shelter has been a way for the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation to publicly launch a capital campaign. The billboards will also help to get the word out. Of course, word of mouth is essential. Many people have a story to tell. It’s wonderful to hear how the basilica has been instrumental in the lives of so many families through its great history.”
He said the foundation has received support from community leaders, foundations and benefactors.
“I am confident that the community will rally to help support and preserve this great landmark church in the city of Milwaukee,” said Fr. Glastetter.