“Communicating to political and business leaders, as well as the entire city of Milwaukee, that the church has a part to play in the life of the city and its residents.”

Top: The exterior of the Cathedral, Bottom. San Damiano Cross.

That was the goal of Bishop Michael Martin Henni, the first bishop of the newly created diocese of Milwaukee, when he purchased a plot of land for a new cathedral in 1844, choosing  a site near the original courthouse, adjacent to what was then called “Courthouse Square” – today’s “Cathedral Square.” Bishop Henni believed that the new cathedral would serve as the “soul of the city,” with particular concern for the good of the whole community, especially the poor.

In the years since its establishment, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist has remained an important symbol of the Church’s presence through years of blessings and trials, including the devastating fire which destroyed the building on January 29, 1935.

Parishioner James Anello remembers visiting the cathedral in 2006, at a time when he was looking for a new parish home. After attending Sunday Mass in other area churches, he made his way to the cathedral, recalling that, “From the moment I received an order or worship and a friendly hello from a minister of hospitality, I had the feeling that this was a warm, welcoming place.” Inspired by the quality of the liturgy, particularly the music, Anello also said that he was impressed by the diversity and openness of the parish community. “The entire experience was a spiritual positive for me, and I joined shortly after.”

During his years in the parish, Anello’s involvement has grown to include serving as a cantor and choir member, as well as a volunteer at the cathedral’s Open Door Café, a ministry which serves more than 600 meals each week to the poor and homeless. Reflecting on his years in the cathedral parish, Anello said, “My involvement has strengthened my faith in the way that is has challenged me by pointing out the myriad of issues the Gospel forces us to address.”

This open spirit of service also inspired Pat Wisialowski to join the cathedral staff 13 years ago as pastoral associate. “But,” as she said, “I’ve known the cathedral my whole life. My grandparents belonged here and my dad was baptized here. I have a wonderful, strong emotional connect with the cathedral. My children were confirmed here, but I never thought I’d end up here as pastoral associate.”

Beyond the family connection, however, Wisialowski is also quick to point out the diversity of parishioners and their gifts that enrich the life of the community, noting that the cathedral truly represents the diversity of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. She sees this as a fundamental part of the cathedral’s mission and a gift for the local church.

As the “Mother Church” of the archdiocese, Wisialowski also sees the cathedral as an important point of contact with the history and tradition of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and with the Universal Church. “I love when, in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, we talk about the continuity of our faith and the thousands of years of Church history. But, then you think about how long the cathedral has been here, changes, fires … but it keeps going strong. It’s such a strong connecting point between our past and our future.”

This sense of connection with the broader tradition and history of the church is of great importance to Michael Batcho, the cathedral’s director of music. He sees the parish’s four musical ensembles – including the Cathedral Choir – as being a vital part of the life and mission of the parish. Noting that the cathedral musicians include professional and skilled-amateur singers and players from throughout the area, including non-Catholics, Batcho says that he believes they come to the cathedral for the history and for the style and quality of music for which the cathedral is known.

And yet, while Batcho notes that some might see the liturgical style of the cathedral as being formal or “high church,” he also recognizes that, precisely because it is a cathedral, St. John the Evangelist has a mission to uphold the tradition of the church, including the church’s commitment to beauty. 

“People hunger for beauty and are drawn to it,” Batcho said. “And so, I like to approach my ministry as always striving to create beauty within the liturgy.” He sees this as part of the cathedral’s commitment to evangelization and outreach. “We never know who’s walking through the doors and what they’re bringing. We never know how our art impacts the lives of people and the world.”

The cathedral’s Mission of Fine Arts programs, including a Wednesday Concert Series, are an expression to this commitment to evangelization through beauty. “There’s a unique community, including our ‘regular crowd,’ most of whom are not parishioners. These are people who come to the cathedral solely for the musical experience. There have been times, however, when I see some of these same people at cathedral liturgies and other events hosted by the parish community.” Recalling one encounter with a concert “regular,” a downtown attorney, Batcho said that following one of the Wednesday concerts, “the man put a generous gift into my hand and said to me, ‘I have no use for God or the Church, but I love coming into this space and listening to the music.’” This, Batcho believes, is a wonderful expression of how the music is a fundamental part of the cathedral’s presence in the heart of the city.

Beyond the music program, however, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist promotes the mission of the Church in other ways.

Bishop Jeff Haines, who has served as pastor and rector of the cathedral for six years, said that the sacraments that sustain the church “go out” from the cathedral, which is the site of key celebrations including ordinations, the Chrism Mass, and the Rite of the Elect. “The oils go out to the different parishes, the deacons out to their work among the poor in the community, the priests to their ministry.”

Fire devastated the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in 1935.

In recent years, Bishop Haines noted, the idea of the cathedral as the “soul of the city” has guided decisions about how cathedral lands and facilities would be used. This inspired the pastoral staff and parishioners to expand cathedral ministries to include the Open Door Café, providing space for the Cathedral Center, a program housed in a former convent on the cathedral property, which offers shelter, job training and support to homeless women and families, and hosting Tenor High School, a charter school affiliated with Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Beyond these specific programs, Bishop Haines is also proud that the cathedral doors are always open to welcome friends and guests from the neighborhood, but also visitors from throughout Milwaukee and the archdiocese. “We try to be a quiet place in the hub of the city. It’s amazing how often we’ll come in and find people praying. You’ll find people coming in after a significant event like 9/11, or who may be going through a personal crisis. This is a place they can come.”

Summing up the mission and spirit of the cathedral, Bishop Haines said that, “While we are a parish, we exist to serve the rest of the archdiocese and the entire community. We’re not just here for ourselves.”

“Everyone has a place here,” Bishop Haines concluded, “and that’s the way we want it to be.”