Compared with Europe, our comparatively “New World” country can gloat about only a few hundred, really old, magnificent buildings. So when a sacred space as grand and beautiful as St. Joseph Chapel reached its 100th anniversary on March 19, the School Sisters of St. Francis planned a sumptuous celebration titled “Sacred Space, Open Doors,” beginning with a Eucharistic liturgy at which Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki was celebrant.

More than 300 sisters, lay associates, and partners in mission filled St. Joseph Chapel for the Mass, which begins a yearlong commemoration that will include an architecture lecture, art event, concerts and special liturgies.

A fanfare of specially commissioned musical works was premiered during the Mass by the Chapel Singers and professional musicians who support the sisters’ music ministry. Many weeks of rehearsal paid off, as melodious voices, accompanied by brass, woodwind, and organ rang throughout the rafters. A favorite venue of world-class musicians, the Chapel is an acoustical marvel, and elicits a profound response from those in the pews.

Novices dusted and cleaned (above left) St. Joseph Chapel weekly. (Submitted photo courtesy SSSF Archives) Four liturgical musical works (above right) were premiered at the centennial liturgy. The SSSF Chapel Singers performed under the direction of Sister Bernadette Luecker. (Submitted photo courtesy Betty Lewis)

Sister Agnes Marie Henkel recalls, “One of my fondest memories of St. Joseph Chapel was when I first heard Sister Mary Jane Wagner, now the Chapel’s music director, perform great classical music that I had rarely heard. The rich organ quality astounded me. What a blessing and a joy!”

The centennial celebration featured words and music written for the occasion, including four liturgical works that received their premiere at Sunday’s Mass. The gathering song, “Saint Joseph, Jesus’ Guardian Strong,” featured a new hymn tune by James Biery, with text by Sister Delores Dufner, OSB. The setting for Psalm 84 “How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place” was composed by Father Charles Conley. The Communion meditation “This Holy Place” featured text by School Sisters of St. Francis poet Irene Zimmerman, with music composed by Edwin T. Childs. And Mary Beth Bennett’s organ composition “Toccata: I Believe in One God” was performed by Sister Mary Jane Wagner prior to the final blessing.

The Chapel’s grandeur never ceases to surprise and astonish visitors to the School Sisters of St. Francis’ international motherhouse on Milwaukee’s south side. First-time guests often remark that they have driven past the convent at the corner of Greenfield Avenue and Layton Boulevard for decades and never suspected that a Romanesque Revival gem awaited their discovery inside.

“The Chapel was created for one purpose: To bring people together to give praise to God,” Archbishop Listecki said in his opening remarks. “There’s no doubt when you walk into this Chapel that it lifts our spirits, elevating us to acknowledge the presence of God. And so around this altar, we acknowledge his Son’s great love and sacrifice.”

Drawing an analogy in his homily to the day’s Gospel encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, Archbishop Listecki noted, “When your co-foundress [Mother Alfons Schmidt] had the vision to build this beautiful church, it became an oasis. People walk in here and are immediately refreshed.

They look up and see the beauty that surrounds them. The life that they know is elevated to a sense of the dignity that God established in his creative plan. That’s what beauty does: It gives us a sense of our dignity. But it’s also a direct sign to the author of beauty and life itself. It becomes an invitation to enter into a relationship.”

The archbishop said the Chapel remains a favorite among the places of worship in the archdiocese “not just because of its beauty, but because of what it generates.

“The stones of this Chapel have been consecrated in the lives of the members of the order that supports this Chapel,” he said. “Their lives go out and build Jesus’ presence in the world. Through their lives, others have been touched, fed and nurtured. The real beauty of this Chapel is the beauty in the lives dedicated to Christ and his Church.”

Archbishop Listecki said it is easy to look at the size and beauty of the Chapel. “We could never build something like this today. People say, ‘Imagine what it would cost today.’ But what it really cost was the will of people committed to Christ and the Church. What it cost was lives dedicated to inspiring others. We are the beneficiaries because they didn’t say, ‘How much?’ They said, ‘For Christ!’ And the commitment of this religious order is still ‘For Christ’ and his love.”

Wartime Challenges

St. Joseph Chapel was constructed between 1913 and 1917, and in a welcome message preceding the Mass, the congregation’s President, Sister Mary Diez, noted this was “a time in history when the winds of war made building such a soaring structure highly unlikely. It was God’s providence that the white Carrara marble from Italy, the hand-carved Stations of the Cross from Switzerland, and the stained glass windows and large mosaics from Innsbruck, Austria, traveled safely across the ocean.”

The Chapel would be listed among the architectural triumphs of Peter Brust and Richard Philipp who had ventured to Europe to borrow ideas from cathedrals there. Their elaboration on Italian Romanesque Revival style resulted in soaring ceilings, glittering mosaics, marble floors and railings, and 115 art glass windows.

Historian and author Sister Barbaralie Stiefermann remembers well the days when every pew was filled with young women in formation as well as professed sisters. There was no room for the laity, she said. Before the 1960s, only sisters, clergy, and altar boys worshiped in the Chapel.  But today, thousands visit annually for numerous events on the School Sisters of St. Francis’ campus. First-time and returning visitors often ask for a chance to behold what had been one of Milwaukee’s best-kept secrets for many decades. Most visitors are local, but many visitors come each year from across the nation and even abroad, said Sister Nedine Ferris, the facility director.

Corners of the Chapel Inspire Memories

For many School Sisters of St. Francis, the Chapel is literally part of their home and is a place of unforgettable memories. Most of these sisters arrived as young teenagers to commit their lives to God, and their early days in Chapel were truly formative. Chapel processions and Holy Hours are deeply ingrained.

“I have always loved our Chapel, from the day I entered as an aspirant in 1939,” said Sister Monica Muskat. “I was happy to have this beautiful place to pray in and celebrate all our community events in, and to know that someday, I will bid farewell to this Chapel with our sisters, relatives, and friends at my funeral.”

Sister Joneen Kueler also drew from her days as a postulant. “I wasn’t familiar with devotion to the Infant of Prague until August 25, 1961, when the monthly prayer for vocations took place in the Chapel. The community joined together in prayer for an increase of vocations, and I went to bed that night, recalling the most beautiful prayer I had ever experienced.”

Early on, the young women were introduced to the practice of keeping vigil before the Blessed Sacrament. “Adoration Chapel with 24-hour prayer tested the endurance of the two novices assigned to pray a Holy Hour in the middle of the night,” Sister Marjorie Ann Eisenmenger recalled. In the solemnity of these night watches, there were also occasional bouts of surprise and minor youthful infractions.

“One night, I left the Chapel at 11:30 p.m. to awaken the two sisters scheduled for midnight,” she remembers. “When I returned from the fourth floor dormitory, I saw Sister Theodore Marie (the late Sister Virginia Handrup) frantically swinging a broom at a bat in erratic flight! It was a moment of Franciscan joy, and we couldn’t stop laughing! The next shift walked in, aghast at our irreverent behavior.”

Looking to the Future

The centennial theme “Sacred Space, Open Doors” is in keeping with the mission of St. Joseph Chapel to support communion with the Divine for all people of faith.  “With this theme, we are calling ourselves to a new century,” Sister Mary said. “We recognize that this Chapel is a gift for all who seek a place of beauty and solace, a source of healing connection with God’s spirit, and a place of celebration and worship. We pray that St. Joseph Chapel will help those who visit to realize that, regardless of our cultural or social backgrounds, education levels, or spiritual paths, we are part of one family seeking God’s peace and joy.

“Today we celebrate and give thanks to God for what this Chapel can mean, not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors, for our fellow seekers and believers, for the City of Milwaukee and beyond — for all who are looking for God’s spirit and grace.”

(Donna O’Loughlin is coordinator of outreach events for the School Sisters of St. Francis.)