Sacred Design: A Tour of Milwaukee’s Unique Religious Buildings

Milwaukee is filled with unique and various architecture styles. Some of those styles can be found within the religious buildings and their histories. Listed below area few of the local buildings that contribute to Milwaukee’s vast architecture.

The Basilica of St. Josaphat

When taking my first trip to Rome, my mother told me that we would be seeing the mother of all churches, St. Peter’s Basilica. There are two types of Basilicas: major and minor. St. Peter’s Basilica is the only major Basilica in the world, which makes the other Basilicas across the United States are minor.

Milwaukee is lucky enough to have a Basilica of our own. The Basilica of St. Josaphat was initiated in 1896 and finished in 1901. Before the Basilica was built, there was a surplus of Polish immigrants coming to the United States, specifically Milwaukee.

 

Kathleen Szuslik, the director of Visitor Services at the Basilica, said there was a need for a building that could house all of the Polish immigrants after they had moved in after 1870. “There were so many Polish coming here and that is why you see so many steeples on the South Side,” Szuslik said.

The current Basilica is not the first church that was built at that location. Unfortunately, the first church built for the Polish on the South Side of Milwaukee burned down. For the second version of the Basilica, Father Grutza hired Erhard Brielmaier, a German architect to design the Basilica.

“This church is built in the likeness of St. Peter’s in Rome; it is a Renaissance church,” Szuslik said. Because church was the center of people’s lives during that time, “Father Grutza wanted to build a church that Polish Immigrants would be proud of,” according to Szuslik.

 

Another unique aspect of the Basilica is the tools and materials that were used to build it. On its website, the Basilica historians describe the past: “When the plans were nearly complete, Fr. Grutza learned that the Chicago Post Office and Custom House needed to be razed and he was able to purchased it for $20,000. The building was dismantled and the salvaged materials were loaded up on 500 railroad flatcars and brought up to Milwaukee. They were stockpiled on a vacant lot across the street.”

To the left is a picture of the outside of the Basilica. Taken from an upward angle, the dome isn’t visible to the eye, even though it is huge, to say the least. The columns at the front entrance are taken from the Chicago Post Office building. This is just one of the features where the Basilica preserved those materials.

Once inside the Basilica, there is an unbelievable amount of beauty that surrounds you. From wall to wall, there are stained glass windows that represent the 12 stages of the life of Christ. Starting mid-wall and reaching to the top of the ceiling, these windows give the building height beyond measure.

 

“We call them the story windows. They were teaching tools because people didn’t speak Latin,” Szuslik said.

Since the Basilica of St. Josaphat is larger than most churches, many priests would visit the church and give their own mass. There are four side altars which all visiting priests are to use.

“If another father was visiting, he would use a side altar to say mass,” Szuslik said. “Now we call it concelebrating, since Vatican II.”

Sacred Heart Altar

Unfortunately, the church was supposed to be bigger, which would allow these visiting Fathers a little more space for their mass. “If you look at the altars, you can see the difference in the architecture. The two closest to the [main] Alter, those are Renaissance; they were built for this church. The outer two – the first church that was destroyed by fire – those are from that church,” Szuslik said.

The two altars, closest to the main altar, are Renaissance architecture, just like the rest of the church. 

To the right is the Sacred Heart Altar. Located directly east of the main altar, this altar shows St. Margaret Mary.

The Annunciation Altar

 

 

The left altar that is Renaissance architecture is the Annunciation Altar. This is located directly west of the main altar. The altar holds a painted picture of Our Lady of Czestoschowa.

 

 

Our Lady of the Rosary Altar

The second set of altars came from the original church that burned down. Thankfully, these altars were saved because they contribute diversity within this Renaissance church. “The ones farther to the east and farther to the west, those are Broche architecture,” Szuslik said. 

To the right is the Our Lady of the Rosary Altar. There is a statue of Mary and a painting of a Guardian Angel protecting a child. This altar is farthest east of the main altar. 

St. Joseph Altar

 

 

 

 

The altar to the left is the most western from the main altar. It is name the St. Joseph Altar. There is a statue of St. Joseph and his death is pictured above in the mural. 

 

 

 

 

Saving the best part for last, arguably: the dome.

“It was the 5th largest dome in the world, when it was finished. It is larger than the Taj Mahal. I always tell people that because they don’t really have a grasp of how big it is,” Szuslik said. 

In the center of the church is the dome. What makes up the dome is steel, paintings and sculptures. Each section is color coded and can be seen below.

Color Coded dome

 

When looked at directly, the dome can make you feel dizzy because it is up so high. Unlike the Basilica in Rome, visitors can’t walk around the dome because there isn’t a wide enough ledge. In the picture above, the colors are coded to a specific category.

The Basilica of St. Josaphat is full of great history, architecture and beauty. With pieces of Chicago architecture mixed into it, inside and out, this church was the third one to be named a Basilica and the dome was one of its kind at the time. Located on the corner of West Lincoln Avenue and South 6th Street, the Basilica of St. Josaphat fills the Milwaukee skyline with God’s presence.

“Coming in here is a little piece of heaven. Letting everything else melt away,” Szuslik said. 

Interested in reading more about St. Peter’s Basilica? Click here!

Click here to schedule a tour of the Basilica of St. Josaphat. 

St. Joan of Arc Chapel

St. Joan of Arc is a Roman Catholic Church located on the Marquette University campus.  This unique building wasn’t always located in Milwaukee. It originated in 1420 in a small town in France. The building itself is 600 years old and it is one of the reasons why it’s unique. The chapel has been moved twice around the U.S.  

It has held the name of St. Martin de Seysseul for 500 years before becoming St. Joan of Arc in the early 1930s.  If the name of the Church wasn’t obvious enough, then a little history will be needed.  The Church was built  to make a tribute to Joan of  Arc, who was the heroin in France during the time of the 100 Year War. She was so loved and revered by many that they made a tribute for her.

The French weren’t the only ones who admired Joan of Arc. An American by the name of Gertrude Hill Gavin  absolutely loved Joan of Arc.  She loved it so much that she moved the Chapel to New York, which was the first time it got moved. Alterations were not done and the exact building was moved.  Gavin did buy a statue of Joann of Arc to add to the chapel and she also bought an altar in addition.

 

After occupying New York for about 29 years, the Chapel was moved again in the U.S. in 1962.  Gavin sold the Chapel to Marc Rojtman and his wife. Rojtman then gave the chapel to Marquette.  Unlike many chapels that replicate Gothic buildings, the Chapel is an actual one. It is a real Gothic building that has stood for 600 years. It may not have been in the same location, but it hasn’t changed much.

According to the Chapel’s guide, it went under three minor changes. The first change was that the seating was extended as many have wanted to create more room for the chapel.  At the back of the Chapel is a small hall way or room that one may consider as an office that was added to the Chapel as well.  Other than that the chapel has stood strong for many years. In the video below, the tour guide speaks a little  about the chapel.

 

 

 

office area/ added back room

Extended seating

 

St. Joann of Arc is open to the public and if you want to learn more or schedule a tour click here.

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I headed through the doors of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, I was greeted by Cathy Spyers, chairman of tour guides for the church. I was welcomed to beautiful stained glass works on their side of me and additional features, like stacks of candles and two large sand boxes.

As Spyers explained, “The candles are lit and placed in sandbox while their prayers go to heaven.”

Larger candles towards the two-door entrance were said to be lit during special occasions like a birthday, blessing, or passing of a loved one.

Spyers went on to show the traditional hand gesture done with the right hand, symbolizing the Holy Trinity, before entering into the opening of the church room.

Surprisingly large sand box that, without understanding Orthodox and Christian religion, can seem out of place.

Stacks of candles for prayer are displayed on either side of the entrance.

 

A Long Historic Background

Before Spyers began to describe the details of the church she started with some history about the Orthodox church and Christian religion. 

During the beginning of Christianity, Rome decided that the bishops needed a Pope as head of the Christian church.

“Most of them said, ‘No, thank you!’” Spyers said.

Around the 1000s A.D new churches were started up across the world, keeping with the original traditional structures.

One major aspect of the Orthodox church is the absence of statues. In place are many icons which are represented in beautiful color through stained glass work (done by the Conrad Schmidt company in the 1980s) and painting.

The Greek in the church’s title derives from the people who created the church. “When immigrants came from Greece they wanted the sermons in Greek to understand,” Spyers said.

Although today over 90 percent of the sermons are in English, the history of the church’s founders still lives on.

The Minds Behind the Building

Frank Lloyd Wright was the architect/designer of the Annunciation of Greek Orthodox Church. The architect was internationally famous, and was asked by the board of the church in 1959 to design the church because it needed a bigger home. When it came time to design the church, Wright’s explanation of the church was unique.

“’Take a saucer cup put saucer on top, flip it upside down on top of the cup to represent a dome,’” Spyers recalled Wright saying. “’This will be your church.’” He was copying a design from a Byzantine design in Istanbul.

Wright died shortly after in 1959; he was 89 years old and unfortunately never got to see the opening. However, his chief architect, William Wesley Peters, did.

Spyers went on to share an extremely interesting story of how Peters, after finishing the building in 1961, married Joseph Stalin’s daughter who had fled from Communism to New Jersey. They later had a child. Long story short, after a short baptism right in the Orthodox church, Spyrers went on to be the god aunt of Joseph Stalin’s granddaughter.

“Everything resembles faith and Christianity. Everything you see, if you study the icons, you see a circle and you see a cross in the circle. It’s everywhere you look,” Spyrers said.

Here is a list of the other areas of symbolism within the church’s structure:

  • Blue and gold accents, colors of Byzantine empire of the time.
  • 3 interior light polls= Holy Trinity
  • 12 clusters on each poll= each Apostle
  • Forms cross as well= Byzantine cross goes through center, equal sides
  • Fish at end of each pew with light inside fish’s eye= symbolism of Christianity
  • A/C vents= round with Byzantine cross atop
  • Dome supported by ball bearings= “a string of pearls”
  • Outside roof gutters= “Crown of thorns”
This is one of over 15 different stained glass icons located around the balcony.

 

Public Reaction to The New Church

The initial reaction to this seemingly absurd design for a church was not fully pleasant.

“Some people, when they did get into the church, probably more of the old people said, ‘This isn’t what a church is supposed to be!’ And yet it was,” Spyers said. “Byzantine, the faith, everything was there, elements of the cross, etc.”

‘This isn’t what a church is supposed to be!’

Since then, the church has attracted many tours and remains a constant staple in Milwaukee for its architectural uniqueness and religious symbolism.

To read more about the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Spyers recommended John Gurda’s book,” A Whole New Odyssey.” She credits the author for being a famous writer of Milwaukee and Wisconsin features.

You can also schedule a tour with a personal group or find sermon times on its website here.

 

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