How the federal government built a basilica

When we hear today the term “separation of church and state” we think of it as being a precept that impedes the government on all levels from establishing a state-run church, but I found an interesting exception–kind of–in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,  USA, where the physical building of a beautiful church was completed with the resources of the federal government, but nobody had a problem with it in the early 20 Century and neither should you.

So I tease.

It’s worth it if I can get you to pay attention to some of the most inspiring architecture in a city that is known for beer, brats and the setting of the old Happy Day’s sitcom.

Milwaukee is sporting new construction all over, but especially in its downtown.  New towers are rising into the sky and entire sections are being reclaimed from failed smokestack industry or abandoned rail yards.

In the early 20th Century the skyscrapers of the time were often the church spires that spiked and determined neighborhoods, or, more precise: “parishes”.  Often these churches reflected the pride and religion of those who settled in a particular neighborhood.  St. Josaphat Basilica is one of those churches, and its towering facade owes its existence to inspired frugality and the federal government.

St. Josaphat Exterior Front Facting
St. Josaphat main entrance

Ground was broken for the new church that would become home for  12,000 Polish immigrants in 1896, which in Milwaukee represented only a fraction of the total Polish people now living in this majority German immigrant city.  Plans were commissioned by the pastor,  Father Wilhelm Grutza, with the design to be modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome.

The plans for the edifice had to be altered when Fr. Grutza discovered that  the Chicago Post Office and Custom House was to be demolished.  Here was an opportunity to get a huge supply of pre-cut stone that indeed became the facade of the largest Polish parish in Milwaukee at a bargain rate, $20,000.

When the basilica was finished the only dome in the United States that was larger was the one over the Capitol in Washington DC.

In 1929, the Franciscan Friars, the order that took over administration of the church petitioned Pope Pius XI to declare St. Josaphat a basilica, a designation that is reserved for the larger, more ornate churches.  St. Josaphat was the first Polish church given that honor and only the third church in the US at the time.

St. Josaphat Historical Sign
St. Josaphat Historical Marker

A walk through the visitor’s center will tell the story of the building of the church and will also have information for sale about St. Josaphat.

I was reminded of the beautiful churches I visited in Rome and also of the beautiful churches I would soon visit in Turkey, which I will have more on next time.  When I entered the church it was empty, it was around noon, and the winter’s light was shining brilliantly though the stained glass windows and illuminated what I liked to believe were the spirits of all those who have worshiped over the years.  I am a dome man when it comes to churches, so looking up I saw the shining lights, and I saw them dance to the sides of the altar.

St Josaphat Interior
St. Josaphat interior
St. Josaphat Old Chicago Post Office Building
Chicago Post Office and Custom House and St. Josaphat building diagrams

Church history in the United States is rich and varied, and ranges from historical portages that brought early French priests into the Midwest to maturing centers of faith represented by St. Josaphat.  A little roaming off the path for your average Catholic traveler will reveal more than you ever would think possible.

This is probably the one and only time when the federal government was responsible for constructing a beautiful church that so many have worshiped at for so many years.

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