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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

St. Joan of Arc chapel is by far the oldest building in Milwaukee. (PHOTO: Marquette University)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Workers reassemble the chapel on the Marquette Campus, after it was donated in 1964. (PHOTO: Marquette University)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The spider web of ceiling ribs inside the chapel. (PHOTO: Marquette University)

Urban spelunking: St. Joan of Arc Chapel


When you're on the Marquette University campus, just west of Downtown, you might be forgiven for thinking the imposing gothic Gesu church designed by Henry Koch is the oldest church on campus.

But head about a block southwest and you'll come upon the diminutive St. Joan of Arc chapel.

This lovely little building with the steep-pitched roofs and pointed spire is by far the oldest structure in Milwaukee. It was built in the 15th century as Chapelle de St. Martin de Sayssuel in the French village of Chasse, a hamlet in the Departement de L'Arrondissement de Vienne, 12 miles south of Lyon, in the Rhone River Valley.

It is rumored that Joan of Arc kissed one of the structure's stones before leading a battle against the British during the Hundred Years War in 1429. To this day, that stone supposedly feels colder than the others. The stone, however, is not original to the building, but was added later.

I'm especially enamored of the bifurcated roof with its big and little "sisters" (best viewed from the sides of the building), the simple trefoil window above the entrance and the stunningly ribbed ceiling inside.

How the chapel went from Chasse to campus is an interesting story. Over the centuries, the building had fallen victim to neglect and began to wither, until, in the 1920s, architect and archaeologist Jacques Couelle worked to save it.

In 1927, Gertrude Hill Gavin, the daughter of railroad tycoon James Hill, had the building carefully pulled apart and reconstructed on her 50-acre estate in Jericho, on New York's Long Island. Couelle helped get the chapel across the ocean to Gavin's property.

On the estate, the chapel – widely considered to be an outstanding example of pure Gothic architecture – was added to a renaissance chateau that Gavin also brought in pieces from France. A 1962 fire severely damaged the chateau but not the chapel.

When later owners Mr. and Mrs. Marc B. Rojtman gifted the chapel to Marquette University in 1964, it was once again taken apart, shipped and resurrected, reopening in Milwaukee in 1966.

The Rojtmans also donated many of the furnishings in the chapel, including candlesticks, vestments, torcheres, priedieux, a crucifix, a font dating as far back as the 12th century, a missal stand, a lectern and antependium.

As is the case with many aged structures, the chapel in its current state shows many changes made across numerous eras when as architectural styles came and went. The result is a building that offers a glimpse into half a millennium of French village life and history and that is nothing like anything else in Milwaukee.

Some changes were even made when the chapel was trucked to Marquette from Jericho. The nave was extended and several windows added. The tomb of Chevalier de Sautereau and the niche were shifted back to their original locations within the chapel.

Visit the Chapel Dedicated to St. Joan of Arc. It's the kind of beautiful, serene gothic building that people travel thousands of miles (namely to Europe) to see. The chapel is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sunday, noon-4 p.m. Admission is free.

Mass is celebrated when classes are in session at Marquette. They are held weekdays at noon and Monday-Thursday at 10 p.m. And, sorry, you can't get married or baptize your baby there.

Stay tuned, next week I'll post a list of some of the best examples of gothic architecture in Milwaukee.


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