Urban spelunking: St. Francis of Assisi
Driving down the main drags alone won't do it. If you want to see some of the real treasures of this town, you've got to hit the side streets, too.
Luckily, when it comes to churches in Milwaukee, you don't need a map. A mild elevation is enough to get you started. Then, just follow the steeples.
The latest of many attempts to get into a shuttered Brew City church last autumn led me to do just that one day and in perhaps a single mile, I passed one place worthy of stopping – though I kept on moving, I'll be back – another at which I did stop to snap some photos and a third that I couldn't resist stopping in to visit.
That last one was St. Francis of Assisi, 1927 N. 4th St., one of the oldest churches in town. Though its cream city brick is blackened with age, the Romanesque facade commands attention, with its central rose window, its clock-faced steeple with its louvered belfy and its attached friary.
The window, especially, drew my gaze for its central sextfoil panel, looking almost like a blooming flower, with 12 smaller round panes in orbit.
Parking in the adjacent lot, I wandered the exterior, trying to see evidence of the timeline of when the various parts were constructed. I stumbled upon a community garden out back, facing 5th Street, and I stopped to admire the cut and carved limestone porch that was a later addition, erected in 1900.
I rang the bell and was offered a tour. My guide didn't know much about the building or its history, but was proud of the church's inclusive, welcoming congregation. St. Francis flung open its doors to African Americans and Latinos in the 1950s and was already offering Spanish language homilies in its Mass before the dawn of the '60s.
"The Capuchins were likewise strong advocates of the rights of African Americans in the tumultuous days of the late 1960s and participated in civil demonstrations that promoted justice and equality for people of color," boasts the church's website.
Beyond the church office, one walks through a corridor that forms the northern boundary of a cloister that is part of the Capuchin friary attached to the south facade of the church. Make a right and you head into a high-ceilinged chapel with flip-up wooden chairs affixed to the walls.
On the east wall, near the entrance to the sanctuary, is a reliquary, which is not to be missed if you visit.
It looks like an old place, but despite what my tour guide suggests, I don't think this chapel pre-dates the church itself. Or at least not by much.
The parish was founded by Capuchin friars who immigrated from Switzerland and came to Milwaukee in 1851 at the invitation of Archbishop John Martin Henni, who according to the church site, "was concerned about the spiritual welfare of his fellow Germans."
The friars set up shop in the North Side German community, where they built a small frame chapel in 1869 and organized a parish two years later.
That chapel was razed upon construction of the current building, designed by New York architect William Schickel and overseen by Rev. Lawrence Vorwerk. How Schickel ended up drawing plans for the building is a mystery to me, though perhaps it was a German thing.
Schickel – whose best known works are the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola on Park Avenue, Most Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn and St. Louis' Church in Buffalo – was born in 1850 in Wiesbaden and emigrated to the U.S. 20 years later. That means he wasn't even 30-years-old yet when the St. Francis of Assisi church opened open 1877.
Anyway, the rear chapel at St. Francis is executed in cream city brick, not wood, and, along with the story that the chapel was torn down to make room for the church, it seems unlikely this chapel significantly pre-dates the sanctuary.
Stepping into the sanctuary from the chapel is a revelation. That rose window – rising up like a sun over a sea of glistening organ pipes – stares you straight in the face. On either side of the nave are low, colonnaded aisles, which you can see outside are buttressed. In the clerestory walls are triads of arched windows.
Below each trio of stained glass is a mural depicting a scene from the life of St. Francis. I have not been able to get confirmation, but it seems that these were the work of Cincinnati-based German painter Wilhelm Lamprecht, who often collaborated with Schickel.
The arches in the high vaulted ceiling are painted in a tasteful pattern and though there is not an explosion of color – this is a church named for St. Francis, after all – there are belts of colorful decoration that contrast nicely with the muted earth tones on the walls.
Just inside the nave, near the narthex is a low, octagonal tiled water fountain that is a more recent addition.
St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most "Italian" church I've seen in Milwaukee, with its chapels, its decoration and the attached cloister. When I visit, it is an extremely serene and peaceful place.
Though the church and friary grounds were designated an historic district on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, St. Francis of Assisi is home to an active and vibrant community and is by no means an historical artifact.
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