By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 29, 2016 at 8:51 AM Photography: Molly Snyder

The question: Do you want to visit the top of the Basilica of St. Josaphat dome?

The reply: Sure, I do.

I envisioned previous jaunts to the tops of various buildings, including soaring church domes in Europe. There will be a lot of steps to climb. There will, as always with these non-public offers, be a waiver to sign.

For the first time in my professional career, I found a waiver that really seems necessary.

The climb to the cupola of the dome on the corner of 6th and Lincoln, roughly 225 feet above terra firma, is quite literally, a climb.

A church was first built on the corner of 6th and Lincoln in 1888 but was destroyed by fire in its first year of life. By 1901, using materials salvaged from the demolished Chicago Post Office and Customs House – and transported north on 500 flatbed train cars – the Basilica of St. Josaphat, designed by architect Erhard Brielmaier, was complete.

In 1926, Italian artist Gonippo Raggi helped complete the decoration of the church's interior and three years later, Pope Pius XI declares St. Josaphat a basilica, making it the third in the U.S.

The offer to ascend to the top of Milwaukee's most beautiful dome (sorry Mitchell Park) came as St. Josaphat was – and still is – in the midst of a capital campaign.

In the '90s the dome and the interior were completely refurbished and ongoing maintenance work has forced the South Side Roman Catholic congregation – which draws membership from across the Milwaukee area – to be in a constant fundraising mode.

Recently, the Fotsch Family made the largest-ever donation to St. Josaphat. In honor of its recently departed patriarch, William, the family gave about three-quarters of a million dollars with the caveat that the cash be used to air condition the church.

While the congregation is thrilled by the gift and by the prospect of finally getting some relief from brutal summer heat, the building itself remains a hungry beast.

"The Foundation is eternally grateful to the Fotsch Family for making our distant dream of air conditioning a reality," said Susan Rabe, the executive director of the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation.

"We still need to raise $800,000 for our Lighting the Way campaign to complete interior lighting upgrades, add exterior lighting in the portico and bell towers, restore the sacristy and stairwell stained glass windows, restore exterior masonry and improve the sound system. We hope the Fotsch Family gift inspires others in our community to help us complete our important preservation and restoration projects."

It was Rabe's smiling face that greeted us when we arrived for our climb. She, however, resisted the urge to go up to the top herself, instead connecting us with a guide (we were asked to not use his name), who was charming and had a great sense of humor.

As we ascended a few flights of a typical church staircase – wide, with tall ceilings and fairly decorative – the guide wondered if our shoes would be appropriate to the task ahead. The first thing that made us go "hmmm."

Then we climbed a steep wooden staircase (the likes of which I'd already encountered on visits to the attics of old schools) that led to an interior room in the bell tower that had some mechanical workings for the bell system. Here, our guide said that as we go up higher, it will become very dark. Maybe, he said, he should have brought up a flashlight. Hmmm.

Another steep wooden ladder and we were out in the open air of the bell tower. Actually, we got up there at 2:13 and decided to wait inside a few minutes to see if the bells would ring. They did not and we went out. Then, the BELLS RANG. Luckily, it was 2 and not noon.

Nice views of the South Side – and likely great views of the Downtown skyline, too, on a less foggy, overcast day – from the bell tower and a stunning up-close look at the exterior of the dome, topped with the cupola we would soon visit. It didn't look very high from here.

Going back inside, our guide slid shut the heavy wooden door giving access to the bells and said, "Maybe I should go first. If you see bats up here – there are a lot of bats up here – cover your hair. They'll go for your hair." Hmmm.

Another steep wooden staircase and we climbed over the top of the sanctuary to visit the matching tower on the west side of the facade. No bells here, but, as the sherpa pointed out, lots of bird droppings. Heading back in, he added, "There's no need to visit the room below this space. There's nothing in there but an old guitar and it's out of tune."

"Have you tried to play it," I asked.

"Oh yes, and it's very, very out of tune."

To get to the dome, we then needed to traverse the length of nave, but above the ceiling of course, along a plank path, in near-total darkness. At far end, we reach the northern side of the dome and crawl through a small doorway into the narrow space that circles the dome itself. On one side is the exterior wall of the dome. On the other, with holes cut into it for access – and affording head-spinning views of the church perhaps 180 feet below, is the ceiling of the dome.

Here is where we began to wonder if we wanted to go any further.  Our guide explained that in the past workers changed light bulbs in the dome by crawling out the small hole and standing on a ledge barely a foot wide.

"They'd keep their backs to the wall," he said. Um, no way.

Climbing between steel support girders, he approached a vertical wooden ladder – certainly as old as the building itself – that extends up into darkness. We couldn't tell how tall the ladder was.

"We should probably go up one at a time," he said. "I'm not sure the ladder can hold more than one of us." Hmmm.

We – my photographer and OnMilwaukee.comrade Molly Snyder and Colin Hutt, who helped set up the visit – expressed concern about going higher until we could see how high the ladder went.

When we saw the guide's feet disappear perhaps 12-15 up, we decided to go for it ... one at a time. Then another identical ladder followed, leading us to the base of the curvature of the dome. There we went up a staircase/ladder, that followed the arc of the dome.

Once at the top, our sherpa left the staircase and removed a heavy circle about the diameter of a car tire, opening up the oculo, so that we could peer straight down, 200 or so feet, straight to the floor of the church below.

What a disconcerting feeling to be in a dark, dangerous place – that may or may not be inhabited by bats – gazing head-spinningly down into one of the most gorgeous interiors in the city.

Another staircase and another vertical ladder (this one obscured by metal beams requiring us to go up sideways) and we were in the cupola, with a 360-degree view of the city.

The small space, with windows all around, was covered in signatures of visitors across the decades. We even found one dated "01" that was carved into a 2x4 clearly more than 11 years old.

Our guide suggested we add our names and we obliged before heading back down. The descent felt, to me, considerably more nerve-wracking than the climb. In the darkness, moving backward down the steep wooden staircases and ladders was slow, sometimes challenging work.

At the bottom, there was a mild feeling of anxiety, mixed with the dissipation of excess adrenalin, and a sense of satisfaction. Especially when the guide told me that on a visit perhaps a decade ago, when the the fire inspector reached the foot of the first vertical ladder, he declined to go any further.

While the ends certainly justified the means on the trek up to see Milwaukee from the dome of the Basilica of St. Josaphat, thinking about it a day later, I've decided that the means were really the most interesting part. Let's face it, you can get a decent view of Milwaukee from a few vantage points.

But getting to the top of dome was just about the most challenging behind-the-scenes journey I've taken.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.