By now, most everyone knows that The Basilica of St. Josaphat, 2333 S. 6th St., with its soaring dome, was constructed from building materials salvaged when the Chicago Customs House and Post Office (pictured below) was demolished in 1896.
Father Grutza, while in Chicago, learned of the availability of the materials, snatched them up for a mere $20,000 and had them shipped up to Milwaukee on flatbed train cars, where architect Erhard Brielmaier – who designed many religious buildings in Milwaukee – organized them into the architectural gem and community landmark we now all enjoy.
You can read more about the church here.
Yesterday, I returned to the basilica for another visit with Susan Rabe, the executive director of the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation, who shared some interesting facts about the basilica and its construction. Here are just a few of them ...
1. The church was built in large part by parishioners
The basilica is the third church to stand on the site. The first was lost to fire and replaced, but the new building proved too small for the rapidly growing parish.
Work on the church – which wasn’t elevated to basilica status until 1929 – began in 1896, and as was the case at nearby St. Stanislaus, many parishioners carried out the actual construction work, from digging the hole to masonry and other work.
(PHOTO: Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library)
2. When the parish struggled to pay wages, architect Brielmaier paid them from his own account
Despite saving a fair bit on the materials thanks to Father Grutza’s great deal in Chicago, the parish struggled financially to get the church built. Often, there was no money to pay wages, and some of the parishioners had quit their jobs to built the church. Rabe says that Brielmaier himself dug into his own accounts to pay the workers on some of these occasions.
3. Many parishioners mortgaged their homes to pay for the construction of the church
Manual labor and donations weren’t the only way parishioners supported the new building, according to Rabe. Many, she said, mortgaged and even double-mortgaged their homes. When it came time to decorate the church in the 1920s, parishioners answered a call to donate jewelry to be melted down for the gold decoration you see inside the church.
4. During construction one person lost his life
Pretty amazing when you think of the technology of the era – and lack of workplace safety laws – that only one person died in the construction of the basilica. But Anton Kasprzyk, age 44, was that unlucky casualty.
According to Rabe, Kasprzyk was a teamster driving a horse-drawn wagon when a rope and pulley setup lifting one of the church’s huge stones snapped, frightening the horses, who overturned the wagon. Kasprzyk ended up beneath the falling stone.
5. Italian artist Gonippo Raggi, born in Rome in 1875, was brought in to decorate the interior of the church in 1926
Along with Conrad Schmitt Studios, Raggi – who studied at Art Institute of St. Michele in Rome – recreated a little bit of Renaissance Rome on Milwaukee’s South Side. After an electrical fire in the 1950s caused considerable smoke damage inside, Raggi returned to restore his work.
The oval paintings inside the dome were originally daylight scenes, but Raggi, unable to undo all the darkening damage from the smoke, called an audible, making them night-time scenes, complete with stars.
6. The basilica has one of the largest collections of relics in Milwaukee
Visit the lower church and in one of the side chapels, you’ll find the nearly 500 relics in the basilica’s collection, from bits of the true cross to relics of everyone from Mary to Pope John Paul II. It is one of the largest groupings in the city, along with collections in the chapel at St. Joseph’s Convent on Layton Boulevard and at the Sisters of St. Francis on Lake Drive. Visit on Tuesday afternoons to find the chapel gates swung open and an extremely knowledgeable expert on hand to explain the collection and answer your questions.
7. The church has a statue of St. Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists
Not sure why I’m telling you this – other than that it's the kind of interesting info you could use to start (or maybe kill) a conversation – but the church is also graced with a statue of St. Apollonia, who is the patron saint of dentists and often depicted, ominously, holding tongs, sometimes with a tooth clamped between the ends. Trust me, you don’t want to know why.
8. A building directly across Lincoln Avenue was built with leftover parts
The ornate two story building across from the church’s main entrance was built in 1899 with materials left over from the basilica construction. It, too, was designed by Brielmaier and sold by the church to Jacob Leszczynski for $1. The Wisconsin Historical Society suggests there was a reason for the deal:
"It is believed because he owned the Leszczynski Coal Co. and had heavy wagons and horses he may have lent the use of his equipment to move the stones for the church from the railroad to the site. Jacob is buried in the row right in front of all the Bishops and Monsignors of the Church at St. Adalbert's Cemetery with a huge cross marking the family plot of at least 12 Leszczynskis. He also has his name and his wife's on a big stain glass window at St. Josaphat."
You likely already know...
... that it costs a lot of money to restore and maintain a large historic building like the Basilica of St. Josaphat, which recently undertook some emergency masonry work and now must raise funds to complete the rest of the exterior work required to keep the building safe and sound for future generations.
The basilica will host a concert by Eric Whitacre in March as a fundraiser, but there are other ways you can help, too. Visit the foundation's web site to learn more.
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 an episode of TV's "Party of Five," 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.