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In Milwaukee History

The long climb - often quite literally a climb - included a stop in the belfry. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

The belfry offers great views of the dome's exterior. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

You also get a nice view of the South Side neighborhood surrounding the basilica. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

Getting to the top is no leisurely stroll up some steps. Here is the space between the dome roof and interior ceiling. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

Looking down about 200 feet through oculo to the sanctuary below. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

In Milwaukee History

Looking up about 200 feet to the oculo from the sanctuary floor. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

Urban spelunking: Dome of the Basilica of St. Josaphat

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.

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