Monday, April 25, 2011

The Basilica of St. Josaphat

Here's a headline I saw over the weekend: "Chicago's Gas Prices Highest in Country." Hell's bells. "The U.S. average for a gallon of regular now stands at $3.88, but in Chicago, it'll cost you an average of $4.27," reports NBC Chicago. I assume the story means in the city itself, since out here in the suburbs it's about a dime less than that.

Just north of the Illinois-Wisconsin line at the junction of I-94 and Wisconsin 50, which sports a large knot of retail properties, gas could be had for $3.99.9/gallon last Friday. Four dollars, in other words. I know this because I bought some on our way to Milwaukee to take advantage of the last gasp of the frequent-flyer award my family's round-trip across the Pacific earned nearly two years ago. No charge to stay in the room, but some expense to get there.

Good Friday was cold and drizzly. We knew that ahead of time, so planned to spend most of our time indoors, including one place whose exterior has intrigued me for years, the Basilica of St. Josaphat. Every time I drive into Milwaukee on I-94, I see its dome from the highway, since it's pretty hard to miss, but I'd never taken a close look at it. Get off the highway, make your way into the heart of south-side Milwaukee, park on a nearby side street, and the dome is even harder to miss.

The structure is more than 100 years old, built for a massive Polish congregation and modeled after St. Peter's. "Father Wilhelm Grutza hired a German-born architect named Erhard Brielmaier to design what is, in essence, a smaller version of St. Peter's." says the Visitor Guide and Tour we picked up at the church. "The church has the same cross-shaped floor plan and same huge central dome that distinguish St. Peter's." Brielmaier and his family were the go-to architects if you wanted a Catholic church built in the Midwest in the late 19th- and early-20th century, it seems. One source credits them with designing over 800 churches.

St. Josaphat's is as resplendent as you'd expect, with large stained-glass windows, paintings, bronze bas-reliefs, gold leaf, a marble pulpit and a marble altar, some onyx columns, and a lot of activity up inside the dome -- various orders of angels, plus prophets, apostles and doctors of the Church. There's an inscription in Polish around the base of the dome: 1 Kings 9:3, according to the guide ("I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there for ever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually.")

Even better, there's a backstory to all that splendor. H. Russell Zimmermann, writing in Milwaukee Magazine, tells it: "Upon learning of the impending demolition of the Chicago Post Office and Customs House, [Grutza] negotiated a deal to buy materials. For $20,000 he got 200,000 tons, including stone, doors, hardware, railings and light fixtures. It took 500 railroad cars to ship... Brielmaier created a masterpiece, but close inspection will reveal a few reminders. Some ornamental brass hardware bears the U.S. Treasury seal, and carved capitals atop the portico’s columns contain American Eagles... Today, with its newly cleaned exterior, St. Josaphat’s looks better than it ever has."

So Brielmaier practiced green building, at least in re-using building materials, before that was even a glimmer of a concept. I didn't have the leisure to look around for those Treasury seals, which I didn't learn about till later anyway, because the Stations of the Cross was in progress when we arrived. We stayed for the end of that, and then looked around a bit afterward. I also missed the painting "Miracle at the Vistula," which depicts the defeat of the Bolsheviks by the Poles in August 1920. Not something you're likely to see in many churches.

Images of the basilica's interior are here. St. Josaphat, incidentally, was
this fellow ("Finally on 12 November, 1623, an axe-stroke and a bullet brought Josaphat his martyr's crown."). I'd never heard of him before, but apparently there's a church dedicated to him in Chicago as well.

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