The year was 1896. Polish immigrants were pouring into the southside of Milwaukee. The neighborhood swelled. Parishioners numbered more than 12,000. Rev. Wilhelm Grutza had a vision – build a grand church, one the community would be proud of, would honor the Polish heritage and be a worldwide destination.
A “Green” Project of Seismic Proportions
The original plans of German born architect Erhard Brielmaier was a building made of brick and terra cotta trim. But that was not to be.
Rev. Grutza learned the U. S. Post Office and Custom House located in Chicago was slated for demolition. To save the poor parishioners $30,000 of material costs, the entire building – carved stone, wooden doors, ornamental bronze railings, light fixtures, door knobs and more – were purchased. It was dismantled and loaded on 500 railcars. The granite pillars were salvaged from the courthouse.
Parishioners Supply Unskilled Labor
New materials meant a new design. Brielmaier had to work backwards; he crafted a new plan. And so the parish began the task of construction. With the assistance of some Teamsters and their horses, the unskilled parish labor constructed this monument. Women of the parish carried the dirt away in their aprons while the men carefully followed Brielmaiers redone plans. Amazingly, after five years of work, the church was completed in 1901.
Rising more than 250 feet above Lincoln Avenue, it is one of the most imposing domed structures in the world – larger than the Taj Mahal. When the church was dedicated in 1901, only the United States Capitol boasted a larger steel dome.
Fransicans come to St. Josaphat’s
In 1910, the Conventual Franciscan’s assume ownership of St. Jospahat in an agreement with Archbishop Messmer. They spend the next 16 years raising funds to eliminate a debt that in today’s dollars would exceed $25 million.
A Church Elevated
At the time of its elevation to a basilica by Pope Pius XI in 1929, it was North America’s third basilica. And Wisconsin’s first – an honor reserved for the grandest, most beautiful and most historically significant structures.
Saving of a Monument: the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation is born
Since it’s completion more than a century ago, the Basilica endured many misfortunes. A fire in the lower church damaged the magnificent canvas paintings in the Basilica as well as floods. In 1988, a storm damaged a portion of the copper domed roof. After a repair attempt, it was soon clear that the Basilica needed immediate repair and restoration. In 1990, aware of the impending threat to the Basilica, a group of community leaders began to take action. The St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation was organized and accepted responsibility for restoration of the Basilica.