All posts by Jeffrey Jensen

Polish Women’s Group Preserves Basilica and City’s Heritage

Susan Mikoś and Edith Melson, both past presidents of Polanki, the Polish Women’s Cultural Club of Milwaukee, recently joined 14 additional members of the organization on a special and fascinating guided tour of the renowned Conrad Schmitt Studios in New Berlin, WI.

The entire group was captivated, understandably, as they interacted with the artisans and craftsmen responsible for restoring the splendor of stained glass windows from churches around the world and were witness to the workmanship and attention to detail required of them.

Moreover, they all shared a vested interest in being there, after all, as they wanted to see how their generous $50,000 donation to the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation was being spent to replenish and repair windows of our own Basilica.

Polanki, Milwaukee's Polish Women's Cultural Club is a great benefactor of the Basilica.
The women of Polanki, Milwaukee’s Polish Women’s Cultural Group toured Conrad Schmitt Studios to see the stained glass restoration process. Polanki contributed $50,000 to the restoration of the west bell tower window. Their generosity in helping to preserve the Basilica’s beautiful interior helps make it one of the top things to do in Milwaukee for visitors.

“Polanki is a dynamic organization with more than 100 dedicated members interested in showcasing Polish culture,” Mikoś said. “Our great strength is that we’ve been able to evolve with the changing times. We want Polish culture to be presented in a true way, accurately, and have tried to maintain certain standards and maintain a positive image.”

Indeed, the recent gift particularly earmarked for the window restoration project is just the latest benevolent gesture by Polanki, a group that has maintained a longtime commitment of supporting the Basilica and its efforts to showcase its Polish roots. Polanki has been active now for more than 65 years and has been promoting Polish traditions and preserving Polish heritage in a great number of ways in addition to its support of the Basilica.

The group sponsors many cultural programs and concerts throughout the year, hosts a Pierogi Dinner in the spring, their Soup Festival in the fall, participates in Polish Fest in June and the annual November Holiday Folk Fair.  The club awards more than $10,000 a year in college scholarship funds and was a driving force behind the successful effort to restore the General Tadeusz (Thaddeus) Kosciuszko monument in the park named in his honor across from the Basilica.

Kosciuszko was born in Poland in 1746, the Polanki club would want you to know, and came to America intent on using his expertise as a military engineer to help the colonies gain independence from Great Britain. Kosciuszko designed fortifications that helped the Revolutionary Army win critical victories, including the fortress at West Point, which later became the premier US military academy, his crowning achievement.

This important bit of narrative is of course no surprise to one Susan Gibson Mikoś, recipient of a Master of Anthropology and Historical Archeology from Brown University, since she authored a book in 2012 published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press titled, “Poles in Wisconsin”. And conveniently enough, if you have an interest in Susan’s book or a vast collection of other materials about Poland, the public is welcome to visit the Polanki Library located at the Polish Center of Wisconsin, in Franklin.

Polanki contributed funds to underwrite the construction of the library, established in the year 2000, and today it includes resources dealing with history, culture, language, heraldry, literature, folklore, music, geography, arts and the burgeoning subject of genealogy. The Polanki Library’s regular hours are Tuesdays 12 to 2pm, Wednesdays from 6 to 8pm, or by appointment.

Melson, 83, the other former president of the club, is now an advisor on the Polanki Board of Directors and has had an alliance with the group since 1972.

“I have an interest in seeing the group do well. Once you’re a Polanka you’re a member for a long time,” she said. “I think it’s an organization that because of the commitment our members bring to our endeavors, I think it will continue beyond our lifetimes.”

Lincoln Village Opportunity Strategy Makes Recommendations to Improve Neighborhood Cooperatively

cake with inspirational quote
The quote chosen for the cake celebrating the rollout of the Lincoln Village Opportunity Strategy was an apt description of the various city agencies, law enforcement, business owners, community groups, and residents coming together to improve the neighborhood.

A celebratory cake with an inspiring message welcomed representatives from Lincoln Village to the Basilica lower church hall, fittingly setting the tone and mood of this community gathering.

“Coming Together is the Beginning.

Keeping Together is the Progress.

Working Together is the Success.”

                                    — Henry Ford

After a series of well-attended meetings over the last eight months, facilitated by Milwaukee’s Department of City Development (DCD), a diverse group of partners, united in a common goal, convened once again on June 27 for the purpose of presenting the conclusions of the Lincoln Village Opportunity Strategy.

DCD representative address Lincoln Village representatives
Samuel Leichtling, of the city’s Department of City Development (DCD), addresses the group gathered to hear the recommendations of the Lincoln Village Opportunity Strategy.
Police Captain Ramirez addresses group.
Captain Alex Ramirez, head of the Second District Milwaukee Police Department, talks about law enforcement in Lincoln Village.

This special occasion highlighted the momentum, commitment and kinship of the team of interested stakeholders focused on a revival of the area. The campaign began with the first open discussion back in November 2018, and continued throughout the winter and spring, including cold winter walks through Kosciuszko Park and surrounding streets. The focus of all this collaboration was what we can do together as a community to improve the Lincoln Village neighborhood.

The recommendations of the Lincoln Village Opportunity Strategy focused on six specific areas of interest:

  1. Using the Basilica as a community gathering or event space.
  2. Organizing the businesses in the Lincoln Avenue Commercial Corridor so that they work together to address key issues and develop a strategy to make the Corridor more appealing.
  3. Streetscaping (i.e. street beautification) to physically enhance the corridor and make it more attractive to businesses and customers.
  4. Priority Properties (i.e. facade improvements) improving the exteriors of some of the commercial buildings along the corridor to make it more attractive and welcoming for businesses and consumers.
  5. Code Enforcement by the various City of Milwaukee departments needs to be more adequate and consistent.
  6. Safety in Kosciuszko Park; improving the image of the Park and ensuring safety and comfort for all its visitors is imperative for the Lincoln Village Neighborhood.
Ted Chisholm addresses group.
Ted Chisholm, Chief of Staff for Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell Lucas, tells the assembly how to access assistance from the Sheriff’s department in Kosciuszko Park, where the department has jurisdiction.
Alderman Perez chats up Alderman Zielinski before the District 14 councilman heads out.
Alderman José Pérez (District 12) (right) confers with AldermanTony Zielinski (District 14) before the latter is called away before the meeting’s end.

As the meeting began in the lower church hall, a group of over 50 engaged stakeholders assembled in a large circle and were welcomed by Aldermen José Pérez (District 12) and Tony Zielinski (District 14). Sam Leichtling of the DCD once again led the meeting and introduced each of ten speakers representing the Department of Public Works, the Department of Neighborhood Services, the Milwaukee Police Department, Lincoln Village Business Association, the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation, Milwaukee County Parks, Potential “Friends of” Kosciuszko Park, Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department, Sixteenth Street Community Health Center and the DCD, all working collectively toward a common goal. Each of the speakers briefly outlined next steps to be taken in their strategy, asking how the larger group can help them ensure success, and to share contact information to allow other parties to let them know if things aren’t working as planned.

After the last speaker had sat down and just before the meeting adjourned to mingle over cake, an accomplished and influential (and rapt) audience member was moved to rise from his chair and share an outsider’s fresh perspective of what he had just witnessed. J. Michael Mooney, Co-founder, Chairman and a Principal of MLG Capital, an investment and development company, has more than 50 years of experience in the diverse and often complex brokerage, consulting and planning business. His voice gushed with enthusiasm and support.

Mike Mooney addresses the group.
J. Michael Mooney, Co-founder, Chairman and a Principal of MLG Capital, lauds the efforts of the assembled group to improve Lincoln Village.
Attendees of the rollout meeting of the Lincoln Village Opportunity Strategy rollout.
Representatives from various city agencies enjoy a moment at the rollout meeting of the Lincoln Village Opportunity Strategy.

“I want to be your cheerleader!” he said. “It’s absolutely awesome your commitment and your efforts. Keep on keeping on! And remember the Basilica is a magical catalyst, your saving grace and your magic stone! It’ll be in your selfish best interests to keep it that way!”

Mooney’s buoyant message capped off a substantive 90-minute session that included many positive actions planned for the future. To be sure, the fomenting words of Henry Ford were a fitting reminder of what has been accomplished over the past eight months: the Lincoln Village community came together initially, bonded together throughout the long process and are emboldened to continue to work together to ensure the success of the Lincoln Village Opportunity Strategy.

Stained Glass Windows – “Poetry in Light”

The stained glass window restoration is now underway and a big “shout-out” and special thank you from the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation to all of you who have generously contributed to this significant project. Five windows in all, including the prominent Mary and St. Joseph figurals (the oldest in the church) located in the east and west stairwells will have their beauty and clarity revived by the artisans and craftsmen of internationally recognized Conrad Schmitt Studios, a New Berlin, Wisconsin company that has worked on Basilica windows since 1926.

stained glass window removal
Artisans from Conrad Schmitt Studios remove the west bell tower stained glass window.
A template is made of each section of the stained glass window.
A template is made of the window to ensure proper fitment when the glass pieces are put back together.

Last fall during the October 2018 Gala celebration, a “Special Appeal” was launched to raise awareness of the window restoration plan and to seek donations from individuals and groups in order to finance the undertaking. The focus of the 2019 Spring Appeal was again on the stained glass window restoration. As a result of those initiatives and due to the generosity of many caring folks, about $130,000 was collected toward the total projected cost of $200,000, leaving close to $70,000 yet to be secured.

Obviously, it takes specially trained, experienced technicians to do this type of work and it doesn’t come cheap. Each of the two large bell tower windows will cost $80,000 each with Polanki, the Polish Women’s Cultural Club of Milwaukee, contributing a hefty $50,000 through a multi-year pledge specifically allocated toward those expenses. In addition, at last October’s Gala event about $40,000 was raised through attendees Special Appeal donations beyond their silent auction, voice auction, and raffle participation. And in a singular benevolent gesture one kindly gentleman donated $10,000 toward the “Mary” window, in memory of loved ones. Indeed, no matter how large or small the amount, any and all donations are noteworthy and invaluable gifts that advance the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation’s mission to preserve, restore and enhance the church.

Loading the stained glass on to the van.
The stained glass sections are transported to the studio for cleaning and repair.

To be sure, there is a real science to the work of stained glass restoration and conservation, and Conrad Schmitt Studios has earned a stellar reputation over its 100-plus years of existence. Conservation is the preferred method of treatment because the focus is on saving every piece of glass except those that are beyond repair. This approach preserves the original artist’s hand and simply cleans the glass and returns it to its frame.

The process starts with a comprehensive examination and documentation of what the project requires. Rubbings and sketches help record measurements and other aspects of the glass and leading texture. A permanent record of these findings is then created which can serve as a future guide for Conrad Schmitt and the Basilica. Each panel of glass can be viewed as a piece of a giant, elaborate, jigsaw puzzle and when ready for the meticulous re-installment stage, the handlers even allow for small movements in the building to ensure stability.

Finally, while the origins of the craft of stained glass are vague, for a thousand years their splendor has appealed to people’s senses and drawn inspiration around the world. It’s certainly not easy to argue with the anonymous individual who claimed, “More than any other art form, stained glass touches the soul.”

The St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation continues to be dedicated to the protection of our own “Poetry in Light”, understanding its historic and artistic significance. We are privileged to share in the vital responsibility of its preservation.

Come and see the Basilica of St. Josaphat, it’s one of the top things to do in Milwaukee.  Let this beautiful church inspire you. Choose from self-guided or docent-led tours.

Polish Flat Exhibit Opens at Basilica Visitor Center

Dr. Jill Lackey may well claim the title of “miniaturist” behind the design and construction of the new Polish Flat Exhibit, on display at the Basilica of St. Josaphat Visitor Center starting June 13th, but the term sure runs contrary to the massive research and detail required to put the historical, educational and artistic project together.

Dr. Jill Lackey built model of Polish flat.
Dr. Jill Lackey of Urban Anthropology Inc.
Polish flat model
The model of a typical Polish flat was built with meticulous attention to detail.

The doll house-like reproduction of a typical Polish dwelling on Milwaukee’s Old South Side in the early 1900s was a group effort by volunteers from Urban Anthropology Inc (UrbAn), following six months of meticulous research by Dr. Lackey, UrbAn’s Principal Investigator, and Rick Petrie, the organization’s Executive Director.

Nearly 100 homes in the Lincoln Village and Baran Park neighborhoods were photographed and documented and the former inhabitants were researched in city directory and census records. Ultimately, the team decided to model their replica on a Polish flat (still standing) located at 2458 S. 9th Place as it appeared in the 1930s when it was owned and occupied by Tomasz and Magdalena Fleter, who immigrated to the United States in 1887.

Side view of Polish flat model.
A side view of the Polish flat model on display at the Basilica of St. Josaphat Visitor Center through September 13, 2019.
Rear view of Polish flat.
The back of the model Polish flat is open to see detail of the interior of the house.

Along with their seven children, Magdalena’s parents and brother also stayed with the Fleters for a time, necessitating more living space. Commonly, the prevailing method of compensating for the narrow lots was to lift the foundation, add cement blocks or bricks and create semi-basement levels that became new dwellings. Both levels had their own entrances with the first cottage residents adding a porch with steps to their original door.

Lackey, the founder of UrbAn, holds a doctorate degree in cultural anthropology and taught at Marquette University for several years. In addition, she spent more than 20 years as an artist, both in graphic design and miniature displays. The completion of the Polish Flat Exhibit took approximately 500 hours with each tiny brick, blade of grass, shingle, molding, flower, siding and tile added by hand. The work required additional research into period décor and much of the furniture was purchased at collector auctions.

The kitchen area of a model of a house.
A closer look at the kitchen of the model Polish flat on display at the Visitor Center through September 13, 2019, another reason to visit the Basilica, one of the top things to do in Milwaukee!

Exhibit viewers are able and encouraged to learn about the lives and lifestyles of the extended Fleter family and the historical contexts of the house through informative accounts included in the display. One interactive question, for example, asks: “It is the era of the Great Depression – what signs do you see of this?” And: “There are five items in this house that you would only find in a Polish home – can you spot at least three of these?”

By the 1930s Tomasz and Magdalena were elderly and lived alone, but all of their children still resided within a mile of their parents. During that decade, Charles Waclaw Snopek, his wife Agnes and infant son occupied the lower unit of the flat, and a number of related Snopeks lived within blocks of them. Among the progeny of one of the Old South Side Snopek families is famed Milwaukee musician Sigmund Snopek III, inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2015.

So now there is another reason to visit the Basilica of St. Josaphat, one of the top things to do in Milwaukee! The Polish Flat Exhibit is on display at the Visitor Center from June 13th through September 13th. Located within the Pope John Paul II Pavilion, the Visitor Center is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Les is More at the Basilica Gift Shop

Les Miescke runs the shop.
Les Miescke is the Manager of Basilica Gifts and Tours.

In an ideal world Les Miescke would have relished the opportunity to welcome each and every one of the more than 20,000 visitors that showed up unannounced at the doors of the Basilica of St. Josaphat in 2018 seeking to discover what was underneath that large, impressive dome. But he only works four days a week and allows others to take ownership of his privileged role when he can’t.

“You greet them, make them feel at home . . . and let them explore,” said Les, manager of “Basilica Gifts and Tours” for more than three years and part-time host/coordinator/guide – and friend – to folks from literally all over the world drawn to this special place. The interactions are by far the most fun part of his job as he explains a bit of the history, artistry and significance of what they are about to see as they’re walking about. “Some people come back (to the gift shop) and feel a need to whisper because they’re so overwhelmed and feel a need for that type of respect and reverence. All these wonderful people . . . I love them all!”

In addition to the many spontaneous, self-guided “walk-ins” in 2018, there were 99 formal, scheduled, docent-led tours – usually an hour in length – of some 3,000-plus participants. Last fall, as evidence of the church’s worldwide appeal, a bishop from the Eastern Orthodox Romanian Church made the pilgrimage with 45 monks from Europe for an official tour. Afterward, they lingered in the Basilica to chant, pray and sing together.

For groups of local children, in lieu of the usual $5 tour fee, students of any age are asked to bring two or three non-perishable items in a benevolent gesture to be included in the weekly Parish Center Food Pantry distribution on Wednesday mornings.

Many of the conversations Les initiates with visitors resume inside the gift shop after they have completed their tour. He frequently needs to remind them to speak up, as they often continue in the hushed, reverent tones they used within the Basilica, while they search for mementos or special treasures from the mélange of assorted items for sale on the shelves from vendors the world over. There are rosaries for sale from the Czech Republic, statues hand-painted by Columbian women, pottery from Poland, and a Ukrainian artisan has created a charming three-dimensional, pop-up paper presentation of the Basilica available to the public. Recently, a guest from Barcelona found the perfect nativity to take home that she had taken great pains to find.

Les, a parish member now for 21 years, has spent much of that time volunteering in various capacities, and even prepared the garden beds around the Basilica years ago. There is an ongoing need for more volunteers whether it’s training to become a docent, helping during busy times in the gift shop, directing and advising tourists, or aiding with the food pantry responsibilities.

“It’s my church and when things come up you help!” said Les. “There are so many skilled people within the congregation, and they’re needed to help carry out specific projects. You can’t drive from the airport to downtown without passing this beautiful dome and it’s a point of reference for people and they need to discover the Basilica’s historical, architectural, and spiritual aspect and a place worth visiting. We want it to look nice . . . and friendly.”

“I hope we local people love, care for, and respect the Basilica as much as these world travelers do!”

Les Miescke’s dedication is one more reason the Basilica of St. Josaphat is one of the top things to do in Milwaukee. If you would like to assist Les in the gift shop, your help would be most welcome. If you can offer one or more days a week to volunteer, Les is a great mentor and friend. Even if you can only share a few hours of your time, please contact the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation at 414-902-3524 or to express your interest.

Docent Brings a World of Knowledge to Basilica Tours

Well, at least the old Marquette University professor got it somewhat right in his assessment of a young undergraduate student in the 1960s named Ron Szymanski, now 78-years-young, a St. Josaphat Basilica parishioner for eight years, and a volunteer docent (knowledgeable guide) the last four years.

“You’d make an outstanding historian!” was the professor’s opinion then.

docent speaks to tour group
Volunteer docent, Ron Szymanski, shares his expansive knowledge about the Basilica of St. Josaphat with a small tour group. The insights Ron offers help make the Basilica one of the top things to do in Milwaukee.

Indeed, the professor’s judgment was keen – but quite deficient – and to be more thorough he could have added instructor, lecturer, author, theologian, evangelist, consultant and in Ron’s own words, “divergent thinker”, to what has evolved into a long list of lifetime achievements.

After graduating from Marquette, Ron spent 33 years with MPS, the first six as an English teacher and 27 years at the central office in supervision and staff development. In addition, he wrote two textbooks, one on American Literature and one on Composition that were used by educators nationally. In later years he had his own educational consulting business and specialized in designing school curriculum. Ron uses all of that experience to enhance the tours of the Basilica of St. Josaphat with the varied groups he leads. And certainly, what he’s learned and absorbed during the 35 trips he’s made abroad over the years has also impacted the approach he takes as a docent, and his vital desire to share more than mere facts with his audience.

Back in the late 1800s Ron’s paternal grandparents, Ignatius and Salomea Szymanski, as well as her father and nine siblings were members of the growing congregation of 12,000 parishioners (98% of which were of Polish descent) that pitched in to help build the present, and much needed, larger church between 1896 and 1901. Ron’s roots here run deep.

“Many Poles already had the trade skills required and when completed this became the central place for all the extended families to meet on the south side,” said Ron. “With my Catholic upbringing I developed a deep, deep faith and just grew and grew in theology. Sharing faith is an objective way to evangelize along with teaching.”

Ron teaches folks about the Basilica of St. Josaphat.
Volunteer Docent, Ron Szymanski, points out a feature of the Basilica’s spectacular interior to visitors on a group tour.

While conducting Basilica tours, it’s important for Ron to steer clear of the “Concrete-Specific” language (just tangible facts) and use his preferred “Abstract-Conceptual” style and own intuition during interactions with the group.

“Using the Abstract-Conceptual approach leaves people with themes and concepts,” Ron explained. “I use facts to create themes. To build conceptual thinking is really what life’s all about. I have much empathy for the groups and how to address the tour whether it’s a large or small group, young or old, American citizens or a group of Arabs from the Middle East.”

Today, Ron has been slowed somewhat by recent health issues, but his reverence for the Basilica of St. Josaphat and its historic and cultural significance has not waned. He has no plans on cutting back his docent duties and will continue to expound on all manner of subjects related to the church and his Polish heritage. His familiarity and appreciation of distinct themes is seemingly limitless whether the discourse is on history, religion, architecture or artwork.

“I’ll continue as long as I can,” he said. “There’s something special that happens when the Holy Spirit acts to get me through it. I just love interacting with people. This is great for me. It’s a fabulous place to be.”

The gift of volunteer docents like Ron are a big part of what make the Basilica of St. Josaphat one of the top things to do in Milwaukee for tourists and visitors. The St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation is in need of additional docents to lead tours of the Basilica. If you enjoy meeting new people and would like to share the rich history of the Basilica of St. Josaphat with individuals and groups please contact the Foundation at 414-902-3524 or Complete knowledge of the Basilica’s history is not required, only a willingness to learn.