Professional glazier Jeff Lorenzen stroked the old faux-marble column almost absentmindedly with his left hand and gestured animatedly with his right as he arched his neck back in order to gaze straight up at the soaring grand interior of the Basilica of St. Josaphat dome … and he eagerly and happily reminisced.
“This entire place was a menagerie of scaffolding with electricians, carpenters, decorators and painters literally from the peak to the basement,” he gushed as he stood among the pews and pointed to the skylight at the topmost point. “I took a tool bucket and soldering bucket with me and actually worked up inside the dome. My co-worker, Bud, and I had a makeshift bench set up and replaced the storm glass and restored all the panels in the skylight. We’d re-solder the rebar to keep them stiff and in shape and worked our way around the pie. I stand back now and am just in awe … in awe. Just the architecture of the entire building is amazing itself … just amazing. I’d climb up there again just to see it. My initials are up there along with a few others.”
Lorenzen, longtime glass craftsman with Conrad Schmitt Studios and 40-year veteran of the trade, was obviously tickled to be able to return to his hometown’s opulent basilica and reflect on the role he played in its renovation back in the 1990s. In 1986, strong winds tore a sheet of copper from the roof resulting in severe water damage. The financial assistance required then to pay for repairs was an impetus for establishing the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation in 1991, which eventually helped allow for the large-scale restoration work needed both inside and outside the building.
After several years and with the help of many contractors, the refurbishment was finally completed in 1997, which included replacing the copper roof, restoration of the stained glass windows, originally imported from Austria in 1902, and enhancing the church’s murals and columns. Lorenzen spent almost three years working here, off and on, “disassembling and reassembling” and even crawling on his hands and knees replacing light bulbs on a high, circular ledge with co-worker Bud.
The Basilica of St. Josaphat is a “Polish Cathedral” style of church and is modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Designated Milwaukee Landmark.
“I’ve worked on churches all over the country, but this place remains at the top of the list and it’s just a coincidence that it happens to be in my hometown,” Lorenzen said. “The decorating in here is phenomenal and it’s a fascinating place if you just look around … unbelievable. It’s just amazing. I’m very proud to be a part of the Basilica of St. Josaphat restoration. Part of my life is in this place. Yeah, the Basilica … quite the building … quite the project.”
The St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation is offering a tour of Conrad Schmitt Studios on Wednesday, October 23, 2019 at 1:00 p.m. The focus is on the stained glass window restoration process. Click below to sign up to join us!