Part One, By JEFFREY JENSEN

Just about noon two days before Christmas in 1896, and only a few months into what would become a five-year project building the future Basilica of St. Josaphat, a construction foreman, with seemingly no sense of empathy, was dispatched to find Mrs. Anton Kasprzyk and deliver a somber report. Upon arriving at his destination the courier looked up from the pavement and spotted Frances standing at the top of the stairs outside of the family home on what is now South 12th Street; confirmed her identity and spoke Polish as he yelled up to her with an unduly cold and harsh message.

“Your husband was just killed on the job!” he shouted crudely. “A big stone fell on him and his flakas [“intestines”] were all over the sidewalk!”

Quite understandably upon hearing this bombshell, Frances either fainted or lost her balance and toppled down the stairs. She was pregnant at the time and in a blink had become a widow and single mother of seven. Eventually revived and having survived the fall, she later gave birth to a son in April and named him Anton. He lived just 19 days.

At the time of his sudden death, the senior Anton Kasprzyk, 45, had been in Milwaukee 13 years after emigrating from the Poznan region of what is now northwest Poland and the small town of Odrowonz, an area from which a vast number of new Milwaukee immigrants hailed. As a farmer and experienced horseman, Kasprzyk chose to work as a teamster for his livelihood and filed for citizenship immediately. Soon after, he sent for his wife and children to join him.

Original designs for the construction of the new and larger church (much needed to replace the modest existing parish-school because of the copious 12,000-strong congregation and steady flood of new Polish immigrants) called for brick, but that plan changed when stone became available from the Post Office & US Customs House building in Chicago, just razed.

Historical photograph of church construction.
This historical photograph of the early stages of construction of St. Josaphat church. Notice the large masonry stones in the foreground.

The salvaged stone was shipped from Chicago to Milwaukee by railroad flatcar and upon arrival local teamsters, Kasprzyk with his wagon and team of horses included, were responsible for delivering the heavy stone slabs from the rail line located a few blocks east to the job site. During the spring of 1896, 200,000 pounds of these enormous stone slabs, six granite pillars, ornamental bronze railings, wooden doors and other materials made its way north to Milwaukee from Chicago. The complete shipment filled 500 railway flatcars.

The Rev. Wilhelm Grutza, church pastor at the time, championed the cause and threw himself into the task with the help of Milwaukee architect Erhard Brielmaier. Although the two were able to obtain the building materials from Chicago at the relatively bargain price of $20,000 (the Chicago post office building had originally cost more than $4 million), parish resources were extremely limited in the poor immigrant neighborhood and every measure was taken to save money.

In that context, under those circumstances and long before OSHA laws were established in 1970, one may trust that jobsite safety and oversight was occasionally little more than an afterthought. Indeed, in 1897, with the foundation and basement complete, the parish needed a contractor to begin work on the building itself. Money, of course, was in short supply and to keep the work going, Father Grutza appointed himself to the role and supervised a crew of 30 masons, saving the church more than $30,000 in payroll, or $750,000 in today’s world.

The day after Anton Kasprzyk’s death, on Christmas Eve 1896, the Milwaukee Sentinel ran the following account of the tragedy. Anton’s last name was spelled wrong and his age was incorrectly given as 43 years and some street names and numbers have since changed:

CRUSHED BY A STONE

Anthony Kasprzak Instantly Killed

On the South Side

Anthony Kasprzak, aged 43 years, who lived at 859 American avenue was instantly killed at St. Josaphat’s church on Lincoln and First avenues yesterday evening. He leaves a wife and seven children. Kasprzak was a teamster and was engaged in hauling stone, which is being shipped here from the old Chicago post office for use in building the new church. Several workmen were hoisting a three-ton stone from his wagon when the derrick chain snapped. The stone was suspended in the air. The horses became frightened and started, throwing Kasprzak to the ground. He fell beside the stone which had fallen on its edge. The next moment it toppled over and buried him, crushing him shockingly. Workmen immediately removed the stone, and the mangled remains were taken to the morgue.

Meanwhile, also soon after Anton’s death, the State of Wisconsin and Milwaukee County ordered an inquest into the accident, and a Coroner’s Jury interviewed several co-workers and witnesses to the incident. Among their findings was this decree, stated in the Jury’s summary document:

“The jury is of the opinion that if some competent man had been superintending the work the accident might have been avoided.”

Anton Kasprzyk, the singular fatality during the five years of the church’s construction on Milwaukee’s south side, was laid to rest at St. Adalbert’s Catholic Cemetery the day after Christmas, 1896, in an unmarked grave. Inexplicably, despite the newspaper article and other recorded chronicles, for more than 100 years Anton’s story and the sad details of his death remained perplexingly buried with him.

A woman holds a map of the location of her ancestor's home country.
Nancy Barker set out to uncover the story of her great-grandfather who helped to construct the eventual Basilica of St. Josaphat.

Only a small fragment of scuttlebutt was handed down through the generations as family lore. Apparently through the generations, the family simply chose not to discuss it or seek an explanation, the story was subsequently lost, and today’s descendants and impartial observers can only conjecture as to why.

Finally, though, due to the dogged determination of a caring and resourceful great-granddaughter, Nancy Barker, the detailed accounts of Anton Kaspryzk’s death were recovered and reclaimed in 2002, at last putting some closure on an enduring family mystery.

Look for Part Two next week!