Friday, February 24, 2017


I used to think that Europe had cornered the market on stunning church architecture and decor, but the more we travel around the United States, the more treasures we discover in our own country. The Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee is certainly one of the most beautiful churches we've seen in the U.S.
I must confess, however, that initially I had a hard time getting the phrase "Jumpin' Jehoshaphat!" out of my head. (For the origin of that phrase, go here.)  This isn't THAT Jehoshaphat. 

St. Josaphat was born John Kuncevic in 1580 in Lithuania, which was part of the Polish kingdom at that time. He became a monk and archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and was killed in what is now Belarus in 1623 for the part he played in reuniting a segment of the Eastern Orthodox Church with the Roman Catholic church. He was canonized in 1867.

In 1880 there were 30,000 Polish immigrants living in the Milwaukee area, and they wanted a church. They modeled their church after St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and dedicated it to St. Josaphat. Ground was broken in 1896, and much of the work was done by the poor immigrant parishioners, who had little money to donate to the building fund. When  the structure was completed in 1901, it was the city's biggest church. The interior was completed in 1926, and in 1929 it was designated a Minor Basilica by Pope Pius XI, only the third church in the United States to be so honored. In the Catholic Church, basilica status is given only to the largest, most beautiful and historically important churches. Today Wikipedia says there are eighty-two basilicas in the United States, and those churches are the closest we get to European cathedrals.

This giant church, which can seat over 1,000 on the main floor and hundreds more in the galleries, is nestled among well-kept homes that reminded me of giant dollhouses:

St. Josaphat's has one of the largest copper domes in the world. It rises 250 feet above the ground. At the time of its completion in 1901, the only building in the United States that had a bigger dome was the U.S. Capitol.

There is always plenty of work to be done on buildings like this. After all, at the time this picture was taken, the basilica was 115 years old. Everyone could use a face lift at that age:

I can definitely see the resemblance between St. Josaphat's and St. Peter's:
St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. Picture from here.
Compare St. Josaphat's entry (below) to St. Peter's (above):
As planning began to build this church, the parish priest, Father Wilhelm Grutza, learned that a post office was being torn down in Chicago. For $20,000, he purchased the carved stone and the granite pillars from the building and some other materials to use for the new church. I wonder if those are the pillars in the photo above? The brass doorknobs of the church are from the salvaged material and bear the seal of the U.S. Treasury.

St. Josaphat, is that you up there?? You look just a bit unapproachable.

I hope that's Saint Josaphat on the right. I think I would like him if he looks like this:

In the annex used as a kind of a visitor center, we were welcomed by these two men. I'm not sure who that is on the left. Maybe Timothy as a scripture in 2 Timothy is referenced.  The figure on the right stands on a pedestal incribed "Tu es Petrus," so that's Peter:

The great debt incurred by building this church was retired by the Franciscans, who now run the place:

Could this man carrying the Christ child and a bunch of lilies (symbol of the annunciation and resurrection) be Joseph? Does anyone know?

Entering the nave of St. Josaphat's is truly a *gasp* moment. Like many Eastern European churches, it is grandiose, very elaborate, and bursting with color. The focal point is the high altar at the front of the room.

The "baldachin," or canopy, has these Latin words inscribed along the arch: "Behold, the dwelling place of God among men."

On the murals inside the dome above the grand altar, St. Josaphat is depicted entering heaven and being greeted by Jesus on the left and the Virgin Mary on the right:

These tender words from 1 Kings 9:3, written in Old Polish, ring the dome: "I consecrate this house you have built. I place my name here forever. My eyes and my heart will be here for all time."

In the nave, richly patterned and architecturally complex ceilings draw the eyes upward. There are more layers than a French millefeuille pastry:

Looking backward towards the organ in the rear balcony:

The central dome is divided into eight sections, just like the dome in St. Peter's:

Here is a zoom in on the center of the dome. I love the geometrical balance, the detail, and the golden angels in each of the eight divisions:

I have no idea who this is, but he bears a striking resemblance to my side of the family:

Two angels holding bowls of holy water flank the central aisle:

I judge a cathedral partly by the quality of the stained glass windows. This church gets an A+. 

The Anunciation:

The birth of Jesus, with Saints Peter and Paul on each side, standing as defenders:

The Virgin Mary and Jesus presenting a rosary to St. Dominic:

Detail of the upper section of the above window:

My favorite: Jesus with the children:

Mary washes the feet of Jesus while the apostles look on:

I also like this one of that depicts Luke 22:42-43: "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angle unto him from heaven, strengthening him."

The sleeping guards miss the resurrection (although the one on the left looks like he is peaking):

Mary, the Queen of Heaven:

In addition to scenes from the life of Christ, there are many windows that depict scenes involving Polish saints and historical figures. Some I know and some I don't. The first window is one of the latter:

St. Stanislaus (the Bishop of Krakow) has a vision of the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus

St. Stanislaus being murdered during mass:

This church is full of beautiful art. Check out the pulpit carved from stone:

Incredible details on the top of the pulpit . . .

. . . and intricate carving on the pulpit base:

The basilica has four side altars.  The two in front that flank the main altar are Romanesque. The altar on the right is below. Note the red and yellow striped "umbraculum" by the window. This umbrella indicates this church is a basilica. In the past, an umbrella of this style and in these colors was used on almost a daily basis to provide shade for the Pope as he walked:

The altar on the left side of the main altar depicts the resurrected Christ appearing to Mary:
The side altars are Baroque style. Looking at the two of them is like playing a game of "Spot the Differences":

This baptistry would feel at home in any Italian cathedral:

It looks like Pope John Paul II paid a visit in 2002. He was from Poland himself, so I'm sure he loved this church:

And the current Pope, who is a Franciscan, must also have some fondness for the Franciscans who operate the church:

The anunciation is depicted in these framed tiles. I thought this work was beautiful. I especially love the multi-colored wings:

We have lists of things we are trying to visit, such as all the states (only North Dakota left), the Presidential Libraries (only Gerald Ford's to go), state capitol buildings, state high points, etc. After visiting exquisite St. Josaphat's, we've decided to add "Basilicas" to our list of lists. Wikipedia says there are 82 basilicas in the United States.  Besides this one, we've only been to two others: the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis and the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile.

I'm pretty sure we won't make it to all of them, but when we are visiting a city that has one, we'll make a point to visit it.


  1. Basilicas are a fun new list. I might add we've visited two basilicas in Montreal, Our Lady of Montreal and Oratory of St. Joseph of Mont-Royal. I think we also visited Cathedral Basilica of St. Luis, King of France in New Orleans, but that was before digital picture days.

  2. Wow! This definitely rivals some of the most beautiful basilicas anywhere. The stained glass is especially gorgeous.