The cross atop the dome of the Basilica of St. Josaphat can be seen for miles over much of Milwaukee’s south side. For more than a century, it has served not only as an historical landmark, but also as a reminder of this area’s rich Catholic heritage.
The story of St. Josaphat’s begins in the 1880s, when the church arose as an immigrant parish to serve the Polish community of Milwaukee. The founding pastor, Father William Grutza, was a man who thought big. After going through two small parish church buildings — the first of which burnt down only after a year — Father Grutza envisioned a monumental church on the south side of town.
The pastor commissioned a well-known architect to design him an edifice that would be modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Interestingly, many of the raw materials used in the initial construction of the new church came from the old Chicago Post Office and Custom House. Father Grutza learned that these buildings were going to be destroyed, so he paid $20,000 to have 200,000 tons of salvaged material transported by rail to Milwaukee.
The new church was put together brick by brick for the most part by its parishioners. It took them four years: The new St. Josaphat’s was dedicated in July 1901. Sadly, just five weeks after its dedication, Father Grutza died.
In 1929, Pope Pius XI designated St. Josaphat’s as the third minor basilica in the United States.
Saint of Unity
The basilica is a fitting one for the saint it honors. St. Josaphat was born in the late 16th century in what is today Ukraine.
From an early age, he memorized Church rituals as well as the Psalms. He entered the Basilian monastery and was ordained a priest in 1609. He would go on to become the bishop of Plock in what is Russia today.
Of interest to this fervent shepherd was the reunification of the Eastern Church with the West. His efforts toward that cause cost him his life: On Nov. 12, 1623, he was brutally murdered by an angry mob who opposed his ideas.
Josaphat had said before his martyrdom, “I rejoice to offer my life for my holy Catholic faith.” He had prayed: “Grant that I be found worthy, Lord, to shed my blood for the union and obedience to the Apostolic See.”
Above the main altar of the basilica is a stunning depiction of that scene. The Martyrdom of St. Josaphat was the first mural painted for this Church in 1904. Nearby, painted on the roof of the baldacchino (canopy above the main altar) is the saint’s entrance into heaven. There, artistically portrayed is the saint of unity being welcomed to eternal life by Jesus and Mary, surrounded by choirs of angels.
Old World Feel
Much of this landmark church’s history became real for my family and I when we visited the basilica earlier this year. Entering this magnificent edifice is to take a step back in time. Whether it’s the dark-stained pews or the antique marble side altars, I could sense generations of prayers have been recited and offered here. Hard shoes echoed on the worn wooden floor. The whispers and giggles of my children resonated in the church’s vast interior.
I clearly understand why it took more than two decades to complete the decoration of the church. There is no shortage of awe-inspiring artwork and detail from top to bottom. Where to start? Inside the basilica’s interior dome are stunning scenes of prophets, evangelists, apostles and doctors of the Church.
A fading afternoon light shines through the tall ornate stained-glass windows that surround the interior of the church. The stained glass and plasterwork clearly represent the labor of love that went into the construction of this edifice more than a century ago. The windows display a variety of Church imagery, including a colorful presentation of the Annunciation and scenes from the life of Sts. Dominic and Margaret Mary.
Artwork throughout the basilica celebrates Poland’s deep Catholic roots. For instance, St. Stanislaus, one of Poland’s earliest saints, is found twice in the basilica. First, there is a depiction of the young saint having an apparition of the Blessed Mother in one of the stained-glass windows. He is also spotted, along with St. Hyacinth, in prayer next to St. Hedwig in a nearby painting.
Also of ethnic interest was a portrayal of Cardinal Achille Ratti, who, in 1922, would become Pope Pius XI, praying to Our Lady of Czestochowa for the triumph of good over evil during World War I.
Our visit was too short. However, our visit could be deemed a sneak peak for a return trip to the crown jewel of Milwaukee’s south side.
Eddie O’Neill writes from Green Bay, Wisconsin.
The Basilica of St. Josaphat
2333 South Sixth St.
Milwaukee, WI 53215
Planning Your Visit
The basilica is currently administered by the Franciscans. Tours of the basilica are conducted weekly after the 10am Sunday Mass. Visit website for daily Mass and reconciliation times.