Rising above the diminutive Polish flats on Milwaukee’s near south side is a towering testament to the power of community, the grandeur of architectural genius, and the benefits of recycling.
The Basilica of St. Josaphat has stood on the same Lincoln Village plot since 1901, 23 years after its mother parish was founded and grew to be the largest Polish congregation in Wisconsin: some 12,000 strong. Even today, the cavernous halls of the largest church in Milwaukee echo with the voices of hundreds of faithful each mass.
The interior details are impressive in both their intricacy and subtlety, blending seamlessly from almost-modern flat tones to the painfully-precise detail work. It’s all contained in a space designed specifically to mimic St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, though you could fit 4 St. Josaphat’s into St. Peter’s.
The staggering columns, walls, and Austrian stained glass windows force your direction to the pinnacle architectural destination: the dome. Radiating out from here, the entire ceiling is hand-painted, as are the deceiving “marble” columns.
Though many churches depict Jesus in some manner behind their high altar, not so here. St. Josaphat’s is unapologetically-Polish: the larger-than-life mural standing front and center depicts the 17th-century Polish martyr St. Josaphat being, well, martyred. Us Catholics sure love painting our heroes being murdered.
The best way to get a closer, educated look at the Basilica and it’s encompassing beauty is to hop on their weekly free tour. Every Sunday at 11AM, immediately after the 10AM mass, a docent will regale you with a verbal history of the parish, people, and place itself.
It was on this tour that we learned how Milwaukee’s south side was not the first home of the building blocks of St. Josaphat’s: in fact, the majority of the material used to build this massive church were shipped here on 500 railroad cars straight from the heart of Chicago.
Chicago had built a monumental US Post Office and Custom House that started sinking due to unstable ground, after less than 20 years. $20,000 saved the materials from the landfill, and though the Basilica looks substantially different than its mother building, many original details remain including each and every door knob, inscribed with the seal of the US Post Office.
The tour ensures you don’t miss the basement of the Basilica either. Here you’ll find an equally inviting, if certainly smaller, chapel and worship space, including saint-linked artifacts from around the world.
The south side has been transformed over the last century from a dense Polish enclave to the heart of Hispanic Milwaukee, but the Basilica of St. Josaphat continues standing as a welcoming place of both worship and architectural wonder: awe-inspiring either way.