Special to your Catholic Herald
For 100 years, the Conventual Franciscans have kept a promise they made to those who call the Basilica of St. Josaphat home.
Groundbreaking for the basilica, patterned after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, began in 1886. The church was completed in 1901 and by 1909, the parish was so far in debt that rumors spread that the building would be sold.
According to Susan Rabe, executive director of the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation, the Milwaukee Archdiocese approached the Franciscans to take ownership of the building.
“They said, ‘yes’ and kept it here,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the Franciscans to take on the responsibility and challenge of the debt, and take care of the building, this beautiful community anchor may not be standing today.”
In commemoration of 100 years of service to the Basilica of St. Josaphat by the Conventual Franciscan Friars, the public is invited to “Come Home to the Dome” on Sunday, June 27.
The idea for the theme came after Franciscan Fr. James Jankowski, pastor of St. Josaphat Basilica, and Colleen McCarrier, event coordinator, contemplated a fitting manner to celebrate the annual parish picnic and recognize the work of the Franciscans.
Not just an anniversary, a reunion
“We wanted it to be celebrated not only as an anniversary, but as a reunion,” said McCarrier. “We wanted to invite the Conventual Franciscan Friars from the St. Bonaventure province, the School Sisters of St. Joseph, who had taught at the parish school, past and present parishioners, school staff and classmates.”
Last August, McCarrier interviewed parishioners to unearth a common thread identifying the focus for the social portion of the celebration.
“When asked what impressions stand out most when they thought about the basilica, the inevitable response was always, ‘the friars,’” she said. “The Franciscan Friars have impacted people’s lives in a significant way, be they long-time parishioners or recently registered members of the parish. Their tireless dedication to their parishioners, their reverence for the Mass, the vibrant devotional life of the basilica and the sense of family which parishioners experience and still find there today, were all common threads in our conversations.”
Because so much of the parish social life centered around school functions and parish festivals, McCarrier and Fr. Jankowski focused the event around family, rather than an adult oriented dinner.
Celebration begins with Mass
The celebration begins with Mass at noon, celebrated by Bishop William P. Callahan, former pastor of the basilica.
A family luncheon follows at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center/Airport with entertainment by ComedySportz and the revival of parish festival fun.
“We wanted a revival of some of the parish festival games for which people still had a soft spot,” said McCarrier. “Fortunately, although last used in the late 1990s, a good number of games were still in storage in the rectory basement. Turkey chute, the canned goods wheel, bumper cars, the presidents’ game, ham paddles and some others are being revamped as we speak and ready for the fun to begin.”
In addition, a compilation of photos, a handmade model of the basilica and other memorabilia will be displayed at the conference center. Stories, anecdotes and fond reminiscences will be shared in a new parish memory booklet. The celebration will honor the Franciscans who not only saved the basilica, but also maintained a strong faith-filled presence, according to organizers.
“It is critical to honor them because we wouldn’t be able to open our doors to visitors who are inspired and get comforted here,” said Rabe. “We have many grateful visitors and donors who appreciate this majestic basilica and that is why our foundation works so hard, and we are grateful that the Franciscans agreed to take on the basilica 100 years ago.”
Basilica was city’s largest church
The basilica was formally dedicated in 1901 by Archbishop Francis Xavier Katzer, and met the needs of Milwaukee’s growing Polish Catholic population by seating 2,400 members. It was the city’s largest church.
|If you want to go:
Come Home to the Dome
Sunday, June 27, Noon
Basilica of St. Josaphat, 2333 S. 6th St., Milwaukee
Family luncheon to follow at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center/Airport, 5311 S. Howell Ave., Milwaukee, $35, $15 (12 and under).
Please RSVP by June 14.
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In 1929, Pope Pius XI designated St. Josaphat Church as the third minor basilica in the United States, making it a place of pilgrimage, special devotion and historical significance.
An electrical fire in 1940 caused extensive smoke damage to the interior and a lightning storm in 1947 dislodged several large blocks of stone from the dome’s base. Repairs were necessary and structural maintenance and renovation of the murals took place from 1948 through 1951.
In 1986, storm winds tore a sheet of copper from the dome and serious water damage occurred. The Franciscans and several Polish businessmen from the community raised funds for the repairs. The St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation was formed and paved the way for large-scale restoration work.
Bishop instrumental in renovation
When then-Fr. Callahan served as pastor from 1993-2005, he was instrumental in the restoration project. While the 11-year, $8.5 million project was enormous, his love for the parish and the community’s dedication made the renovations possible.
“I have a particular affinity for St. Josaphat’s,” he said. “I was ordained there in 1977, so it has always had a special place in my heart and a special place in my priesthood. The people of the basilica, in essence, are part of the formation of me as a priest from early on. They used to have a group called the Franciscan Seminarian Mission Guild; and that organization of ladies had card parties and bake sales and other kinds of things and through that they would send, in those days, an astronomical amount of money, $1,500 per year, to the Franciscan seminary and $1,500 to the missions – hence the name the Seminarian Mission Guild.”
The guild supported the future bishop’s four years of school in Crystal Lake’s minor seminary, and supported his vocation to the priesthood. Following his ordination, then-Fr. Callahan served one year at St. Josaphat, before returning in 1993.
Situation ‘dismal’ in 1993
“When I returned to the basilica, the situation was dismal,” he explained. “The parish church and the parish had fallen on hard times, so we, with the Franciscans, took a strong look at how to take care of and restore the parish and the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation entered into the picture. They were positively instrumental in the restorations – without them, none of this would have happened.”
Teamwork among the foundation, the Franciscans and the province provincial, and the provincial council saw to the restoration of the basilica. The corporation is separate from the archdiocese, but done with the support of the archdiocese, explained Bishop Callahan.
“Now, that fund is through the Erica P. John Foundation,” he said. “My horizons have broadened a bit as the auxiliary bishop – I think of the basilica as Milwaukee’s parish church, if the cathedral is considered the mother church. It is a place where art and history and dynamic contemplation come together and really allow for all the best of humanity to rise like a sweet smelling offering to God.”
Bishop fondly remembers the people
While much of his time at the basilica was immersed in the restoration project, Bishop Callahan’s fondest memories are of the people.
“My favorite stories are all always of the parishioners,” he said. “The basilica was always a place to see people in mink coats, cloth coats and no coats. They were always sitting next to each other and praising the same God. What I love about the basilica is that the doors were always opened and we had symphonies and choirs from all over the world. Nothing made me happier than the parishioners and the pride and beauty of participating in the offering of Mass there on a regular basis.”
Despite the magnificent artistry inside and outside the structure, Bishop Callahan bragged that the renovations never left the basilica similar to a museum artifact hidden beneath thick break-proof glass.
“Everything that was done was functional and all of it served a purpose,” he said. “The arch lifts your heart and mind to God, no matter what your concept of God is. You come into that place and just go, ‘Wow! This is a place where I am encountering more than the ordinary. The extraordinary and not the natural, but the supernatural.’”
Bishop Callahan hopes for a great turnout for the Come Home to the Dome celebration.
“A hundred years is a big deal and very few churches in the United States can boast 100 years of operation under a religious community as we have,” he said. “This is something to be proud of when you look at the operations of the basilica and there are people who come to this church whose grandparents and great-grandparents helped build this place.”
Basilica built with ‘living stones’
For those closely associated with St. Josaphat, the pride of ownership remains strong. According to Bishop Callahan, the basilica is a wonderful place where the members have a kinship with the stones.
“It is just like what St. Paul writes about when he said, ‘You are a temple built of living stones,’” he said. “That was the song we had commissioned in 2000, the jubilee year – it was called, ‘Living Stones.’ This history of the living church is summed up in the stones. They are alive and live in the basilica and speak of the ongoing relationships between God’s people and God.”