The Basilica of St. Josaphat: Shoring Up a Milwaukee Landmark

Aug 25, 2016

For more than a hundred years, the Basilica of St. Josaphat has been a landmark on Milwaukee’s South Side.

The building has been central to the spiritual life of the largest Polish Catholic parish in Wisconsin. But it has also been a tourist destination – drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Cracking and crumbling sandstone in need of replacement on the Basilica of St. Josaphat.
Credit Mitch Teich

But as the years have passed, time and weather have deteriorated the Basilica's unique architecture. And this summer, an ambitious restoration project got underway on the building’s exterior.

"There are a lot of stones in need of replacement," says Tony Lipek, vice president of Masonry Restoration, Inc., the company hired to do much of the work. "They're severely deteriorated and structurally compromised."

The building was modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome, but its origin story is truly unique. It was constructed out of the material from what was then the Chicago Post Office and Customs House, which was condemned and razed at the turn of the 20th century.

Exterior view during the construction of the Basilica of St. Josaphat in 1897. Large stone pieces scattered around site await placement.
Credit Milwaukee Public Library

The materials were loaded onto 500 railroad flat cars and brought to Milwaukee, where the church was built, largely by hand. It was given Basilica status by Pope Pius XI in 1929. But as you might expect, maintenance on such a unique building is a challenge.

First, crews have to remove the copper roofing material to expose the stone. "Then we're cutting out - full-depth - all the way into the wall, the large pieces of sandstone that the engineer has designated as structurally compromised. It's also expensive maintenance. And so the St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation has been working to raise awareness - and money for the work.  But it's an important building to save," believes Foundation board chair Mark Rohlfing.

"You think about who [built the Basilica]," he says. "Obviously artisans and masons - but also normal folks helped them out."

And today, it's normal folks he hopes will assist in paying for the restoration, which is estimated to cost $2.5 million.

After they're removed, the crumbling stones will be replaced with stones from the same quarry and same vein as the ones originally used to build the Post Office.

At the end of the project, Lipek hopes the Basilica will retain the unique character that came with its unique construction. "[The builders] used the stones as efficiently as they could," he says. "Not all of them are where they should be, but they worked with what they had."

Mark Rohlfing is busy enough with his full-time job - Milwaukee Fire Chief - but says the effort to preserve the Basilica is worth it, especially given the importance of the building to the south side neighborhood around it. "With all the work going in to gentrify the Third Ward and the Fifth Ward, we know that same vitality is coming to this neighborhood, and we want want to be that solid anchor for the neighborhood."

Interior view of the basilica's ceiling.
Credit Steve Ornberg, flickr