The Basilica epitomizes the striving of early Polish immigrants to express their ethnic heritage, spiritual devotion, and patriotic pride by building impressive houses of worship.
The first Poles came to Milwaukee in the 1840s, but their numbers did not become significant until after the Civil War. By the late 1800s, Polish immigrants were streaming into Milwaukee by the thousands, quickly becoming the second largest ethnic group in the nation’s most German city. In 1866, thirty Polish families established Saint Stanislaus Parish on Milwaukee’s South Side as the first urban Polish parish in the United States.
Saint Josaphat Parish was formed in 1888 as an offshoot of Saint Stanislaus Parish and subsequently became the largest Polish parish in Wisconsin. Its first home was a modest building that burned to the ground in 1889. The parish built a second church but it was too small for its needs.
Poles were the largest of the European immigrant groups who settled in Milwaukee after 1870. Attracted by the promise of jobs and fleeing religious oppression and compulsory military service, their population swelled to nearly 60,000 by 1900—second only to the Germans.
Poles were uniformly Catholic, and the church became the social as well as the spiritual center for their communities. There were seven Polish Catholic churches in Milwaukee by 1900, each with its own parochial school.
This burgeoning immigrant community desired to construct a church to meet the needs of its more than 12,000 parishioners in the late 19th century. Ground was broken in 1896 and the new building would be finished in 1901.
Father Wilhelm Grutza, the pastor, had hired a German-born architect named Erhard Brielmaier to design what is, in essence, a smaller version of St. Peter’s in Rome. The church would have the same cross-shaped floor plan and huge central dome that distinguish St. Peter’s.
When the plans were nearly complete, Fr. Grutza learned that the Chicago Post Office and Custom House needed to be razed and he was able to purchased it for $20,000. The building (pictured below) was dismantled and the salvaged materials were loaded up on 500 railroad flatcars and brought up to Milwaukee. They were stockpiled on a vacant lot across the street.
The present church is not what the Chicago Post Office looked like. Architect Brielmaier changed his plans to include the salvaged materials, but his design remained faithful to the original model—St. Peter’s.
Ground was broken in 1896, and the church was finished in 1901. At the time of completion, the only building in the country with a larger dome was the United States Capitol. Cost overruns put the parish in major debt. The Archdiocese searched for an order of priests that would take over the administration and debt of the parish. In 1910, the Conventual Franciscan Friars took over administration of the parish and the debt was retired in 1925.
With the debt gone, plans were made to finish the interior. The church wasn’t exactly an empty shell when it opened. The stained-glass windows were in, imported from Innsbruck, Austria. The main altar was here. But most of the building was a blank canvas, painted alabaster white. The parish hired a Roman artist, Gonippo Raggi, in 1926, and his crew spent two years working on the interior. They painted the oil murals, finished the ornamental plasterwork, and painted the columns to resemble marble. In 1929, after the interior work was finished, the Franciscans petitioned Pope Pius XI to declare St. Josaphat Church a basilica – the first Polish-American church raised to this honor.
In the Catholic Church, basilica status is reserved for the largest, most beautiful, and most historically important churches. In 1929, St. Josaphat Church was named the third basilica in the United States. Today there are over sixty in the United States. It is as close as we get to a European Cathedral. It is the largest church in Milwaukee, with a seating capacity of over 1,000 on the main floor, hundreds more can be accommodated in the galleries.