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History of the Cathedral

The history of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist by Rev. Thomas Fait

Very early on a Saturday, while it was still dark, two men walked into the small pioneer church where Father Martin Kundig was finishing Mass. They, too, were priests and had just arrived in the harbor from a journey begun over two weeks earlier in Cincinnati. The white frame church, on a hill just northeast of the city, was their first destination. The elder of the two travelers was a month short of his 39th birthday and, only two months earlier, had been consecrated the first bishop for the diocese in which he had arrived. It may be said, in fact, that Bishop John Henni's arrival at Mass that May 4, 1844, transformed the humble church of St. Peter into Milwaukee's first Cathedral.

The church eventually known as St. Peter's was begun by Milwaukee's first resident priest, Father Patrick O'Kelley, in the early summer of 1838. Two years earlier, from his parish across Lake Michigan in Ann Arbor, Father O'Kelley had begun to make periodic trips to the area. (Michigan and Wisconsin were all part of the Diocese of Detroit from 1833-1843.) In spring and summer of 1837 he celebrated Mass in the County Courthouse of Milwaukee (the north end of present Cathedral Square). During that visit, Solomon Juneau, who later became Milwaukee's first mayor and in whose home Fr.O'Kelley had also celebrated Mass, gave two large lots for the construction of a Catholic church the present northwest corner of Jackson and State Streets). On that site, O'Kelley and all of Milwaukee's Catholics (only twenty at the time O'Kelley first visited the city) laid the stone foundation and began assembling the 28 by 42 foot church. The small but stable immigrant Catholic faith community began planting its roots anew into the rich Milwaukee soil.

Originally under the patronage of Saint Luke, the church was still unfinished when Bishop Peter Lefevre came to Milwaukee in the company of Father Martin Kundig in June of 1842. Father Kundig replaced Father O'Kelley as pastor and, changing the name of the church to St. Peter (in honor of the Bishop of Detroit whom he accompanied), Kundig quickly set about finishing the church and arranging for special accommodations for each of the different language groups: 8:30 a.m. Sunday Mass and 2:00 p.m. Sunday Vespers for the German speaking and 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass and 3:00 p.m. Vespers for those who spoke English.

Father Kundig's plans for Milwaukee's first church of St. Luke/St. Peter were exceeded by even higher ambitions for the Church in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. Only two months after his arrival Kundig wrote: Milwaukee is a very beautiful city. It has much similarity with Cincinnati, being entirely surrounded by hills; it is very healthy so that I have been on sick calls only twice although I have thousands in my care. The best water is found in every part of the city. Immigration now is so unusually numerous that here we often have from 200-300 immigrants per week.

That same summer and fall, with the dramatic growth of the immigrant population, the fledgling St. Peter's grew to 100 families, necessitating a first alteration to the newly built church. A school for boys was set up in the basement level. (A separate school for girls, a two story house, 25 x 36 feet, on the east side of the present Jefferson Street, just north of State Street, was built later.)

In the fall of 1842, assisted by Father Thomas Morrissey (who had been in Wisconsin working with Father O'Kelley earlier), Father Kundig further organized the Catholic communities of all southeast Wisconsin. Three days after his first Christmas in Wisconsin, writing to his good friend (and future first Bishop of Milwaukee), John Martin Henni, he composed a census with the following information included:

(1) Milwaukee parish, German and English ... the French united with the English ... 100 families (St. Luke/St. Peter Proto-Cathedral).
(2) St. Mary's ... 140 families (St. Mary Parish, Hales Corners).
(3) Racine ... organizing (eventually St. Luke Parish predecessor to St. Mary and St. Patrick Parishes).
(4) Southport ... 100 families (St. James Parish [originally named St. Mark], Kenosha).
(5) The parish at Mr. Neukirch's place ... 28 English and German families (Holy Assumption/St. Mary's, formerly the Mission of Hales Corners Parish, located in Franklin, formerly St. Martin's).
(6) Yorkville parish ... 30 families (just west of I-94 and north of County KR, St. Andrew Parish, predecessor to St. John the Baptist Parish, Paris).
(7) Muskeegnac Lake parish ... 24 families (St. Joseph Parish, Muskego, closed 1923).
(8) Burlington parish ... 40 German families (Immaculate Conception/St. Mary Parish [originally named St. Sebastian]).
(9) The Geneva parish ... 33 families (St. Frances de Sales Parish [originally named St. Martin], Lake Geneva).
(10) Prairieville ... number of families unknown ... widely scattered (St. Joseph Parish, Waukesha).
(11) Mukwonago parish ... 20 families (predecessor to St. Peter Parish, East Troy, and the Missions of St. Joseph, Mukwonago, and St. Paul, Genesee).
(12) The parish at Mr. Rafferty's settlement ... 20 families (St. Dominic Parish, Brookfield, formerly at Marcy).
(13) St. Patrick's Parish ... west of Kenosha ... 34 families (St. Francis Xavier Parish, Brighton).
(14) Spring Prairie Parish ... 6 miles from Burlington ... 10 German families and a few Irish and Scotchmen (This became part of St. Sebastian/St. Mary Parish).

There are 91 families ... in towns 8 and 9 ... in town 10 there are 36 families. (Fussville Menomonee Falls and Grafton respectively. Kundig did not call these places parishes as of 1842.)

In this same letter, Father Kundig noted that the number of Catholic families is unknown in the Madison, the Mineral Point and the Dodgeville parishes.

In a sense, therefore, even before Milwaukee was the Episcopal See of the diocese yet-to-be, St.Peter church was the place from which Father Kundig oversaw all these young faith communities. This modest frame church served as his base of operations, as it were, as he traveled from place to place in service to the pioneer Catholics. A few years after it was built, St. Peter's had already become a mother church for many of the first Catholic communities of Wisconsin, the fitting first destination for Wisconsin's first bishop.

As he turned toward the congregation to bless them at the end of that early morning Mass in 1844, Father Kundig must have been surprised to see his old friend, now his newly-ordained bishop, kneeling in the front pew. Far more astonishing is what lay ahead for these founders-in-faith of the Church of Milwaukee.

Legacy of the First Shepherd

Bishop John Martin Henni arrived in his new diocese very early on Saturday morning, May 4, 1844. His first stop was to the church of St. Peter. (Being the only Catholic church in Milwaukee, it would serve as his Cathedral). On the same block, slightly northwest of "St. Peter's Proto-Cathedral," Father Kundig had prepared a "cottage" for him.

The women of the parish, under the direction of Josette Juneau (the wife of Solomon Juneau who became the first mayor of the city two years later), furnished and prepared the new residence.

Seated at dinner in his new home on the very day of his arrival, a visitor came to present him with the bill for the lumber from which his new home was made and for the land on which the house itself was built. To avoid embarrassment to his well-intentioned flock, he settled the debt with his own money and was left with $25 ... all that remained with which to build his diocese.

What a vast diocese it was. As first announced in The 1844 Catholic Almanac, the "Diocese of Milwakie" (S.I.C.) included the entire Territory of Wisconsin, all of present Wisconsin and the upper third of present Minnesota. The same publication listed 10 churches and chapels built, 15 in the process of being built, a population of 15,000 Catholics, and 5 priests "on the mission." Within three years, there were 31 churches, 29 clergymen and a Catholic population of 30,000.

In Milwaukee, this rapid growth required the establishment of a second parish and the primal community of St. Peter's split when its German-speaking Catholics moved to their two-story masonry church-school on Biddle and Main Streets (now Kilbourn and Broadway). Milwaukee's foremost bridge builder, Victor Schulte, was the builder-architect of the new church of St. Mary's, which was dedicated on September 12, 1847.

Simultaneously, Bishop Henni and the architect were creating the plans for a much larger edifice to be constructed on Jackson Street facing "Courthouse Square." One account stated that their intentions were "most ambitious and calculated to startle those who did not foresee as clearly as the Bishop the future needs of Milwaukee. Wiseacres shook their heads and with owl-like wisdom declared that here surely was a case of ill-directed zeal. But the Bishop began work in the summer of 1847 and on the 5th of December of the same, the cornerstone was blessed."

Reports of the project were published near and wide. Initial accounts described a structure 155 feet long, 75 feet wide, with a spire of 210 feet, "intended to be enclosed by the next summer". The object of all this attention was, of course, the new Cathedral of the Diocese of Milwaukee whose patron would become that of its first shepherd, Saint John the Evangelist.

Victor Schulte himself selected and harvested the oak used in the construction of the rafters from trees in the present area of St. Mary Hospital. The stucco for the interior was mixed in his own house not far from the building site.

Initial reports regarding the construction fell short of the conclusion. It was five years before it was "under roof" and it took nearly six years before it was consecrated on Sunday, July 31, 1853. The finished Cathedral (exterior) was nearly 180 feet by 80. Its tower, from the level of the street to the apex of the cross atop the original "onion dome" spire, measured 306 feet. The building also cost twice as much as initial estimates. At the time there were 113 parishes in the diocese, 69 priests, and 95,000 Catholics.

A contemporary newspaper stated, "To one taking a view of Milwaukee from any point landward or lakeward, the Cathedral is the prominent object, towering with its huge proportions above all surrounding edifices, a symbol of the majesty of that element in our natures, which such structures are designed to cherish and cultivate."

Of all his contemporaries in the American hierarchy, Bishop Henni has been described as the best informed and most discriminating in matters of art. Little wonder, then, that such efforts were made for the embellishment of the church he had been planning so long. The great altar was imported from Belgium. Six foot gilt candlesticks were imported from France. Paintings for the three altars came from Munich and Milan. An impressive two manual, thirty-one rank stop, black walnut console organ made in Cincinnati was installed in the choir loft. In short, Bishop Henni and his priests, the Cathedral Parish and the whole Diocese of Milwaukee, spared no effort to make their Mother Church as splendid as possible.

When, early in the project, progress stalled because of lack of funds, a diocesan tax was levied for a year and a half which collected every week five cents from each man, three cents from each woman, and one cent from each child to defray the cost of the Cathedral. The total annual income of the Cathedral parish, $700, was spent entirely on the domestic Seminary of St. Francis de Sales and the expenses of Henni's household and essential parish needs. The bishop, therefore, took trips to Europe, Cuba and Mexico in efforts to raise building funds rather than to borrow money with interest. The Bishop of Havana gave Henni permission to make appeals throughout his diocese and enthusiastically recommended the appeal to his people.

The initial interior of St. John's Cathedral was unpainted; the plaster work was stark white, save for gilded rosettes in the corners. Subsequent decorative campaigns which added color to the walls were conducted in 1870, 1892-1893, and 1920-1921. Original grey glass panels with colored borders were not replaced with full stained glass windows until 1897. In its first seventy-five years or so, the Cathedral was the object of a host of other minor alterations, all signs of a vibrant community's growth and the recurrent need for changes in its "house for worship."

There were other important ministries on the "Cathedral Block" which required attention and also forged the way for subsequent institutions of service: St. Rose Orphan Asylum for girls and St. Aemilian's Orphanage for boys (the first orphanages in the city and the forerunners to a variety of social services in the diocese), Milwaukee's first hospital, St. John's Infirmary (which later moved and changed its name to St. Mary's Hospital), and the schools begun years earlier at St. Peter's which opened the way for the Cathedral Grade School and High School.

Growth in the Diocese of Milwaukee was so rapid and the success of Bishop Henni so noticeable that in 1875, only 32 years after its foundation (and five years before the same honor was given to the Diocese of Chicago), Milwaukee was made an Archdiocese and Henni the Archbishop Metropolitan of the Province of Wisconsin. Its suffragan dioceses were LaCrosse, Green Bay, St. Paul (Minnesota), Marquette (Michigan), and the Vicar Apostolic of Northern Minnesota with headquarters at St. Cloud.

Six years after his Archepiscopal investiture at the Cathedral, having celebrated more than 52 years in the priesthood, 37 of them as the First Shepherd of Milwaukee, John Martin Henni died. The age of the pioneers passed, leaving the legacy of a firm foundation. +

Living Symbol of Our Faith

Like one whose head is bowed low in mourning, the tower of the Cathedral no longer soared over Milwaukee's skyline. For nearly a decade following the death of Archbishop Henni it stood at half-height. Because of rot in the supportive timbers, the city had issued orders for the repair or removal of the upper stories, including the original onion-dome.

At the time there had been significant unrest and controversy in the matter of the successor to Archbishop Henni. The toll of many years of hard work had diminished the health of the Archbishop to the point that he began himself to make arrangements for the one who would follow him. While it seemed obvious to Henni that that successor should be Michael Heiss - his former secretary who had accompanied him on his arrival from Ohio to Milwaukee and was later appointed the first bishop of LaCrosse - non-German Catholics strongly opposed another German-speaking prelate. Among the Irish clergy who spoke up for an English-speaking bishop of Milwaukee was Father James Keogh, curate of the Cathedral since 1875. (After the erection of "Old" St. Mary Parish in 1847 to accommodate the growing number of German speaking immigrants, the Cathedral parish became largely Irish.)

Father Keogh's opposition did no harm to Archbishop Henni's opinion of him, since the Archbishop appointed him rector of the Cathedral six months after Michael Heiss became the Coadjutor Bishop of Milwaukee. One wonders, however, if the decision to remove the German Zwiebelturm (onion dome), rather than simply repair it, was made by Henni, Heiss and Keogh as a conciliatory gesture to non German Catholics, especially the Irish. After all, Henni himself had changed the funeral arrangements for his own entombment in the chapel at the predominantly German-speaking St. Francis Seminary to a crypt which was added to the sacristy basement under the present baptistry of the Irish Cathedral. The record gives no such explanation and it may have simply been more expensive to repair than remove the top of the tower.

The historical record is clear, however, that the construction of the present upper tower was made possible almost singularly by the generosity of Judge John Black, who donated the lion's share of its construction in memory of his wife. That donation served as the impetus for the first comprehensive renovation and restoration of the Cathedral since its construction 40 years earlier. The Milwaukee architectural firm of Ferry and Clas received the commission for the design of the tower which was inspired by the English architect Sir Christopher Wren (particularly by his work for Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields). The completed tower has since been widely acknowledged as one of the finest in the Americas, and a fitting summit to Victor Schulte's original church.

Interior schemes, on the contrary, were considerably different from the original intentions. The interior surfaces were largely monochromatic, punctuated solely by gilding on some of the plaster elements. The original walls and ceiling had been filled with the ornamentation of the plaster work: wainscot, pilasters, entablature, ribs and medallions. But these details were left white in the style which had become so popular in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, a reaction to the widely colored interiors of the baroque rococo. Except for some painting to repair the damage of a fire in 1875, the interior remained as it was intended, including the light grey, hand-blown glass windows with colored border.

The 1892-1893 project was under the direct supervision of Father Keogh Archbishop Katzer had moved from the Cathedral residence to the Lynde home, which had been purchased as an archepiscopal residence for the diocese). This extensive project included completely new and multicolored fresco work, an enormous new organ case, new pews, new carpets and furniture for the sanctuary, and electric lights, among other additions and changes. Stained glass windows were also planned to replace the much simpler originals, but this project was not completed for ten years. In all, the remodeling resulted in a structure with many changes in appearance from the original. Except for the completion of the stained-glass, the addition of a magnificent new pipe organ and the Deagan Tower chime system in 1923 (given by the Patrick Cudahy family), and a re-painting campaign in 1920-21, the Cathedral remained unchanged and retained that highly decorated and colorific interior until the destructive fire during the early morning hours of January 29, 1935.

The cause of the 1935 fire was never determined, though it was clearly of suspicious origin, having started in the stone crypt beneath the altar boys' sacristy where there was nothing combustible and no electrical wiring. Signs of forced entry on the ornamental wrought-iron gate to the crypt located on the exterior were discovered after the fire. But, whatever the origin, the consequence was the complete destruction of the Cathedral interior and nearly all its contents. The roof was completely consumed by the fire, the walls were weakened, and the stained glass windows totally destroyed. The present tower, untouched by the flames, sustained damage from the intense heat.
much of the building remained, the destruction was so widespread that there was reason for the rampant speculation about designating one of the larger churches in the city as the new Cathedral. Indeed, the churches of St. Anne and St. Michael in Milwaukee (which were used for ordinations and other archdiocesan celebrations following the fire) some foresaw as the next Cathedral. Several other new churches, including St. Robert in Shorewood, were in the planning or construction stages and no little amount of thought was given by their pastors to the feasibility of adapting blueprints to include an episcopal crypt and a permanent throne for the Archbishop.

However, Archbishop Samuel Stritch, the fifth Archbishop of Milwaukee, gave no sign of considering any such change. On the contrary, the historical significance of the Cathedral of Saint John prompted him to begin fund-raising for its reconstruction only four months following the fire. He personally donated toward that cause the monies he had just been given for the silver jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood.

Within the year, Archbishop Stritch had contacted the Pittsburgh architect with whom he had worked on the Cathedral of his previous diocese in Toledo, Ohio. William Richard Perry had originally proposed an interior constructed entirely of marble, including parallel rows of pairs of marble columns and a magnificent sanctuary apse to be added beyond the prior east exterior wall lengthening the building by some 65 feet). The general design met with almost immediate approval, since it so clearly reflected a great harmony with the original interior design and also enlarged the space to provide for the demand of increased capacity. However, the matter of construction in solid marble throughout the interior was at odds with Archbishop Stritch's announced intention of restoring the Cathedral in a worthy but not extravagant manner.

When Archbishop Stritch was made Archbishop of Chicago in December of 1939, much of the Cathedral exterior was completed. Moses Elias Kiley became the sixth Archbishop of Milwaukee and the completion of the restoration was conducted under his strict supervision. One of the Cathedral curates at the time testified to his almost daily visits and the more than daily telephone calls from the Archbishop to make certain that his instructions were being observed.

The fireproof roof was completed the summer of 1941, before the December attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II. Two more significant changes in the original design by architect Perry were a controversial larger and more highly ornate high altar baldachino than the architect had envisioned and the elimination of the extensive fresco or mosaic work Perry intended for nearly all the interior surfaces. The interior restoration in some ways was similar to that of the original 1853 Cathedral interior, a light and almost monotone treatment of surfaces embellished primarily by the articulation of ornate plasterwork and highlighted sparingly by gold-leaf and the extremely restrained use of color. Color was primarily confined, though plentiful, in the stained-glass windows of the twelve apostles and the use of marble in the sanctuary and the twelve side altars and ten niches throughout the building; much as color in the 1853 interior had been confined to the enormous oil paintings that had been donated by King Ludwig of Bavaria and the Archdiocese of Milan to Archbishop Henni. Despite delays and compromises in the reconstruction necessitated by the war, the restoration-renovation project was completed by Archbishop Kiley just prior to the centennial of the archdiocese in 1943.

In 1953, the Cathedral witnessed the investiture of its first Milwaukee-born Archbishop, Albert Gregory Meyer, whose tenure here lasted only five years.

In 1958, Milwaukee's eighth Archbishop, William Edward Cousins, arrived to begin his leadership of 19 years, including the years of great change and transition in the aftermath of Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. With the counsel of local liturgists and architects, and Father James Kelly of the Cathedral, Archbishop Cousins made the initial changes in the interior to accommodate the liturgical renewal promulgated by the Council. Largely a remodeling of the sanctuary space, this entailed a reconstruction of the main altar in order that the altar itself would allow the priest to face the congregation. In 1966 a new pipe organ, designed by Robert Noehren, was installed on the occasion of the International Congress of Sacred Music.

In 1977, in preparation for the arrival of his successor, Archbishop Cousins and the Cathedral rector, Monsignor Francis Beres, undertook an extensive redecoration and remodeling of the Cathedral. This project was similar in many ways to that of Father Keogh in 1892-93; the plain and monochromatic walls were covered with many different colors, functional systems (such as the electric and the heating-ventilation) were updated and modified, decorative elements were added both inside and out, and a general embellishment as well as thorough repair was accomplished. The Cathedral was also connected to the rectory at the south, allowing for direct inside access between both buildings. In general, the 1977 project was confined to maintenance and system improvements as well as a complete aesthetic alteration. Only an alteration of the ambo-pulpit and the replacement of the communion rail with communion stations constituted what may be called liturgical alterations. (Note: The most recent documents on the arrangement and furnishing of churches - the second typical edition of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal and Environment and Art in Catholic Worship were published well after Msgr. Beres' 1976 renovation.)

Apart from its original construction from 1847 to 1853 and the project following the 1935 fire, the Cathedral church has witnessed only two major redecoration programs: Father Keogh's project of 1892-93 and Monsignor Beres' project of 1977. Some interior re-painting was done in 1870 by Father Kundig to clean up after an interior fire and to some various spaces including the sanctuary apse by the Cathedral High school art class in the 1950s. Inasmuch as the current liturgical reform amounts to the greatest change in the liturgy of Roman Catholicism in many centuries, the next Cathedral project must make the greatest alterations to its design for the sake of the liturgy. In light of its great historical significance and its pre-eminent aesthetic quality, this is perhaps the most difficult challenge concerning his Cathedral which faces the Archbishop of Milwaukee since that Saturday morning in May 1844 when Bishop Henni first arrived at St. Peter's Cathedral in Juneau's settlement.


Copyright 2012 Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. All rights reserved.