The other day, I paid a visit to Saint Joseph Chapel on Layton Boulevard in Milwaukee. For almost a century now, the site has been under the solicitous care of the School Sisters of Saint Francis, a religious order tracing its roots back to Schwarzach, Germany. Dedicated in 1917, Saint Joseph Chapel is, quite simply, one of the most stunning architectural and spiritual gems I have come across in the United States. Historically and aesthetically, Saint Joseph Chapel certainly ranks in the top tier of churches in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. And with our generous array of gothic and baroque churches peppering the South Side and elsewhere, that is no small accomplishment. In fact, long ago, Milwaukee architect Richard Philipp based the chapel’s design on careful first-hand studies of Europe’s most splendid churches.
To be honest, I learned about this chapel only the day before I first visited it, having chanced upon a brief description of the chapel online. A native of Milwaukee, I have a general awareness of most of the historic Catholic churches here, and so I couldn’t believe that I never even heard of Saint Joseph Chapel. After reading a few snippets about the colorful mosaics, the exquisite altars hewn from the finest Italian Carrara marble, the 114 stained glass windows (all imported from various European cities), and most interestingly for me personally, the distinct Relic Chapel, I knew I had to see this place for myself, and soon. As it turns out, it was only a short ten-minute drive from my front door.
One accesses the chapel, not through the main entrance to the chapel, but through the main entrance of the Motherhouse. I was greeted at the front desk by a receptionist and, after inquiring about the chapel, I signed in and was given directions: take the stairs to the second floor, take a right and you’re there. Upon entering the chapel, let’s just say, I was not disappointed. The striking high altar and reredos in the distance competed with the richly illuminated, color-drenched stained glass windows for my eye’s immediate attention. After praying for a few minutes, I looked around and noted the elegant antique chandeliers, perhaps fashioned in brass, that were gracefully suspended by long chains from the vaulted ceiling. The centrality of the Holy Eucharist was most evident, as the white, chiseled marble of the high altar and reredos framed the large, golden tabernacle doors protecting the Blessed Sacrament. In the transept, to the left and the right, were four enormous baroque confessionals, carved from oak and engraved with amazing detail. Sunbeams penetrated the large stained glass windows running the entire circumference of the chapel. The quality of these windows, all imported from Innsbruck, Austria, is astonishing. I have never seen such beautiful stained glass in the United States, and in such rich abundance. At the highest points in the ceiling are two large stained glass oculi. These elegant windows to the heavens allow even more sunlight to cascade like water into the chapel. The rays of light streaming into the chapel blanket the sanctuary walls that are inlaid with enormous mosaics. The central design shows Christ handing the keys of the kingdom to Saint Peter. This mosaic is flanked by two more intricate stone and glass scenes, one of the apostles, each holding the instruments of their martyrdom, and the other depicting the Fourteen Holy Helpers, popular Saints in Germany dating from medieval times. Even the floor of sanctuary displays beautiful mosaic designs.
As I walked about looking high and low, a kind sister who had been busy cleaning the chapel approached me and graciously offered an impromptu tour. Sister Mary Alma pointed out the large golden and bejeweled reliquary under the side altar dedicated to the Sacred Heart, which holds the bones of Saint Leoninus. An early church martyr, the Saint’s revered remains were brought from the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus in Rome and have been venerated in Milwaukee’s Saint Joseph Chapel for generations. Having spent a few years living in Rome, and being very familiar with its mysterious and musty catacombs, I felt an immediate bond with this Saint.
Sister Mary Alma then singled out those sanctuary mosaics, offering a brief story for each one. She then led me behind the sanctuary to the Adoration Chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed and worshipped by the Sisters and the faithful who visit. This precious room, a sanctuary within a sanctuary, is more intimate than the larger chapel, and is just as beautiful, serving as a perfect setting for silent prayer. The chapel is shaped in a semi-circle, and its walls display large, exquisitely detailed stained glass windows of various Saints who, during their lives, demonstrated strong devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Among the Saints depicted are Saint Clare of Assisi and Saint Anthony of Padua. The high altar in this chapel is also fashioned in brilliantly white Carrara marble. Two angels guard the tabernacle and suspend a dazzling crown of gold over our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Tiny white cherub faces also peek out from the marble.
Sister Mary Alma then took me into the sacristy and pointed upward to the paintings coating the walls. Each painting depicts one of the seven Sacraments of the Church, poignant reminders for a priest vesting before Mass. These precious works of art were painted in the early part of the 20th century by various Sisters of the Order. One painting shows Saint John Vianney hearing confessions. This holy priest was known to spend hours upon hours hearing confessions. Those huge, polished confessionals anchored in the transepts came to mind.
As we progressed with the tour, I inquired about the renowned collection of relics which I knew resided somewhere in the chapel. I already noticed a number of large gold reliquaries stationed at various points in the main chapel. Sister responded, “Oh yes, we have many relics here.” And she directed me upstairs to the Relic Chapel.
I was very interested to see this part of the chapel. Relics have a secure and revered place in the Church’s history, dating back to the earliest days of Christianity. Unfortunately, the veneration of relics has fallen out of practice in the United States, as many Catholics incorrectly view the displaying and honoring of the mortal remains of Saints as a morbid, or even bizarre practice, best left to medieval times. That’s why I was thrilled to see that the good Sisters of Saint Francis at Saint Joseph Chapel proudly uphold this ancient Catholic tradition. The chapel itself boasts hundreds of first-class relics of some of the most prominent Saints in the Church, including the Apostles and Saint John the Baptist, as well as many of the early Church martyrs. There are also numerous relics of the True Cross. The relics vary in size; some are just small slivers and specks of bone, while others consist of rather large pieces of bone. All are secured in intricately fashioned gold and silver reliquaries with tiny slips of paper that indicate in Latin the Saint represented therein. As I prayed alone in the calm silence of this chapel, I naturally thought of all the Saints who were represented in this room by their relics. I thought especially of the chosen men who were destined to become “fishers of men,” who set out in their boat into the calm silence of dawn and saw their Lord standing on the not-too-distant shore. You feel an indescribable proximity to the Saints in heaven when praying in the presence of their mortal remains here on earth.
Milwaukee-area Catholics should pay a visit to Saint Joseph Chapel, at 1501 South Layton Boulevard. This splendid sacred place is truly one of the archdiocese’s best-kept secrets, and it should be rediscovered by a new generation of Catholics. No doubt, visitors will experience first-hand the very best of the rich patrimony of the Catholic Church in all its splendor, in Sacrament and in art.
(Click on images to enlarge) A view of the sanctuary from the gallery. There were some post-Vatican II changes made, but they were tastefully done.
The choir loft and organ, as well as the elegant brass chandeliers
The high altar of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel
Detail of the mosaic in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel
A view of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel's windows.
The Relic Chapel! I love relics, and there are hundreds of them here. Saint Joseph Chapel has one of the largest collection of relics I've seen.
Saint Michael the Archangel (and angry Satan) stained-glass window. There were numerous windows like this one, depicting various Saints.
Saint Francis receives the stigmata
The presentation of Mary at the temple
Saints Joachim and Anne with the Virgin Mary