Sunday, December 29, 2013

Day 231 - The Basilica of Saint Josaphat

I have never been to the Basilica of Saint Josaphat. In fact, I wasn’t aware of this Catholic place of pilgrimage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin until very recently. That stated, when I first set eyes on photos of structure’s grandiose domed exterior and vibrant sanctuary I promptly added the location as one of the places to visit during my “I have never...” year. As a part of my ongoing sub-goal to experience all of the major faiths during the course of my journey, I figured a trip to the basilica would fit nicely into my effort to gain a deeper understanding of Catholicism. As a result, Rachael and I made plans to spend the night in Milwaukee after yesterday’s Christmas party, and rose early to find our way to the Basilica of Saint Josaphat this morning.

Awe struck...

Amid a blustery wind and a driving sleet, Rachael and I took our time to make the drive to the Basilica this morning. Although the trip took longer than expected, my first glimpse of the Basilica of Saint Josaphat made it abundantly clear I had made a wise choice by including a visit to the building as a part of my “I have never...” journey. Despite the dreary conditions, the beauty of the basilica’s massive copper dome and ornate details had a commanding, brilliant presence against the backdrop of the city. The basilica’s size was far greater than I anticipated, and the degree of craftsmanship omnipresent in the building’s design immediately drew me in. Eager to get out of the weather and experience the basilica’s interior, Rachael and I quickly found our way to the building’s entrance and passed into the exterior chambers of the sanctuary.

At the entrance

Once inside, Rachael and I took some time to warm our hands and look and the ring of artwork that covered the upper walls of the interior. Beyond a set of doors to our front, smells of incense and the sounds of an ongoing church service filled the air. In response, I peered through small glass windows at the center of the large sanctuary doors. Inside a mass of people lined innumerable rows of pews resting beneath towering stone pillars and baroque platforms and arched ceilings. The scope and rich, diverse colors of the sanctuary struck me with a feeling of amazement as I craned my neck to take in more of the building. “We can go in if you want,” Rachael said in response to my obvious curiosity. Although I was a bit hesitant to the idea at first, I eventually decided the best way to gain the fullest experience would be to sit through part of the service. As a result, Rachael and I waited for a good opportunity to find our way into the basilica’s main chamber, and quietly slid in among the crowd of church goers.

The interior

Looking up at the dome

Once inside, Rachael and I sat through the final phases of the service, which left the basilica ringing with the sounds of singing voices and prayers. Unlike my previous experiences with many Catholic Church services, the experience felt bright and welcoming to me, which was a nice change from the usual heavy, dated feeling that has accompanied most of the Catholic services I have encountered in my life. The people in attendance were airy and joyful, and their smiles were met with the grace of the clergy that occupied several places in the room. There was a feeling of peace that came with the experience, which was unfamiliar but welcomed nonetheless.

The altar

Following the church service, Rachael and I stayed seated until the majority of the sanctuary had emptied in hopes we could get some time to experience the building in a quiet, vacant state. Some minutes after the service ended, a woman near the front of the building announced a brief history of the basilica would be given near her location, which prompted Rachael and I to move toward the first few rows of pews and take a seat. To my surprise, several dozen people followed suit until the three rows of seating around us were filled to capacity. Seemingly used to the number of people gathering near her, the woman leading the discussion of the basilica’s history delved into her explanation of the complex once everyone was settled. Explaining the building’s previous life as a post office in Chicago and describing the complex phases of the basilica’s life, the woman walked us through the main features of the building, its legacy among Polish immigrants, and the remarkable history of its path toward recognition as a basilica. Once her speech was complete, the woman invited us to spend some time in the building exploring its accessible areas and taking in its beauty.

Looking back...

A little history

Happy to oblige, Rachael and I rose from our positions on the pew and began to walk slowly through the massive sanctuary chamber. Around us beautiful pieces of religious art and symbolism lined the church walls, winding their way toward the towering dome peaking over 200 feet above. Enveloped by beauty, I took my time absorbing as much of the building’s details, taking note of the themes that carried throughout. My path ultimately led me to the basilica’s lower chamber, where a history of the building was scattered across the walls leading to a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Rachael and I took a few minutes to look over the space before doubling back and finding our way to the exterior exit. Although I could have spent much longer taking in the space, the realization we had been at the basilica for more than two hours made it clear it was time to start the journey home.

Pulling away from the Basilica, I took my time looking over the exterior of the building once more, doing my best to retain the image in my mind. While I knew the experience wasn’t one of the most moving or most memorable in my “I have never...” journey to date, I wanted to remember my first impressions of the Basilica of Saint Josaphat’s dominating, yet wonderful presence. The building’s beauty alone was enough to make the trip, but the overall experience provided a much more complete look into the basilica’s history and meaning. With that knowledge I was able to gain deeper respect for the monument and its purpose in the Catholic faith, which is just the kind of insight I was hoping to gain from another day in my 365 day journey.

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