The Sisters of Saint Francis have a remarkable treasure and piece of Milwaukee history in their Lake Drive convent. The Saint Francis Chapel, on the second floor of the convent, was built in 1894 (six years before my great-grandfather was born). Erhard Brielmaier, the same architect who designed Saint Josaphat Basilica, designed this gothic chapel. A while back, I took advantage of a rare opportunity to pay a visit. (Click on the images for a better view.)
The two richly-decorated relic cases on either side of the rear of the chapel enshrine the relics of some 200 Saints. The designs for these reliquaries were also provided by Architect Brielmaier. The meticulous gold filigree work, wrought into intricate patterns and mounted with rhinestones and other semiprecious stones on a plush background, was done by Sister Eva Eich and Sister Amata Thorn, who also placed the relics. … These reliquaries were acquired in 1934.
Completed in 1946, the Adoration Chapel, which adjoins the Saint Francis Chapel at the rear on the right, witnesses to the continuing prayer of the Sisters and Associates. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed here from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily. … Originally, this space served as the residence for the Chaplain, and the balcony served as the shoe repair shop.
The stained glass windows were created by the Tyrolese Art Glass Company of Innsbruck, Austria and installed by its New York City branch in1898.
Thoughts: Visiting the convent and chapel was a great experience. What a house of beauty! It was impressive to see all the work and craftsmanship that went into this remarkable building. It was easy to imagine lots of nuns in full habit bustling about in the hallways, or making their way to the chapel for Mass or vespers. I thought about the sublime sound of the sisters chanting the divine office, echoing within the chapel, traveling down the many corridors. I imagined them gathered together, sewing and embroidering beautiful vestments for Mass. One of the sisters told me that they used to have a sewing room where ornate vestments for liturgy were made in large quantities by the sisters. Apparently, it was quite an operation! It’s long gone now.
It was sad, truth be told, to see how things are at the convent now, as opposed to its golden age, when it was full of young sisters and life. I don’t think I saw a sister today younger than 75 or 80. What is going to happen to this place in twenty, or even ten years? In many respects, Saint Francis Chapel reminds me of Milwaukee’s Saint Joseph Chapel. Both are treasures and serve as beautiful reminders of our rich Catholic heritage in the city and house stunning old-world craftsmanship. But both are fading, with uncertain futures.
I’ve often wondered why places like Saint Joseph and Saint Francis chapels (and their convents) are not turned over to more traditional religious orders/societies that are vibrant and growing. What about the Oratorians of Saint Philip Neri? The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal? The Sisters of Life? The Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter? The Canons Regular of Saint John Cantius? And many others. Are such plans in the works? Why not invite an order into the archdiocese and plan for a gradual turnover to ensure the survival of these beautiful buildings? Such a positive, visionary move would simultaneously infuse much-needed, authentic Catholic culture directly into this city and archdiocese.