Milwaukee’s 600-year-old interfaith treasure

In all the years of living in and now visiting Milwaukee, I had never visited this bona fide treasure at the center of the Marquette University campus—until a month ago. And “bona fide” (a 500-year-old Latin term meaning “good faith”) certainly fits this very special place.

Joan of Arc Chapel

The information on this page comes from two detailed tours I took, Marquette’s very nice “History of St Joan of Arc Chapel” page, and subsequent research I’ve done on this beautiful chapel that was built in 1420–or 369 years before Washington took his first presidential oath.

That’s right: Milwaukee is home to a 600-year-old gothic chapel—and it’s linked with St Joan of Arc. Still in pristine condition, it’s the oldest single building still used for its original purpose in the Western Hemisphere. Clearly it was not built in Milwaukee.

Chapel interior, including the extended nave; the original part of the cathedral lies just behind the statue of Joan of Arc.

The tiny chapel was built in a small village south of Lyon; it served the village of Chasse for centuries before falling into disrepair after the French Revolution. It was discovered in the early 1920s by architect and historian Jacques Couëlle, who was so enthralled by the chapel that he called it “ce monument absolument unique en son genre” (the most absolutely unique monument of its kind).

Couëlle made detailed drawings of the structure, took numerous photographs (which was quite expensive to do 100 years ago), and even went as far as numbering and measuring every dimension of every stone. This became crucial in its reconstruction, because there is only one way—and only one sequence—in which all the stones can fit together. Studying the brilliant techniques of medieval design and construction has, in fact, led to numerous doctoral theses.

Detail of the ceiling. Each stone had to be placed in an exact prescribed sequence in order for the ceiling not to succumb to gravity.

In 1926, Gertrude Hill Gavin, whose father (James J. Hill) founded the Great Northern Railway, learned about this unique chapel, which was known at the time as Chappelle de St Martin de Seyssuel. She purchased it and had it dismantled and rebuilt stone by stone on her property on Long Island.

Mrs. Gavin had previously purchased an entire Renaissance-era chateau and had it shipped from France, so the chapel made a nice addition to her property. Shortly afterward, France forever banned exporting such treasures.

The nearly 900-year-old sandstone altar is in amazing condition. The twisted support beams were unique to the time of construction. The famous “Joan of Arc Stone” lies directly behind the candle on our left. The small crystal and gilded bronze crucifix at the altar’s center is from the 16th century. And the centuries-old candle holders are incredibly heavy. Amazingly, the public is welcome to touch all of these treasures.

Mrs. Gavin was also a serious devotee of St Joan of Arc, and she surely noticed some coincidences involving the chapel and her heroine. Not only was Joan of Arc a little girl when the chapel was built, but she was canonized in 1920, exactly 500 years after the chapel’s creation. So, Gavin renamed the chapel in honor of the recently named saint. Gavin also asked for permission to hold masses in the building. In 1933, Pope Pius XI gave her written permission to do so, and the letter still hangs in the chapel today.

This is the original part of the chapel; the first image mainly shows the architecturally sensitive extended nave that Marquette University added.

The original stained glass was long gone, so Gavin, who had essentially unlimited financial resources, hired the nation’s greatest medieval French stained glass expert (Charles Connick, creator of most of the windows in New York’s Cathedral of St John the Divine) to design four new windows for the oratory. Using centuries-old craftsman techniques, the stained glass (seen a couple pictures above) was carefully set into the original stone mullions and traceries.

Gavin adorned the altar-less chapel with an impressive 13th-century Gothic altar. Some other additions to the chapel include a stunningly detailed 14th-century tiny sculpture, 18th-century French vestments (Catholic liturgical garments), old tapestries in near-perfect condition, centuries-old benches constructed with no nails (that are used regularly and continue to look like new), and a life-size statue of Joan of Arc.

The detail is exquisite on this tiny 14th-century Madonna and Child sculpture adorning a side wall of the original part of the chapel. The sculpture is barely larger than this preview image.

But the addition bearing the most legend is undoubtedly the “Joan of Arc Stone” that lies at the base of a wall niche, clearly visible behind the altar. Backed by an official French endorsement of authenticity, Joan of Arc is believed to have prayed upon and kissed this stone before going into battle. Tour guides love to point out that the Joan of Arc Stone is always colder to the touch than the surrounding stones.

The base of this wall niche is the stone which Joan of Arc is said to have kissed before going into battle. And yes, the stone itself is much colder than all the surrounding stones.

After Gertrude and Michael Gavin died in 1961, the entire estate, including the French chateau and the St Joan of Arc Chapel to which it was now attached, was sold to Marc and Lillian Rojtman. Just days before the Rojtmans were to move in, a fire destroyed the entire property—except the chapel, which entirely escaped damage (miraculously, as the saying goes).

Good perspective showing the original part of the chapel. Behind the Joan of Arc statue is the original exterior edge of the chapel. The original doors are still in use and are part of the chapel’s extension.

Seeking a new home for the chapel, the Rojtmans wrote to a former president of Marquette University and offered it as a gift to the school, adding that this gift meant more to them then any of their financial gifts to Marquette.

Marquette accepted the gift, and a careful, nearly year-long process of deconstructing, moving and rebuilding the chapel began. The school also added a longer nave, radiant floor heating and electricity, so that regular services could comfortably be held.

It’s nearly impossible to appreciate the detail that went into each priest’s vestment without seeing them in person. This violet brocade is a “chasuble” sewn over 300 years ago. The parts that are well worn are where the priest leaned against the altar.
The stitching is so tight that in some garments, animal patterns were discretely woven in and can only be viewed, albeit very subtly, from certain angles.

In 1966, St Joan of Arc Chapel was officially unveiled at the center of campus, and it is used for services and free public tours every day of the year, outside of campus holidays. In addition to serving as a community resource for candlelit vigils, political protests and more. The 10 p.m. services Monday through Thursday are impressively well attended.

One of several beautiful ancient tapestries that hang from the walls and ceiling. Though the wooden ceiling is an addition, the beautiful detail is done to match centuries-old French chapels.

The chapel is the heart of the Jesuit community of Marquette, but it also hosts quite a few interfaith services (Jewish, Islamic and Christian) throughout the year. I hope that more people in Milwaukee and far beyond learn about what a special, welcoming place St Joan of Arc Chapel is.

Additional pictures, including Marquette’s classic spires

Below are more pictures of the chapel, as well as of Marquette University’s French Gothic Revival-inspired architecture. Marquette University is named after “Père Marquette” (Father Jacques Marquette). Marquette and fellow Frenchman Louis Joliet were the first Europeans to visit what is now Milwaukee. They were also the first people to map the northern sections of the Mississippi River. 

This red velvet “Dalmatic” was embroidered 400 years ago.
This furniture, which was put together 200 years ago using no nails, holds up amazingly despite tours, twice-daily masses and hundreds of events over the years.
This is the original door and entrance to the chapel. Whether or not this preview image is sideways, the full-sized version should be rendered correctly.
Marquette University’s campus has numerous impressive Gothic spires.
The main library on campus resembles the century-old Gothic-church-inspired Marquette Hall
French Gothic Revival-style Gesu Church, on the left, was built in 1894 and is on the National Historic Register. Gothic-inspired Marquette Hall was completed 30 years later.
Marquette’s church-spire-dominated skyline
Again, if the preview is sideways, click to see the full-sized version. This is Calvary Presbyterian Church, known locally (and understandably) as “The Big Red Church.” It marks the eastern gateway to the campus.

Probably few people outside the Marquette are community are aware of its indoor inlaid prayer labyrinth, whose 11-circuit, rosette-centered design was inspired by a nearly 1000-year-old labyrinth inside the Cathedral of Chartres in France.

Father Marquette, standing in front of the out-of-view St Joan of Arc Chapel, is wrapped in the colors of his namesake campus. Created by Ronald Knepper, the sculpture was a 2005 gift by alumnus John Madden—-not the famous football coach whose name he shares. But interestingly, Marquette’s John Madden, who later served on the Board of Trustees, received a football scholarship to Marquette. He was also born around the same time as the NFL Hall of Fame coach.