Friday, April 10
St. Monica's, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin
A blessed Good Friday to our readers. I hope amid the hurlyburly of postmodern life, you all will find a few moments or hours of silence to remember the Lord's Passion and Death. For the first time in years, I find myself with very little to do today, as my new job doesn't start for another week. Before there was always work, or schoolwork, or prepping to serve the liturgical services of the day. Perhaps the quiet time will do me good, though I'm still so worn out from the move-in that it will probably be more rest than reflection.
Yesterday afternoon, I was running a few last errands around my new hometown, Milwaukee, when I ran across St. Monica's, a very fine little parish campus and school down in Whitefish Bay, a little town of quiet, treelined grid-streets and clapboard, just north of Milwaukee proper. Peculiarly, it all stands in the shadow of the giantic, pseudo-new-urbanist Bayshore Town Center mall complex, a rambling, faintly plasticine mass of streets, offices, apartments, greens, and indoor and outdoor shopping. It's an interesting and slightly odd place, and in some ways, while designed in a species of amateurish 'mall classicism,' it sort of works given it appears a few kids were actually playing on the greens and people walking up and down the shops. Presumably the apartments keep things reasonably active on the off-hours. The thing is far too tall, of course, but it's an interesting if rather corporate-looking exercise in civic planning. More on that later.
St. Monica's is a rather handsome stretch of buildings, long and low, with a gigantic Liturgical Movement moderne Lombard Romanesque church finishing off the southern end of the complex. I don't know much about the history of the place, but it has the look of a middling-to-better church of the mid-forties or early fifties, with light-ish brick, limestone trim, and several rather charming bits of architectural sculpture here and there. It is certainly not the best of the period, but it has a certain charm that shows how widely diffused craft talent was, even then; while stripped down for the sake of budget or taste, there are still moments of quiet exceptionality. I will not comment, though, on the unfortunate intermittent use of glass block for some of the windows in the school wing.
The interior shows a good deal less imagination than the exterior, which adds touches of picturesque irregularity to the rectilinear massing so common to the period, but it is still not without its finer points. The span of the nave is broad and a little low, in keeping with its parent style. It is in general rather on the bare side, with minimal classical detailing, but what there is, is rather good. The altar rail has inlays of richly-colored marble, and even the somewhat dated side altars are not unappealing in a nostalgic sort of way. There is a surprising wealth of transepts, side-chapels, and little forgotten mosaics here and there, despite the overall ordered spareness of the interior, and while I know nothing of the liturgy of the parish, one is amazed by the spacious potential for solemn liturgy that could be had if it was desired. Admitted, this is not a world-class masterwork but it shows the residual talent that was still in the architectural trade well into the last century, and certainly merits further study. It is to Goodhue and Maginnis what an anonymous 18th century Sicilian plasterer's work might have been to Borromini, an agreeable example of its period type, and not without its own quiet dignity.
I was also pleasantly surprised to notice two reliquaries--I forget who was in them--on the mensa of the St. Joseph altar, suggesting my beloved old world sort of Catholicism around here is even more present than one would have supposed; though, given the way St. Josaphat's looms in the haze over the South Side like something in Vienna or Prague, it is no surprise.
There is also an odd little 'gathering room' off the narthex--which is also enormous--dedicated to the memory of some Monsignor-or-other that has the look of a former side-chapel or sacristy. It is unremarkable, stuffed with pamphlets, but has a rather charming side-altar in the Deco-Jetsons-Beuronese fusion that was so common back then, and a number of inexpensive but rather interesting-looking statues; they suggest mass production and presumably were added at a later date, but this is surely the first time I have ever seen Eve shown this way in a church; though, as our First Parents were saints, and let out of their prison on Holy Saturday, I see no shame in it.
Incidentally, churchlady Lucy over at City of Steeples used to blog extensively about her churchcrawling tours of southern Wisconsin before her move; if you're interested in this sort of thing, be sure to browse through her archives. I hope to dabble in a bit of it myself when possible.
I have also discovered the interesting website, The Polish Churches of Milwaukee, which is a great resource for those interested in the opulent, quirky, eclectic local building type known as the 'Polish Cathedral.'