Wednesday, April 15, 2009

St. Monica's, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin

A blessed Easter Week our readers. I hope amid the hurlyburly of postmodern life, you will find a few quiet moments to recall the joy of Our Lord's Resurrection. Last week, just before the Triduum began, I was running a few last errands around my new hometown, Milwaukee, when I ran across St. Monica's, a very finely-designed 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.

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 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.

The interior is a bit more severe than the exterior, with its touches of picturesque irregularity to the rectilinear massing so common to the period, but the nave and sanctuary is still not without its finer points. I'm told the interior was completed somewhat later than the exterior, which makes sense. The span of the nave is broad and a little low, in keeping with its parent style. It is in general simple, 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.'

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