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Oldest Polish church in America nearing completion of restoration work

St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, dedicated to the Polish martyr and saint Stanislaus of Szczepanów, is the oldest Polish church in America.

Although Poles had been trickling into the south side of Milwaukee for several years, it was not until 1866 that they were numerous enough to organize a Roman Catholic parish. Thirty families bought a small brick church, formerly owned by Lutherans, and dedicated it to St. Stanislaus. They had come to the city to escape religious perception in Poland, and made many sacrifices to establish their own place of worship.

Like many historic churches, Saint Stanislaus suffered from the misguided trend of the 1960s to transform its classic architecture into a modern style. Ironically, recent church restoration projects in Milwaukee over the past few years have sought to undo those changes.

In the case of Saint Stanislaus, many of its beautiful features were obliterated during its remodeling in 1966 as the parish prepared for its 100th year anniversary and changes in the liturgy. The beautiful altar rail was removed and the sanctuary became radically altered.

Stained glass was also “busted out” and replaced. The original 1800s-era windows were lost for decades, until 2012. With the passing of Joyce Mistele, who had brought pieces home in an unsuccessful effort to restore, the artifacts were rediscovered. After an evaluation by a stained glass expert, it was determined that the materials could not be rescued. But because no photos existed of the original stained glass windows, the relics were used to pattern replacement designs during the massive restoration of Saint Stanislaus.

While major parts of the preservation efforts were completed in 2016, when the parish celebrated 150 years, one major aspect of the Church’s interior that had yet to receive attention, a very hard place to reach.

Artisans from Conrad Schmitt Studios began work in April on restoring the elaborate ceilings, with its numerous art deco depictions of Biblical figures and angels. The world renowned firm was founded in Milwaukee in 1889 by Conrad Schmitt, the son of Bavarian immigrants, and its interior restoration projects of area churches include the Basilica of Holy Hill and the Basilica of St. Josaphat.

The next phase of the project will involve a new rose window, to be installed at the church entrance above the organ pipes.

When the Milwaukee Independent visited St. Stanislaus in early June, the rear half of the Sanctuary was filled with scaffolding. The companion Photo Essay details the progress and condition of the Sanctuary at that point.

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