4. St. Stanislaus Catholic, 1872

1681 South 5th Street (at Mitchell Street)
Architect: Leonard Schmidtner

St. Stanislaus Catholic
Holy Trinity Catholic
This historic photograph shows the façade and towers as originally constructed. (Image courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.)

The two gold-domed towers of St. Stanislaus rise nearly 170 feet from the sidewalk to the tops of the crosses, making the church one of the most distinctive visual landmarks on Milwaukee’s South Side. The church anchors the east end of the Mitchell Street commercial corridor, historically one of the South Side’s main shopping streets and the center of the city’s Polish immigrant community. The design is evocative of the numerous twin-towered Renaissance and Baroque churches of Poland, Germany, and other Central European nations.

St. Stanislaus is the mother church of Milwaukee’s Polish immigrants. Founded in 1866, it was the third Polish Catholic parish in the United States, following two others in the rural communities of Panna Maria in Texas and Polonia in Northern Wisconsin. In 1868, St. Stanislaus Parish established the first Polish-language parochial school in the United States. The parish initially acquired an older church from a Lutheran congregation, located about seven blocks north of the present church. This building quickly proved too small for the rapidly expanding Polish community on the city’s South Side. The parish therefore began construction of the present church in 1872, with dedication ceremonies in October of the following year. One hundred years after its founding, St. Stanislaus still offered a weekly Mass in Polish, along with four in English.

The building’s architect, Leonard Schmidtner, was born about 1825 in or near Warsaw. Educated at universities in Warsaw and Munich, he immigrated to the United States as a young man in 1848, settling in Milwaukee in the early 1850s. Although biographical information on the city’s early architects is scarce, Schmidtner was probably one of very few Milwaukee architects at that early date to have received architectural training at European universities. After a brief partnership with George Mygatt, Schmidtner established his own office and became one of the city’s most prominent architects during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Among his notable commissions was the second Milwaukee County Courthouse, built in 1872 in what is now Cathedral Square at Jackson and Wells Streets, but demolished in the 1930s following completion of the present courthouse. Schmidtner died in Milwaukee in 1875, just a few years after completion of the courthouse and St. Stanislaus Church. The church is now Schmidtner’s most distinguished extant building.

St. Stanislaus Catholic
Holy Trinity Catholic

As originally constructed, the church had three tall and narrow windows on the façade above the central entrance. Alterations designed by Erhard Brielmaier and Sons about 1905 replaced these with the present circular window, which is 15 feet in diameter. A much more elaborate entrance was added to the 5th Street façade at this time, with a covered porch in the central portion between the two towers. In addition, the brick pilasters along the side walls were enlarged to form more prominent buttresses, with the buttress caps bearing statues of the twelve apostles.

St. Stanislaus Catholic
Holy Trinity Catholic
Installed on the south exterior wall of the church in 1967, this mosaic is more than 13 feet in height. It commemorates the 100th anniversary of the parish and 1,000 years of Christianity in Poland.

The tower domes were not surfaced in gold leaf until the early 1960s, as part of a major renovation carried out in preparation for the centennial of the parish. The church commissioned the Milwaukee architectural firm of Mark F. Pfaller Associates to plan and supervise all aspects of this renovation. Work on the towers included removal of the prominent cornices, replacing the clock faces and clockworks, and complete reconstruction of the domes. Everything above the uppermost course of brick was removed and replaced with new gold crowns that included the main dome, a lantern topped in turn by a smaller dome, and a cross more than eight feet in height. These new dome assemblies were built on the ground and clad in welded aluminum sheeting covered in gold leaf. When completed in September of 1962, a crane lifted each assembly into place atop the towers. The two prefabricated dome assemblies each weigh 3,700 pounds and are more than 41 feet in height. They are a bit taller than the copper-clad domes they replaced, increasing the total height of the towers by about two feet.

Conrad Schmitt Studios of suburban New Berlin replaced all of the original stained glass as part of the centennial renovation of the early 1960s. Founded in Milwaukee in 1889, the firm specializes in architectural arts and restoration. The replacement windows are dalle de verre, a technique that was relatively new in the United States at the time. Instead of thin sheet glass held in place by leading, the new windows have slab glass, approximately one inch thick, set in an epoxy compound. The new windows at St. Stanislaus were probably the first use of this technique in Milwaukee. A few Milwaukee churches built in the later 1960s and 1970s have windows of slab glass, including St. Matthias Catholic and St. Stephen Martyr Catholic (now Greater Faith Temple Apostolic Church).

100 Years: St. Stanislaus Centenary, 1866-1966. St. Stanislaus Church, 1968.

Brielmaier, Erhard and Sons, architects. Blueprints of drawings for renovations to St. Stanislaus Church, undated. Wisconsin Architectural Archive, Milwaukee Central Library, drawing set 31-344.

Budziszewski, Joanne S. St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Church: 125th Anniversary, 1866-1991. St. Stanislaus Church, 1991.

“Death of Mr. Schmidtner,” Milwaukee Sentinel, July 31, 1875, page 8, column 3.

Guth, Alexander C. “Early Day Architects in Milwaukee,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, September 1926, pages 17-28.

Johnston, James M. “Golden Sacrifices Tell Saga of St. Stanislaus,” Milwaukee Sentinel, May 20, 1978, part 1, page 9, column 1.

Pfaller, Mark F. Associates, architects. Drawings for renovations to St. Stanislaus Church, dated May and June, 1962. Wisconsin Architectural Archive, Milwaukee Central Library, drawing set 110-57.