Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Sir Thomas Browne
Church: Cathedral of St John the Evangelist
Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 September 2009, 11:00am

The building

The cathedral was begun 1847, the work of local architect Victor Schulte, noted bridge builder and designer of other Milwaukee churches. It is in the German Zopstil style, reminiscent of Federalist with echoes of Christopher Wren, and features the unique cream-colored brick produced locally. The original tower was replaced in 1893, and the interior and its contents were restored after a fire in 1935. The current structure, however, reflects a major renovation supervised by Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who served from 1977 to 2002. The archbishop, an outspoken liberal, insisted on conforming the cathedral to his vision of post-Vatican II aesthetic norms, despite pressure both locally and from the Holy See to retain the cathedral's architectural coherence. In many ways the cathedral is still a beautiful structure, complete with ornate columns, windows, and devotional chapels. There is a wonderful baptismal font near the entrance whose steps into the ground recall ancient models. But a grand marble baldacchino over the high altar was destroyed in 2001 and the old altar was moved to the middle of the nave, slightly elevated, but well below the choir area. Organ pipes now occupy the space where the altar once stood. The celebrants chair is to the left (north) of the altar, against a column. Seating surrounds the altar, which is a little awkward given that the building has no real transepts. The most dominant image, however, is neither the altar nor its organ replacement, but a modern fiberglass sculpture suspended in the air above the open sanctuary. The sculpture depicts a large crown of thorns above a crucifix and has sparked much controversy, with many regarding it as a monstrosity. I confess that to me this Christ looked more like an alien from outer space than a suffering human – a weird cubist specter floating above the unsuspecting populace with a misshapen metal spaceship hovering overhead.

The church

As stated on their website, the cathedral as a parish church strives to be a center of prayer, charitable works, Christian formation and community life, as well as a supporter of the arts. There is an extensive outreach to the local homeless. They retain a parish nurse on staff, who serves as a health educator, personal health counselor, and referral agent for those who need medical services.

The neighborhood

The cathedral is almost as old as Milwaukee itself, which was incorporated in 1846. It is part of a downtown neighborhood known as East Town and is surrounded mostly by office buildings. Right across from the west door of the church is a small city park used for music festivals and the like.

The cast

The Very Revd Carl A. Last, rector of the cathedral.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

It was pretty full, probably a couple hundred people. When I got there I sat toward the back, thinking I might have a whole row to myself, but by the time the service started I was mostly surrounded.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Someone handed me a service leaflet at the door, and the folks sitting around me shook my hand both at the peace and at the "greet your neighbor" bit at the beginning.

Was your pew comfortable?

Chair, not pew, and yes, it was comfortable. The only awkward part about the moving chairs is that they dont always match up very well with the kneelers in the other row.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was pretty quiet and contemplative, with a bit of background noise. It is, remember, a very large and open acoustic space, so its never exactly silent, but nor is any sound so clear as to be distracting. The organist played a very nice prelude at the beginning, which would have been a nice beginning had not the lay leader interrupted us with unnecessary introductions.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning and welcome to the cathedral. The celebrant this morning is Father Carl Last, the cathedral rector. We extend a warm welcome to our visitors and guests. Please greet those around you. (Everybody gives a quick, friendly handshake.) Our opening hymn is number 808."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A service leaflet full of liturgical music from the 1970s and 80s, and a hymnal called Ritual Song put out by GIA Publications, Inc., of Chicago – also known as the American Catholic liturgical mafia. Whatever I might think of those, I will say that I was pleased to see a fairly complete order of service in the leaflet, which is in my experience pretty unusual in Catholic parishes. One result of this, I think, is that people did a pretty good job of attempting to sing along during the liturgy.

What musical instruments were played?

Mostly pipe organ, with a little quiet piano music at the first part of communion.

Did anything distract you?

Aside from the uncanny extraterrestrial Jesus, I found it disconcerting that the priest so readily inserted his own commentary and prayer in the middle of the liturgy. This happened at the beginning of the service before the collect, during the eucharistic prayer, and afterwards (perhaps more). While I am sure that his improvisations were done with the best of intentions – authenticity and all that – they effectively sent two messages: (1) the Churchs liturgy is boring on its own so I need to supplement it; and (2) the liturgy is the creative work of the priest rather than the common work of the whole Church. The joy of Catholic liturgy is that, even given widely divergent cultures and styles (and clearly I disliked the style of this church), one should be able to enter any church and find the same liturgy. The supposedly creative insertions of Father Last, even if they intended to be helpful, destroyed that unity and made the mass into a condescending, personality-driven variety show.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It felt sort of like high church Methodism: we sort of want to do this Catholic thing, but not really. (And I should know: I went to a Methodist seminary.)

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – Unfortunately I missed the first half of the sermon due to a crying baby (which I really didnt mind) combined with a very live acoustic atmosphere. What I heard sounded pretty good; I just had a hard time understanding it because of the acoustics.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

I think the main point was that we may think we know Jesus, but in fact we can only strive toward a knowledge of him. And this knowledge comes at a great price: we have to reject the ways of the world and take up the cross of Jesus.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The time immediately before the service during the organ prelude: a big group of people from all walks of life gathered together in worship.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

That initial liturgical whiplash after the prelude. And you'd think that would have prepared me for further interruptions, but apparently I'm just a slow learner.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

To be fair, there was some kind of additional blessing and picnic going on after mass in the garden, so instead of ending properly everyone walked outside to the garden. I stayed in the church for a few minutes to snap a photo, and I did wander outside to the garden, but I couldnt stay for lunch, and anyway no one seemed to notice that I was a guest. I dont blame them for that – its a big church thats no doubt used to wanderers.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There wasnt one, to my knowledge, but there appeared to be a barbecue.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

3 – Im sure the people are nice, but I just couldnt handle the architectural/liturgical devastation on a weekly basis.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

It sure didnt make me want to be a Roman Catholic. (And believe me, Im an easy sell!)

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The giant ET Jesus.

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