The St. Joan of Arc Chapel in Milwaukee is a fifteenth-century Catholic church brought from France to the United States in 1926. Tradition says that St. Joan of Arc (1412-31) prayed in the small Gothic-style oratory before starting the crusade against the English.
The French government was strapped for funds during the 1920s and sold a number of its old buildings to U.S. citizens and entities. I’m sure the citizens of France regret those transactions now, but their loss is Milwaukee’s gain.
The St. Joan of Arc Chapel stands in the center of the Marquette University campus, a serene retreat that holds a few pews, a stone altar, and a small niche sheltering a stone that St. Joan is said to have once kissed. This is the very spot, according to tradition, where the young woman prayed to the Virgin Mary before going off to war.
In France, the medieval chapel was located in a village near Lyon in the Rhone River valley. After the French Revolution it fell into decay, despite its association with the beloved saint. It was rescued in the 1920s by Jacques Couelle, an archeologist and architect who was one of France’s leading restorers of ancient buildings.
In 1926, the chapel drew the attention of Gertrude Hill Gavin, daughter of the wealthy railroad baron James J. Hill. She purchased the chapel and had it moved stone by stone to her Long Island estate the following year. (Shortly thereafter, the French government stopped the sale of historical monuments to foreign buyers. )
After the chapel was rebuilt, one of America’s leading stained glass artists designed four new windows for the oratory, setting them into the original stone mullions and traceries.
The chapel was donated to Marquette University in 1964, given by the Rojtman family who had purchased Gavin’s estate two years before. Once again the little church was dismantled and moved, and today the peripatetic church stands as a quiet oasis in the middle of a bustling campus, its travels at an end.
During my tour there, the keeper of the chapel said that today the chapel hosts many interfaith religious services throughout the year—Jewish and Islamic as well as Christian. In these days when religious strife rages in so many places, it’s good to see a place where such conflicts have faded and all that is left is a peaceful little chapel, bordered by blooming flowers and filled with people in prayer.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.