The St. Joan of Arc Chapel on the Marquette Campus is the city’s oldest building, predating European settlement of Milwaukee by more than three centuries. So how did it get here, and why it is a must see for those on a mystical tour of Milwaukee?
The storied chapel was likely built around 1420 in Chasse-sur-Rhône, France, to honor St. Martin de Seyssuel. Then known as Chapelle de St. Martin, the small gothic-style building hosted generations of the faithful. The church was the final resting place of the Chevalier de Sautereau, a French knight who died in battle in the 15th century, and many believe the Maid of Orléans herself, St. Joan of Arc, prayed inside the church in 1429 before she went into battle. Despite its historical significance, by the time of the French Revolution in the late 18th century, the church had fallen into disrepair and was largely abandoned by local parishioners.
The church’s modern history begins in 1926 when New York railroad scion Gertrude Hill Gavin purchased the medieval chapel and sent American architect John Russell Pope to France to supervise its deconstruction. Stone by stone, the storied church was dismantled and shipped to Gavin’s estate at Oyster Bay, Long Island. There, it was reconstructed next to a French Renaissance chateau that she had purchased during a previous French shopping spree.
The pious Gavin (1883-1961) was the daughter of Minnesota railroad magnate James J. Hill. The Gilded Age socialite, who attended finishing school in New York, married attorney Michael Gavin in 1906. A devout Catholic, Gavin was the first president of the National Council of Catholic Women, founded in 1920. Pope Pius XI honored her for her work in the organization in 1924. A devotee of St. Joan, she renamed that relocated church in her honor.
Gavin then solidified her church’s mystical reputation when she installed a stone relic attributed to St. Joan into her church. The relic, purchased in France, is believed to be a stone that Joan kneeled on in prayer, and then kissed, before going into battle. The stone is now part of the wall behind the altar and is said to be noticeably cooler than all of the stones around it. This phenomenon was noted after the relic was installed, and continues to be felt to this day.
After Gavin’s death, her estate was sold to tractor magnate Marc J. Rojtman in 1962. Five days before the family was to move into the Oyster Bay chateau, it burned down in a fire that raged for days. Miraculously, the nearby church was untouched by the inferno. Soon after the fire, Rojtman donated the church to Marquette University. In 1964. Using Pope’s plans created decades, the church was once again dismantled stone by stone and shipped to Milwaukee to be reconstructed.
Today, the St. Joan of Arc Chapel is a frequently visited location on the Marquette campus, tucked behind Memorial Library on Wisconsin Avenue. The faithful come to worship, and history lovers come to marvel at a structure built long before Europeans arrived in Milwaukee, but there are many others who make the pilgrimage to be closer to the church’s namesake and experience the mysteries of her stone.
Who Was Joan of Arc?
Ste. Jeanne d’Arc, as she is known in her native France was canonized as a Catholic saint in 1920. Joan was like any other pious farm girl in rural France until she started receiving divine messages when she turned 13 years old. Joan’s first message told her to follow God and he would help her. By the time she was 18, she reported receiving daily message from God, often urging her to lead the French army and aid Charles VII to seize the crown. Joan met with Charles VII and revealed the divine messages she was receiving. Convinced that she was being led by God, Charles VII sent the teenaged Joan, clad in white armor, to lead the French troops into battle.
With Joan’s help, France was victorious over the English in the Hundred Years’ War, and Charles VII ascended to the throne. Soon after, Joan fell into enemy hands, yet Charles VII did nothing to aid the girl, who was jailed, branded a heretic and ultimately burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, at age 19. Her enemies hoped that the execution of Joan would discredit her stories, but her martyrdom only made her more popular. Today, she is one of France’s most celebrated patron saints.