St. Joseph's Basilica; A monument to devotion, old-world artistry and Polish tradition.
Some time after the restoration of St. Joseph's Basilica in Webster, a mother and her daughter, visiting on Good Friday, stopped to kiss the feet of Christ on the life-size crucifix opposite the main entrance. The little girl looked up at the statue and said, "There, I hope you feel better now."
This is the anecdote Monsignor Anthony Czarnecki told while talking about the renovations of the basilica that took place in the 1990s.
St. Joseph's Basilica, the oldest of 75 Polish-American parishes in New England, is the "Mother Church of all New England Polish-Americans," according to the monsignor. The basilica's Renaissance-style architecture makes it seem as if it had been transported from the old country to Massachusetts.
The building's architecture is characteristic of basilicas in general: interior colonnades divide the space, creating aisles or arcaded spaces on the sides; an apse on one end; the central aisle wider, with a higher ceiling than the side aisles; and a raised dais or platform for clergy. The late Pope John Paul II elevated St. Joseph's to the status of "minor basilica" on Oct. 11, 1998. As such, it is an official "papal church," and is allowed to display papal emblems and insignias. There are fewer than 60 basilicas in the country.
A basilica must satisfy certain criteria, Monsignor Czarnecki said. It has to have antiquity and some kind of a story to tell; it must have "a presence," or an imposing structure and decor; it must have liturgical components, for example, a stone altar; and it must have significance to a particular group of people.
In the case of St. Joseph's, it is the Polish community. Polish immigrants arrived in Webster in the early 1860s. At first, they worshiped at St. Louis Church. However, because of language and cultural differences, they yearned for their own parish. When the number of Poles grew to 70 families, they petitioned the bishop of Springfield (there was no Worcester Diocese yet) to set up their own parish. The bishop agreed to loan money for construction, which began in 1887, when the cornerstone was laid. Parishioners worked on the project, and anyone failing to show up was fined 40 cents for each absence. The church opened in 1889.
A century later, however, an inspection showed the building was in dire need of repairs. The roof was leaking, paint was peeling, stained glass windowpanes were cracked or missing, and the heating and sound systems were outdated. Candle wax and dust had dirtied and partially hidden artwork. The steam heat had ruined some of the wainscotings, and everything was coated with dust.
Monsignor Czarnecki said restoration planning had to reflect the church's original architectural style and preserve its heritage.
Funding was a huge obstacle. At first, Monsignor Czarnecki was convinced he needed to show parishioners examples of what the renovations would look like, so he began having murals restored with several thousand dollars on hand. However, artists soon discovered the original pigments were damaged beyond repair. The project would require a lot more funding than originally thought.
At least a half-dozen parish organizations either contributed or raised money, and many individuals, families and others who have emotional ties to the parish donated large sums in memory of deceased loved ones. To save money, the monsignor coordinated and oversaw all construction and restorations.
Today, a visitor to the basilica is transported to an ambience of "old-world" artistic genius.
The new bronze doors were hand-carved in Poland with scenes from the "Mysteries of the Rosary." Opposite, a life-size crucifix was stripped of several layers of paint and repainted.
To the left of the main entrance is the Chapel of Our Lady of Czestochowa, with its icon of the "Black Madonna," patroness of Poland. The chapel was created where the former baptistery was, and is a showplace of white and reddish brown Italian marble. The ceiling murals depicting Biblical scenes and the lives of saints who contributed to Polish history and the church are done in Italian Renaissance style and are very similar to those in Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland. More elegant and beautiful arches border all of these ceiling paintings, in keeping with the general theme throughout the whole interior.
The original interior wooden columns were covered with brown Italian marble during the renovations. A painting adorns space above each column to give added symmetry to the whole.
The stained glass windows on the side aisles, with life-size figures, are done in "Munich" Renaissance style and were painstakingly repaired and cleaned.
The main altar and sanctuary were changed, according to Second Vatican Council decrees. A new altar "table" was made from one piece of black marble several inches thick.
If it had not been created by local artisans, the whole altar project alone would have cost approximately $150,000, the monsignor said. Because of the weight of the marble altar, the wooden floor had to be reinforced, and the sanctuary itself was enlarged. In back of and above the original altar is the apse, with the Eucharistic chapel. A painting of St. Joseph, patron of the basilica, is flanked by statues of the four evangelists with more arches adorned with gold leaf.
The pulpit is new, made of Carrara marble accented by marble columns. At the very top of the sanctuary arch is a mural depicting the Trinity flanked on both sides by choirs of angels.
Monsignor Czarnecki personally went to Italy to buy items for the sanctuary. Among these are the red velvet "president's chair" with gilt trim and the marble "credence" table where various items for the Eucharist are placed during the Mass. The chair is used for the presiding clergyman during the Mass, whether priest, monsignor or bishop or cardinal.
The overall effect of the renovations was to create symmetry and esthetic balance in keeping with the Renaissance style. Arches and arcs lead people's thoughts and hearts upward to heaven, according to earlier prevalent beliefs. And Monsignor Czarnecki believes, "The Biblical themes depicted in the artwork should elevate the spirit of the worshippers and inspire in them the spirit of prayer and meditation." He said many people from different places have come to worship in the basilica as well as to see the artistry.
The basilica is open to visitors every day, and visitors may have a guided tour led by a well-prepared docent, Monsignor Czarnecki said.
Today, as much as a third of Webster's population claims Polish ancestry. Polish history and culture thrive and revolve around the parish and its school, which is prekindergarten to Grade 8. The school provides an opportunity for children and adults to learn the Polish language and about Polish culture. The annual parish festival in June is a showcase for the culture and attracts Polish-Americans as well as non-Polish-Americans from surrounding communities.
As Monsignor Czarnecki said, the renovated basilica is "a true testament to the love, generosity, and emotional ties parishioners have for their parish." It is also a testimony to the far-reaching foresight of the monsignor. And he is proud to say that as of December,
the renovation/restoration debts have all been paid.
CUTLINE: (1) The interior of St. Joseph's Basilica, which is on Whitcomb Street in Webster. (2) The Biblical themes depicted in the artwork at the basilica inspire worshippers "in the spirit of prayer and meditation," says Monsignor Anthony Czarnecki, rector at the parish. (3) The exterior of St. Joseph's Basilica. (4) Stained glass and marble details are throughout the basilica. During the renovations, the stained glass was painstakingly repaired and cleaned. (5) A sculpture on one of the basilica's front doors.
PHOTOG: PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM RETTIG