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A Wedding at Old St. Mary’s

A lovely bride, a restored church.

By 1.2.14

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Milwaukee may be the best city in America in which to celebrate Christmas. The Germans and Scandinavians know how to make the wintertime warm and inviting indoors and out. Milwaukee has snow, model trains, great food and drink, and Lake Michigan. But a wedding is what took us deep into Packer territory this season.

A beautiful bride married a handsome groom in a lovely church, Old St. Mary’s downtown. Its cornerstone was set in 1846, the year the parish was founded by German immigrants with the help of Bavarian mission societies. The City of Milwaukee was founded that very year. So the Church, the City, and the parish grew up together.

Honestly, the interior of Old St. Mary’s is stunning. It probably looks better than when it was first built. I quote from the wedding program:

Among the artistic treasures of Old Saint Mary is the painting depicting the Annunciation above the High Altar, a personal gift of King Ludwig I of Bavaria.”

The beautifully detailed altar, with the massive painting framed above and enclosed by it, must be nearly two stories tall. “The wooden hand carved High Altar, an irreplaceable work of art, was purchased in 1848.” And there is more to this construction of Creamy City brick, a common material used in the region.

“Three Bronze Church Bells named, Mary, Mary Ann, and Magdalene, were cast in Munich and added in 1868,” states the wedding program. “The clock in the tower was installed in 1860… .The church organ, installed in 1871, was destroyed in 1893 by fire, the new organ with the present hand carved organ case was installed in 1894.”

The many, elongated stained glass windows have been magnificently restored, and the statuary is plentiful and in beautiful condition.

But what makes this sacred space so fine, so wonderful — not just for a family wedding but for worship generally — is its human scale. This is not a massive gothic or Romanesque structure. Those structures, by design, give you a sense of the Divine’s grandeur, power, and majesty. This structure, created by Victor Schulte, a Prussian immigrant, invites intimacy and conversation with God.

The term “Greek-Ionic” is used to describe its style. No architectural historian, it brought to my mind one of Christopher Wren’s fine, diminutive creations.

The skylines of America’s oldest cities are dotted with spires and steeples of so many churches visible from the interstate highways that keep us apart from these great works of architecture. Many denominations and ethnic groups built their own houses of worship from the accumulated gifts of immigrants, most of them much less wealthy than the Germans — Poles, Irish, Italians, Croatians, and the like. Contemplating the wretched church architecture, say, in northern Virginia, one of the wealthiest parts of the country, with the immigrant churches of Chicago, St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or Milwaukee, I fail to see “progress” at least in terms of architecture and the relative value people place on places of worship.

But it was a lovely wedding to be sure. The institution of marriage is in desperate need of a revival, and this couple did their part. Of course, these young lovers were not engaged in social policy, but in living their lives in heartfelt love for each other. But this website is dedicated to policy matters, and there is no better person to cite on the importance of marriage than the great British philosopher, Roger Scruton.

“No honest anthropologist can fail to acknowledge the functional importance of marriage,” wrote Scruton in a collection of essays compiled by Robert P. George and the late Jean Bethke Elshtain. “In all observed societies some form of marriage exists, as the means whereby the work of one generation is dedicated to the well-being of the next.”

Dr. Scruton continues: “The ceremony is not the concern of the couple only, but of the entire community that includes them. For this is the way that children are made — made, that is, as new members of society, who will, in turn, take on the task of social reproduction. Society has a profound interest in marriage, and changes to that institution may alter not merely relations among the living, but also the expectations of those unborn and the legacy of those who predecease them.”

It was, indeed, a beautiful wedding. And the Packers beat the Bears. Heaven on earth? It is to be found in Milwaukee, New Year’s 2014.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.