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In the center of the Marquette University campus, with its mix of modern and vintage educational buildings, beats a sacred heart born in medieval France.
Though it is by far the oldest structure in Milwaukee, the gothic St. Joan of Arc Chapel, which dates to the early 15th century, is more than a curiosity. It is the heart of this Catholic, Jesuit university community.
This intimate place of worship was begun around 1420 in the village of Chasse in the Rhone Valley, southeast of Lyon, where it served the community for centuries before falling into disrepair.
In the 1920s, architect and historian Jacques Couelle stumbled upon the chapel and made drawings of it, measured its dimensions, photographed it and numbered its stones. He wrote that it was “absolutely unique in its genre.”
When Gertrude Hill Gavin — daughter of an American railroad magnate and a devotee of St. Joan of Arc — learned of the chapel, she acquired it and had it dismantled and shipped to her property on Long Island, where, a few years earlier, she had erected a French Renaissance chateau also purchased in and shipped from France. Soon after, France enacted a law banning the export of such treasures.
Joan of Arc (1412–31) was a French heroine of the Hundred Years War. After her capture, she was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake at the age of 19. Posthumously retried and vindicated, Joan was canonized in 1920 and is patron saint of France.
Gavin was so enamored with St. Joan that she renamed the chapel, which had been called St. Martin de Seysseul for 500 years, in honor of the young French saint. In 1933, Pope Pius XI gave Gavin written permission — the letter hangs in the chapel’s nave — to have Mass said in the building.
Gavin also bought a 13th-century Gothic altar and “Joan of Arc Stone.” Backed by an official French endorsement of authenticity, the stone is believed to be one upon which Joan prayed for success before battle. The stone, reportedly kissed by the lips of the saint, was installed in the base of a wall niche behind the altar.
Committed to honoring the chapel’s style, Gavin hired Charles Connick, a Boston artist responsible for most of the windows in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine and an expert in medieval French-style stained glass, to create the windows for the chapel.
In 1962, Gavin sold the chateau and chapel to Marc Rojtman – who had been president of J.I. Case until 1960 – and his wife Lillian. Five days before they were due to move in, the house was ravaged by fire but the attached chapel miraculously escaped damage.
The Rojtmans sought a new home for the surviving chapel and wrote to former president Rev. Edward J. O’Donnell, S.J., offering it to Marquette, where they believed their gift would be appreciated for its historical and artistic value, functionality, and unique status it would confer upon the university. In his letter, Rojtman wrote, “I am sure you fully understand that this chapel means far more to me than any donation I have ever made and transcends by far any mere monetary value.”
Marquette accepted the gift, and workers spent nine months carefully taking apart the chapel and marking each of its stones before loading them onto a fleet of semis bound for Milwaukee.
Once arrived, the stones were reassembled and some changes were made to suit the site, such as a longer nave and modern conveniences like radiant floor heating and electricity.
By 1966, the chapel doors swung open.
Ever since, the chapel has been a magnet, especially in times of joy and sorrow. It has been the site of emotional candlelit vigils and of political protests. These days, it draws people of all backgrounds and faiths and hosts regular Masses that often test the capacity of the diminutive structure.
Despite the immeasurable changes that have occurred outside its walls during the past 600 years, St. Joan of Arc Chapel still serves the same purpose its builders intended in 1420: It beats as the heart of the Catholic, Jesuit community that surrounds it.