They’re known as the Chapels of St. Rose, and for travelers to La Crosse, Wisconsin—especially Catholics—a must-see sight. Of deep spiritual significance, artistic beauty and historical importance, these architectural masterpieces attract visitors to St. Rose Convent on the campus of Viterbo University, a Franciscan Catholic school with 2,200 students.
The red-brick church containing two ornately decorated chapels—Mary of the Angels Chapel and Perpetual Adoration Chapel—was consecrated in 1906, but the story of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration starts decades earlier.
The ministry began in the early 19th century, when a group of Bavarian immigrants (two priests and 12 men and women) arrived in Milwaukee. The six women in the group had a dream of establishing a religious community that would teach German immigrants. In 1849 they founded the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a congregation that today numbers more than 350 women across the country and around the world. In the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, they set out to care for orphans and minister to the sick as well as teach the children of immigrants. The congregation relocated to Jefferson, Wis. and then La Crosse in 1871.
The chapels in La Crosse represent the fulfillment of a promise made in 1865 by one of the leaders, Mother Antonia Herb. She placed a single lard light on the altar and promised that if God would bless the community, the sisters would establish perpetual adoration and build a chapel as beautiful as means would allow. Since 11 a.m., Aug. 1, 1878, at least two people have kept a vigil around the clock, praying for the congregation, the city of La Crosse, the church and the world—24 hours a day.
St. Rose Convent was built in 1870, the two chapels between 1902 and 1906. Tours of St. Rose, which begin with a 12-minute video, include a brief visit inside the Perpetual Adoration Chapel, the smaller of the two chapels, where sisters and lay people pray before the altar of the Blessed Sacrament, day and night. As the clock chimes the end of another hour, they end their prayers with the same words: “O sacrament most holy, O sacrament divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine. Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, furnace of divine love, grant peace to the world.”
Perpetual Adoration Chapel, also known as Sacred Heart Chapel, occupies the apse, directly behind the main altar of Mary of Angels Chapel, a vast, vaulted space. A unique feature is the rotating platform that holds the monstrance. When the platform is turned to Mary of the Angels chapel, the entire community present can participate in adoration. Both chapels are Romanesque in design and feature more than 100 windows of Bavarian stained glass.
One of the most impressive features of Mary of the Angels is its plaster-and-concrete columns and arches painted to resemble Norwegian marble. The Italian-marble altar is inlaid with mosaics, Venetian glass and mother of pearl. The large painting above the main altar, one of many priceless works in the chapels, depicts St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order. Under the great central dome are 10 bronzed statues of apostles and prophets.
A Greek cross and a sculpted rose adorn each of the hand-carved red oak pews. There are three large rose windows, and roses are found on the altars, columns, stations of the cross, windows and domes. More than 160 angels are depicted throughout the chapel.
In the Adoration chapel, the symbols are fewer and simpler than those in the larger chapel. The gold bronzes are lighter and richer, the mosaics more exquisite,.
The chapels of St. Rose are true works of art expressing the mystery and beauty of the Christian faith.
By Randy Mink