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140-year-old chapel headed for wrecking ball

By Paul Srubas
USA Today Network-Wisconsin

ALLOUEZ (AP) — Crumbling and collapsing from foundation to steeple, the little red brick chapel in the Allouez Cemetery is looking old for its age.

And its age is considerable.

At 140 years old, it shares a birthday with the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay’s flagship structure, St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, but it’s received little of the same TLC over the decades, USA Today Network-Wisconsin reported.

This is one of the oldest cemeteries in the state, and the little red chapel presides over some of the oldest gravestones on the grounds. Most of the graves lying within the chapel’s shadow have been there for more than 100 years. Some of the nearby stones are no longer legible. There’s an angel standing nearby who long ago lost one of her wings.

The chapel has not been in formal use since the 1970s. The padlock on the front door is the only thing that doesn’t look decades old. Even the boards over its windows need paint, and a bunch of paving stones are holding down the warped boards that cover a cellar entrance. The chapel’s foundation is crumbling; it looks like the entire structure could come down by the removal of one or two loose stones in any corner.

And so, the diocese is making plans to tear the chapel down.

“We have no plans to save it,” said diocesan spokeswoman Justine Lodl. “It’s a safety issue. We’re probably looking at later this summer.”

The state of Wisconsin wasn’t even 30 years old when the chapel was built.

“We don’t know a lot about it,” Lodl said. “It was built in 1876. From what I can see, Bishop Krautbauer had something to do with it.”

That’s Bishop Francis Xavier Krautbauer, the second bishop the diocese had, the one whose remains are interred at the Green Bay cathedral that bears his name.

Krautbauer directed the construction of a chapel at the Allouez Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery established in a farmer’s field, in 1822. Construction of the chapel began the same year as construction of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, although work continued for another decade before the cathedral was completed.

The chapel, roughly 18 feet by 24 feet, served as a receiving vault, a place to store human remains in the cold winter months when the ground was too hard to dig graves. In fact, the remains of Krautbauer’s predecessor, Bishop Joseph Melcher, Green Bay’s first Catholic bishop, were kept for a short time in the chapel’s basement. Melcher’s remains eventually made their way to a different old structure on the cemetery grounds, a mausoleum built in 1915 especially for Bishop Joseph J. Fox.

The chapel never served as an actual church, Lodl said.

“It was a chapel, a place to pray, not a church, not consecrated in any way,” she said.

Still, it’s an interesting old building, and it’d be a pity to lose it, said Chris Dunbar, executive director of the Brown County Historical Society.

“It’s not really a pile of rubble at this point,” she said. “It can still be preserved. It’s unique. It shows the history of the Catholic Diocese.

“I received a call several weeks ago from the cemetery saying this building is slated to come down because of the danger of bricks falling, causing safety issues,” she said. “They know we have a preservation watch list, and it’s on our watch list, so it was a very nice thing for them to let us know.”

But it’s too soon to tell if there’s anything the historical society can do about it.

Talks with the diocese are still preliminary. The diocese hopes to have some kind of commitment by June 1, but Dunbar has no idea what the interest is among preservation-minded donors.

“We have an architect on our board, and I did get a tentative report from him, with an estimate of the cost at about $200,000,” she said. “There’s extensive damage. It would include masonry restoration, it needs a new roof, roofing trim, foundation repair, flooring, plastering, things to stabilize the building. The stained glass windows need to be replaced, the painting is bad. The interior things could maybe be done another time.”

Dunbar hasn’t had time to share her findings with the diocese or cemetery board, nor even with her own board, much less with potential donors. She has no idea how hard that June 1 deadline is.

While she would love to see the building saved, she understands why the diocese might not be interested.

“Not all old buildings can be preserved,” she said. “There’s not the money for that. A lot of times, it’s cheaper to restore than to build a new one, and it keeps a sense of place and history, but there are times when that’s not feasible. Finding that balance is what historic preservation is all about. Do the benefits outweigh the costs?”

She also recognizes the building is dangerous in its present form.

“Bricks are falling off the building,” she said. “They’re afraid of somebody getting hurt.”

Preservation enthusiasts and the diocese went toe to toe six years ago when the diocese ended razed the nearly 100-year-old chancery in Allouez, despite community pleas to save it. Dunbar doesn’t want to see anything like that rancor develop over the chapel. But she also hopes nobody makes any hasty decisions about the chapel’s future.

“It’s a beautiful building, and when it’s gone, it’s gone,” she said. “When you walk up to it, it’s beautiful, peaceful. Buildings like this give a sense of place and history, and when they’re gone, we can never get them back.

“It’s an amazing building, and it would be wonderful if we could get some people behind it to do some fundraising.”

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