Church architecture: studies of love, promise

This month ends with the promise of spring and new beginnings, as Easter celebrations fill restaurants as well as churches.

You don’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate the sense of community, commitment and comfort that a place of worship represents. To me, the denomination doesn’t matter.

Quick visits to churches that I do not know are a typical part of many trips that I take. Some of these buildings are architectural wonders. Others are profound because of their simplicity.

I prefer to view the most ornate not as symbols of power and authority, but as examples of sacrifice and hope. Elaborate stained glass, rich woodwork and powerful pipe organs are reminders of spiritual investments as well as material.

It is all very humbling.

In Madison, we lost a beauty this month. The city’s oldest Catholic church, St. Raphael’s downtown, was destroyed by fire and charges of arson have been filed.

So a congregation of 350 has been displaced for months, and their spiritual home since 1862 will never be the same. It has prompted me to think about some of the other sacred places that I’ve been, from Buddhist temples in Japan to Benedictine monasteries on the West Coast.

What’s good to visit in Wisconsin? Here are personal favorites.

Least known: All Saints Chapel, Elkhart Lake (Sheboygan County), looks like it belongs in the country. It is tiny, with a generous use of fieldstone both inside and out. Foliage almost obscures the roadside view in this farming area. Summer Sunday services have been held here since 1951.

Although Episcopalian, it also is rented by other denominations. All Saints is on County P, west of the village, and tended by volunteers. Grace Walsingham Episcopal Church, Sheboygan, oversees usage. www.grace-walsingham.com, (920) 452-9659.

Best known: Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary, Hubertus (Washington County), can be seen for miles. After reaching the hilltop, 1,350 feet above sea level, it is 178 steps to the observation tower’s top. This national and Catholic landmark is within 400 acres of woodland; an Ice Age Trail hiking path crosses into it. People picnic here; others consider it a serious pilgrimage. It has been almost 142 years since the first sermon was preached.

Three years of renovations were completed this month, which means the upper church has reopened. There are at least two masses daily – plus fantastic pies and breads for sale in the café’s bake shop. Holy Hill is on Hwy. 167, about 30 miles north of Milwaukee. www.holyhill.com, (262) 628-1838.

Ethnic influence: The Stavkirke on Washington Island (Door County) is a Norwegian stave design that employed shipbuilding techniques in its construction. What does this mean? “The wooden structure breathes and lives like a Viking ship,” according to church materials.

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is across the road from the stave church, maintains the building and grounds. The stave is in a wooded area, off Town Line Road, and 7 p.m. Wednesday services are in July and August. www.washingtonisland.com, (920) 847-2341.

Great history:
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was buried next to Unity Chapel, Spring Green (Sauk County), until after his third wife died in 1985. Then his remains were moved to Arizona. Built in 1886, Unity is considered the first building that Wright designed (he did the interior, as an apprentice).

The country church is owned by Wright relatives (the Lloyd Jones family), who hold a major reunion there every five years. The next is this July.

Other groups, including my church in Madison, occasionally use the space. Our annual summer service at this simple place typically ends with lemonade, served in the yard. It is a peaceful and pretty setting, with rolling hills as a backdrop.

Taliesin East estate tours include a stop at the chapel. www.franklloydwright.org, (877) 588-7900.

Newest landmark: Wisconsin’s newest National Historic Landmark is my own church, the First Unitarian Society Meeting House. This distinction will be celebrated May 2-8 by the congregation of 1,400, which is the denomination’s largest nationwide.

Architect Wright used to be a member. The stone haulers who helped build the structure, which opened in 1951, were church members. The Meeting House has been designated “one of 17 buildings to be retained as an example of Wright’s contribution to American culture.”

Tours are year-round, conducted by volunteers. www.fusmadison.org, (608) 233-9774.

Parting thought: How important are the religious differences?

“There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it,” said the Irish author George Bernard Shaw in 1898.

“When it’s a question of money, everybody is of the same religion,” the French writer Voltaire said, a century earlier.