When visiting Milwaukee -- or anywhere in the U.S., for that matter -- one wouldn’t expect to have a 15th century French chapel ranking high on their “must-see” list. Nestled in the heart of Milwaukee, however, on the Marquette University campus, is a very unusual little building known as the Joan of Arc Chapel that fits this description. The story of how it came to be here is as truly remarkable as the pretty little chapel itself.
Once known as the Chapelle de St. Martin de Sayssuel, this chapel was once the heart of the French village of Chasse, near Lyon in the Rhone River Valley. Construction was likely to have commenced in the 15th century, and lasted over several generations. Gradually, however, the chapel fell into a state of neglect, and remained in that state until it was discovered by a French architect Jacques Couëlle, famed for restoring classic buildings. Couëlle made careful architectural drawing of the chapel, which was then sold to the daughter of a wealthy railroad magnate in the United States, and shipped overseas in 1927.
At the time, the importation of buildings from Europe was not uncommon (for the very few that could afford it), although today that would probably not be allowed to occur. The chapel was disassembled and brought stone-by-stone -- including the tomb of a French knight that was part of the chapel floor -- to an estate on Long Island, where it was attached to a French Renaissance chateau that was also moved from France. It was at this time that the Joan of Arc connection came in to play. Architect John Russell Pope, charged with the reconstruction efforts stateside, added a stone to a niche in the chapel wall with a supposed connection to Joan of Arc. The famous saint was said to have once kissed this stone, on which stood a statue of the Virgin Mary. Since that time the stone has always been cooler than the stones surrounding it.
In 1962 the estate housing the chapel passed into the possession of Mr. Marc B. Rojtman, president of the American Tractor Corporation and J. I. Case American Tractor Corporation. Rojtman and his wife Lillian amassed an extraordinary art collection, much of which was ultimately donated to cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In 1964 the Rojtmans presented the Chapel to Marquette, and had it dismantled and sent to the campus for reconstruction. A fleet of trucks, each truck carrying 40,000 pounds, brought the Chapel stones to Milwaukee, and reconstruction was begun in 1965. Each stone was marked in three places and numbered, but still reconstruction took nearly two years. The chapel was completed and dedicated to St. Joan of Arc in May 1966.