Portico at Old St. Joseph Church leads to a sacred space

Symbolism of the structure makes it much more than an archway

A new portico at the St. Norbert College Parish was blessed by Norbertine Abbot Dane Radecki, on Oct. 24. The portico, made in Lodi, Wis., is a gift from the David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund to honor the order’s 900th anniversary and Rita’s memory as a parishioner. Designed by Norbertine Fr. James Baraniak, the lettering reads “Ite ad Ioseph,” Latin for “Go to Joseph.” Pictured from left following the blessing are Abbot Radecki, Fr. Baraniak, Kerry Gross, Deacon Kevin DeCleene, Fr. Matthew Dougherty and Fr. Onwu Akpa. (Michael Poradek | St. Norbert Abbey)

DE PERE — The St. Norbert College campus features several archways. The year the college was founded, 1898, is displayed on the arch for the walkway entrance off Third Street. Visitors to the Kunkel Meditation Garden, overlooking the Fox River, enter through an archway. Donald J. Schneider Stadium, home to Green Knights’ football, soccer and track and field, is another example of a facility with an arch.

A recent structure outside Old St. Joseph Church may look like another archway, but the meaning of this entryway from Grant Street makes it “the Portico.”

“A portico is a covering. As you enter that sacred space, you are covered with the heart of Christ. That’s what makes the symbolism and sets this apart,” said Kerry Gross, who, along with Norbertine Fr. Jim Barianiak, coordinated the Portico project. “It leads into that prayer space. It leads us into the church. It leads us to know where we are going.”

The Portico also leads people to the National Shrine to St. Joseph, located adjacent to Old St. Joseph Church. The words Ite ad Ioseph (“Go to Joseph”) are found on the Portico. Other liturgical elements on the structure include the lily and fleur de lis associated with St. Joseph — ”The just man should blossom like the lily.” The fleur de lis is also a symbol used by the Norbertines, is a symbol of Mary and the royal symbol of France.

A cross with the Sacred Heart of Jesus is found at the highest point of the Portico. The heart represents the image of the heart of St. Augustine with flames burning for God’s peace and the crown of thorns from the Passion.

Two year’s dates are featured on the Portico. The date of 1676 references when the first structure, a small chapel, was built at the location. The year 1890 commemorates when Old St. Joseph Church was rebuilt. The original church, constructed in 1870, was struck by lightning.

The idea for the Portico originated nearly two years ago — on New Year’s Day 2020. Deacon Kevin DeCleene, pastoral leader at St. Norbert College Parish, approached Gross after Mass.

“The inception of the Portico had been on my mind since I started (in 2016 at the parish),” he said. “I had remembered seeing it on the architectural drawings of the holy doors. I could never figure out ‘how do we get this off the ground?’ We really did not have the money to do this. I just shared with Kerry, ‘I don’t know what to do with this.’”

Gross, a parish member for 17 years, willingly took on the project. She wanted a Norbertine presence, so she reached out to Fr. Baraniak. They had worked together multiple times, including Gross serving as his assistant when he was prior at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere.

“(Fr. Baraniak) has an incredible love of liturgy and liturgical elements, so he was the perfect heart and soul to help us bring this Portico to life,” said Gross.

Funding was provided through the David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund, a part of the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region. The Portico honors Rita’s memory as a longtime member of St. Norbert College Parish.

Fr. Baraniak did some loose drawings for the project before he, Gross and Deacon DeCleene met with an architect and Patrick Wrenn, director of facilities at the college.

“We were blessed to find this incredible metal artist out of Lodi (Wis.),” said Gross. “Rick Findora (Morning Glory Glass Studio) works out of this small studio in his garage.”

Findora had done previous work at St. Norbert Abbey and inside Old St. Joseph Church. 

“This guy has such a gift,” said Deacon DeCleene. “In our first meeting, when we were trying to figure out who’s the right person to do this, (Findora) made some kind of comment about ‘I just want to be upfront with you that everything I do is for the glory of God.’ I’m good with that. He was an answer to prayer.”    

Findora molded the heart (representing the heart of St. Augustine) together from two separate pieces.

“Somebody made the comment that (the Portico) looks as though it’s been here forever because it just beautifully fits this space,” said Gross. “One of the heart and soul pieces was the heart. We just want people that walk through to be reminded that this is the heart of the college.”

Gross added that it was fittingly completed during the 900-year anniversary of the Norbertine order. The Portico is designed to be an “ever ancient, ever new” component, she said. The plan is to install lights in the future to illuminate the structure.

“The first time I walked through, I got incredibly emotional. I cried,” she said. “We saw it in pieces, but to see it standing so significantly beautiful, just the grandeur of it, really humbled me,” she said. “This is not just about now. It is really where we’ve come from. It’s also about our future. Art has a way of steering the heart and minds of those people walking into that sacred space.”

The Portico was blessed by Norbertine Abbot Dane Radecki on Oct. 24. Gross gave a presentation at the blessing ceremony. She recognized the support of the Nelson family, who previously provided funding for the Mary and Joseph Memorial Prayer Patio outside Old St. Joseph Church.

“They were so pleased with the prayer space and were so gracious and generous to allow us to bring (the Portico) to fruition,” said Gross. “This was done with much collaboration, much prayer and reflection. We hopefully did God’s work.”