Thursday, April 19, 2012

A History of the St. Joan of Arc Chapel

April 16, 2012
Former Professor of English
Chairman, The University Committee on the Fine Arts

Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (London)


For more than five centuries the special little Gothic oratory known as the Chapelle de St. Martin de Sayssuel was important to the noble countryside and to the little French village of Chasse. There a rambling cluster of buildings grew up around the Chapel, forming the ecclesiastical center of the village and of the surrounding château.

Like most European medieval structure, it was not built in a single generation but showed the accretions of various periods and architectural styles, a living record in miniature of the history of the little village and of France.

Saved by Couëlle 
After the First World War, Jacques Couëlle, a brilliant young architect and archeologist from Aix-en-Provence, passed through Chasse and came upon the Chapel that he excitedly referred to as "ce monument absolument unique en son genre." In the 1920's, Couëlle made meticulously careful architectural drawings of the Chapel at Chasse, taking numerous photographs and measuring and numbering stones. All of these drawings and photographs are stamped with his special seal.

The Chapel's Trip to America 
In 1926 Gertrude Hill Gavin, daughter of James J. Hill, the American railroad magnate, acquired the Chapel, and it was Couelle who negotiated its transfer to her fifty-acre estate at Jericho, Long Island, in the New World.

Among the many historic memorials in the Chapel he especially noted the tomb, still a part of the sanctuary floor, of Chevalier de Sautereau, a former Chatelain of ChasseStone-by-stone the Chapel was dismantled and shipped in 1927 to Long Island amidst anxieties lest the French government stop the exportation. These fears were well founded, for shortly thereafter the French "Monuments Historiques" halted shipments of such monuments abroad.

Added to the Chapel were two important and priceless treasures - duly noted by John Russell Pope on his blueprints - with which numerous legends are associated: the early Gothic altar and the famous Joan of Arc Stone. The stories surrounding the latter are especially interesting. They tell of how Joan of Arc (1412-31) prayed before a statue of Our Lady standing on this stone and at the end of her petition kissed the stone which ever since has been colder than the stones surrounding it. What seems certain is that the niche, of which it is a part, is of the same period as Joan of Arc and as the Chapel.

In 1964 the Rojtmans presented the Chapel to Marquette and had it dismantled and sent to the campus for the University to reconstruct.

The Move to Marquette University 
The dismantling of the Chapel on Long Island began in June 1963 and took nine months to complete. Each stone was marked in three places: green for the top, red for the bottom, the inside carrying the number of the stone in relation to the others. Eighteen thousand antique terra cotta roof tiles were removed and packed. A fleet of trucks, each truck carrying forty thousand pounds, brought the Chapel stones to Milwaukee, where the first shipment arrived in November 1964. After the material was stored for the winter and the ground was cleared, reconstruction on the campus started in July 1965.
After traveling from Chasse to Long Island and then to Marquette, 
the Chapel so fittingly dedicated to St. Joan of Arc on May 26, 1966, 
has come to a new home far from the Rhone River Valley 
where it stood for over five hundred years.
"It is doubtful," wrote Milton Samuels, Chairman of French and Company, New York, in the official appraisal papers dated April 9, 1964, "if such an historic architectural monument would be permitted to leave France today."
The Chapel is, to our knowledge, the only medieval structure in the entire Western Hemisphere dedicated to its original purpose: 
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.