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St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral

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The cathedral is one of a few churches built in the US since WWII in the Serbian-influenced, Byzantine Revival’s splendor and craftsmanship.

St. Sava Cathedral represents the highest development of the Serbian Orthodox form of classical Byzantine architecture in the United States. The construction of the cathedral commenced in October of 1956. The first liturgy was performed on November 17, 1957. At this time an altar cloth, called an antimins, with relics of the saint of the church sewn into it, was blessed and placed on the altar so that the liturgy might be performed prior to the consecration ceremonies of August 31, 1958. The building measures almost 135 feet in length and is approximately 60 feet wide and 76 feet from the floor to the apex of tile central dome. The exterior of the cathedral is a Wisconsin limestone, quarried in the Fond du Lac area. The ornamental stone trim is Indiana Bedford Stone. The main roof, and large central dome and the four smaller domes are covered with copper. Each dome has a Serbian Orthodox cross covered with 14 carat gold leaf affixed to it. The basic floor plan of our cathedral is based on the holy cross, the nave forming the main east-west section of the cross, and the north and south transepts bisecting the nave to complete the cross. The top of the cross floor plan faces directly east, thus complying with the traditional Orthodox Christian pattern, wherein, the worshippers are constantly facing the holy altar in the east. The interior of the cathedral contains four distinct sections, the narthex, the nave, the chancel and the altar. The narthex is the large vestibule area before entering the main church. At St. Sava it contains the candle area and the book store. In ancient times baptism of converts took place in the narthex since the unbaptized were not permitted into the main body of the church. The narthex leads into the nave, or main body of the church. Here the faithful participate in worship services. In European churches there are no pews and men are on the right of the main aisle and women on the left. In the Americas most Orthodox churches have pews and the congregations worship undivided. The raised area to the east of the nave is the chancel which is used by the clergy in the worship services. The Sacrament of confession is administered in the chancel and the Gospel and sermon are delivered from this area. At the back of the chancel a screen of icons called the iconostas separates the chancel from the altar area. The altar is where bread and wine are transubstantiated into the Holy Body and Blood of Christ. These gifts, consecrated on the altar table, united the believing Orthodox with Christ through the Holy Mystery of Communion. The mosaics in the holy altar area are replicas of Serbo-Byzantine mosaics in the St. George Church, Oplenac, near Belgrade, Serbia. The architectural firm for the church was Camburas and Theodore. For more information, contact the church office at (414) 545-4080.


The St. Sava congregation was founded in 1912 by Serbian immigrants, the descendents of whom built American Serb Memorial Hall in 1950. Funding from the hall made possible the cathedral, a city landmark, which was completed in 1957-’58. Its interior mosaics were started in 1969, and after more than $3 million and nearly 35 years of gradual fund raising and installation, they represent some of the most extensive and elaborate church mosaics in the United States, made of countless Italian-glass mosaics which now cover virtually every inch of the walls, ceiling and dome in Milwaukee’s St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral. Few churches built in the U.S. since World War II rival the Serbian-influenced, Byzantine Revival cathedral’s splendor and craftsmanship. It is traditional for Orthodox church interiors to be extensively decorated with mosaics or frescoes, but churches such as St. Sava are exceptional in the U.S., according to Slobodan Curcic, professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University. “There are not too many others,” Curcic said. “These projects take a long time and a lot of money.” Fr. Dragan Veleusic, Dean of the Cathedral, knows of one other Serbian Orthodox church in the U.S. with an interior completely covered with mosaics, St. George in San Diego. Even in Serbia, there are no surviving examples of church-wall mosaics from Byzantine times, and none known to have been commissioned by Serbian rulers. St. Sava’s mosaics all were designed by Italian-born artist Sirio Tonelli, were made in Italy, and comprise about 2,300 colors and tones. They follow Byzantine tradition, depicting Christ, St. Mary, prophets, angels, Old and New Testament scenes, apostles, and Serbian saints and kings in a hierarchical order from the dome, or heaven, down to Earth. Tonelli visited churches and monasteries in the former Yugoslavia, and many of St. Sava’s mosaics were modeled after those in the Church of St. George in Oplenac, near Topola, Serbia, built in the 1900s. In the days when people were illiterate, scenes depicted in mosaics, frescoes and icons were a vital reminder of Bible stories, Fr. Veleusic explains. They still inspire and assure people that Christ watches over them along with the angels and saints. The project, completed in 2004, required millions of dollars and was made possible by the volunteer efforts of many members of St. Sava, including those of The Circle of Serbian Sisters, women who made tens of thousands of deep-fried Serbian donuts, delicacies sold at the parish’s Serbian Days festival, picnics, Easter bake sales, Milwaukee’s Holiday Folk Fair, and Serb Hall bingo games. It and The Loyal Order of St. Sava were among about 20 groups that helped. Families and individual parishioners made small and large contributions, some as memorials, with no donations coming from outside the Serbian community.


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