Inside Holy Redeemer School

Our Lady of Guadalupe, a mural in the basement of Holy Redeemer School

For the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I wanted to post some pictures of inside the Holy Redeemer school building, which features the mural above hidden away in a little basement corridor… and many other wonderful secrets. But first a picture of the explosion of florae that were presented to Our Lady at last night’s Spanish language vigil Mass of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Holy Redeemer Church, with Bishop Morlino present. The 16th century vision of Mary to Juan Diego, an Aztec peasant, had a massive impact, with over 8 million baptisms in Mexico in the following decade; devotion to her remains a massive phenomenon. In my photo, if you look carefully over to the right, you can see that her divine Son is exposed in a monstrance on the altar for adoration.

Our Lady of Guadalupe at Holy Redeemer Church
Back to the school building, this past Sunday when the lovely snow was falling:

Holy Redeemer School, December 9, 2012

Holy Redeemer school was built in 1892 and is the oldest extant school building in Madison. You can read much more about it on this historical landmark form. Holy Redeemer School may be on the verge of a big change. There are plans on the table, which can now be viewed on the Cathedral Parish website, to completely re-do the interior of the school into apartments for Catholic UW Madison students associated with St Paul’s. The city refused to approve a new St Paul’s building tall enough to include Catholic student housing, so this is a not-illogical alternative.

Holy Redeemer school was built in 1892, and is the oldest extant school building in Madison.

Most people have never seen the inside of the building, particularly not the auditorium on the top level, which was locked up for many years and is still usually locked up.

Holy Redeemer School has been housing Pregnancy Helpline‘s Sharing Center, which according to a recent phone inquiry by a friend of mine, already has plans for a new location. There were twice-weekly meals for the homeless served by a Catholic lay group called Pro Labore Dei, these were asked to be moved elsewhere a few months ago to make room for one of the main recent uses: the Cathedral Parish’s religious education program. That’s now about to move to St Patrick’s convent which until recently was a Catholic Charities office. But the other biggest users of Holy Redeemer School are the Hispanic community, and the building shows many touches of their love. Besides Our Lady of Guadalupe, the basement has a quetzal:

The quetzal in the basement of Holy Redeemer School

Although the structure is sound, the state of the interior of the building is not great. In the interim years between the closing of Holy Redeemer School in the mid 60s, it housed diocesan religious education offices, and the interior was modified to serve their needs. The updates were utilitarian. The second floor hallway:

2nd floor hallway in Holy Redeemer School

There are one or two pretty much intact classrooms, but numerous rooms were in use by some of the Hispanic parishioners so I didn’t try to photograph them. Mostly the rooms have been carved up into uninspiring smaller office spaces, such as this one, where earlier in the day last Sunday I substitute-taught the 1st grade catechism class. We learned about Christmas and colored a paper nativity set:

A room in Holy Redeemer School

After years of neglect, there is a lot of the interior of Holy Redeemer School that looks like this stairwell:

Peeling paint in a stairwell

I kept exploring, I’d never been up to the top floor:

The top floor.

I’d heard there was a beautiful auditorium up there, and that even while the school was still in operation, it was locked up and disused in the 1950s after a Chicago school fire killed 92 children trapped on the upper floors. For some years it was rented to the UW Gymnastics Club. Today again it is normally locked. But on the day I decided to go exploring, I found it was not. Wow:

Holy Redeemer School Auditorum

Backstage, ancient student desks have a wistful view of Holy Redeemer Church:


Quiet Please

There are all kinds of dangerous looking electrical things, the more modern ones not as attractive as this. Actually I kept my hands off it and kept it closed, so I do not know what it is:

The biggest physical problem with Holy Redeemer School is that the roof was neglected for years and years till now it has gaping holes in it and Monsignor Holmes says the estimate to repair it was $150,000. In recent weeks Ganser Roofing put plastic tarps over most of the roof as a band-aid. You can see on both sides of the auditorium where water has leaked in:

Water damage from roof leak

There is a balcony.

View of balcony from stage of Holy Redeemer School Auditorium

It is simply lovely, with graceful curving seats:


This is the view out the front (Johnson Street side) of the building, through a little window at the back of the projector room, I see the Overture Center over there:

It’s beautiful. I love it!! The plans have not been finalized, and in the Oct 28th bulletin Monsignor Holmes said, “The hope is that we would not need the third floor space  [ie, this space, the auditorium] for rental income”, but the architect’s proposal is to turn this space into 2-level apartments:

Holy Redeemer School Auditorium stage

The parish is inviting comments to be submitted through the Cathedral Parish website. Personally I’m at peace with whatever is decided, and I really do have a lot of confidence in the prudence of Monsignor Holmes and Bishop Morlino. Apartments for Catholic students seem a truly good cause, and part of the idea is that they’d pay for the needed renovations. But I am also in solidarity with the Hispanic community for whom it’s a sacrifice, and I could not help being sad at the loss of the beautiful  but very seldom-seen auditorium.

[I had another thought. I’ve been lobbying Fr Eric Nielsen for a space to be built that would be suitable for St Paul’s large-group undergraduate program Alpha-Omega. Currently the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the St Paul’s chapel to the sacristy to make room for rock music and assorted silliness (along with a good Catholic speaker), and I feel strongly that the chapel should be sacred for the Blessed Sacrament and the Holy Mass. I was told that the budget for the new building did not allow for building an auditorium as part of St Paul’s. This would be perfect, and it already exists. A facebook friend commented this would be great for putting on Catholic plays like St Therese of Lisieux’s Joan of Arc. Yeah!]

[Update: both the Catholic Herald and the Wisconsin State Journal have just published articles about the plans for the Holy Redeemer School building]

6 Responses to Inside Holy Redeemer School

  1. This brings back memories of CYO basketball, mixers, and the Catholic sports league teams. It’s too bad it can’t be kept for fundraisers, wedding receptions, rented out for other charity events or Catholic activities, and even as a rally meeting spot for when we have events at the Capitol.

    • This is very, very timely, Elizabeth! (Best pictures I’ve seen of the auditorium, too. BTW, you forgot the little “coach’s office” upstairs in the balcony. It’s right next to the movie projection room…) The Holy Redeemer school building is now an official, Registered City Landmark, too. If I may, I’d like to give your readers a bit of background info. Three years ago a proposal was put forth to build a 5-story, public apartment building in the Holy Redeemer parking lot. Income would accrue to the Cathedral Parish. This proposal was ultimately rejected as being unsuitable for the needs of a Catholic parish. Shortly after that, a group of us from Holy Redeemer took it upon ourselves to hire an architect & building contractor to do a “restoration appraisal” of the school building. The idea was to restore the building to full use once more, as a Downtown center for evangelization & catechesis. This included making the beautiful 3rd floor auditorium available for rental to parish groups & others, for wedding receptions, concerts, theatre events & the like. Significant income could be generated from this, at the same time preserving the building for the needs of the parish. (This would certainly include use by University Catholic Center students, if there’s sufficient interest.) It’s important to note, this restoration estimate came to about $1.5-$2 million–less than half the cost of totally gutting the school building & converting it to student apartments. We discussed our proposal with the rector of the Cathedral Parish, as well as the Chancellor of the Madison Diocese, Kevin Phelan. N.B.: While primarily intended as a residence hall for St. Paul’s UCC students, the church cannot legally restrict anyone else from renting apartments in the Holy Redeemer school building. So if the current proposal goes through, this project will become, in effect, public housing.

  2. Thank you, Elizabeth! I read through your entire article and clicked on your link to the article about the Chicago school’s fire. I read some there, and then went to the school fire website linked at the end. Rest in Peace, children and Sisters. If someone cares to read about that fire, be cautioned-it is extremely sorrowful, but did lead to much better fire safety in schools.

  3. Actually, there is nothing probably nothing preventing the school building from being renovated as per its original design, and the auditorium, especially, renewed and preserved. There is, of course, no guarantee that the historic preservation community would step up and support such financially (thus making it possible). It seems strange not to give that a try though. The proposed apartment project will remove the Holy Redeemer School Building from use by the Holy Redeemer community for a very, very, long time.

  4. I would respectfully disagree with the previous poster. There’s absolutely NOTHING to prevent people of any religious persuasion (or none) from renting apartments at the proposed Holy Redeemer School. We can have people fornicating, contracepting & “Obama-cating” all over Catholic Church-owned property. This is among the problems that jettisoned the former “La Estrella” apartment project 3 years ago. Further, 3 different Catholic charities serving the needy Downtown would be displaced by this project. Just a really BAD public relations move all ’round.


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