The Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, is perhaps one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the Midwest! Original construction began in the year 1887 and was finally completed in 1889 when the church was dedicated on the feast of St. Francis Xavier (December 3). All of the basilica’s interior decorative painting was subsequently completed by the year 1905 and was then restored in 2000-2001 to give it its present grandeur.
Enjoy learning about all of the treasures that the church contains by the information below, and be sure to visit in person if you ever happen to be in the area. The greatest way to experience the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier is certainly with the People of God gathered together for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
As you face forward towards the sanctuary, your attention is immediately directed to the High Altar. It is made of Italian marble and Mexican onyx and rests on a solid rock foundation reaching up from the basement below. On either side of the altarpiece and tabernacle are brass crosses containing small relics of various saints. Above the Altar is an 1873, woodcarved crucifix, from the old St. Francis Xavier Church, which formerly stood to the south of the present Basilica. The crucifix was made by an early parishioner from a walnut tree on his farm. Over the altar and crucifix is a fifty-two feet high baldachin, or canopy, of carved butternut, richly decorated with pinnacles, gables, niches and angels. This altar piece and the side altars were designed by a third Brielmaier sibling, J.E. Brielmaier. The finishing work was done by their father, C.A. Brielmaier. To the right and left of the baldachin are the Basilica Symbols: the ceremonial Umbrella and the Basilica Bell, both on poles so they can be carried in procession. The two windows in the sanctuary are of the Adoration of the Magi, to the left, and the Resurrection, to the right.
Above the baldachin, on the ceiling of the apse, is the large central painting of the Church Triumphant, celebrating the heavenly liturgy of Revelations 5: the Adoration of the Mystical Lamb of God (Christ). To the right are Old Testament saints, led by John the Baptist. One can identify Noah holding the Ark, David with his harp, Melichisedech with bread and wine, Moses with a tablet of the Commandments, and the Three Magi with their gifts. In this second grouping, the second figure, added in 2000, is Msgr. M.M. Hoffmann, the pastor when the church was named a Basilica in 1956. To the left are New Testament saints, led by the Blessed Virgin Mary. One can identify Saints; George with his spear, Lawerence with his gridiron, Stephen with stones, Joseph with the lily, Rose of Lima with a crown of roses, Peter with keys, Paul with sword, Henry the King, Boniface, Francis of Assisi, Francis Xavier, Catherine, and Cecilia playing the organ. In this New Testament grouping, the second figure, without a halo, is Fr. George W. Heer, pastor of the parish when the painting was done. All the Decorative Painting in the church was done between 1904-1905 by Alphonse and Lottie Brielmaier, a brother and sister team of artists from Milwaukee. Over the years, their work was “touched up” or partially covered, both in 1930 and 1955, but then completely restored in 2000-2001.
You might just notice that on the south (left) sanctuary wall is also a painting of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, symbolizing the Church Militant on earth; and on the north (right) wall, a painting symbolizing the Church Suffering; the souls in purgatory being received into Heaven. Around the bottom of the sanctuary wall is a painted faux curtain, symbolizing the curtain of the Temple which was rent at the death of Christ.
To the left of the altar, stands the 1906 Pulpit, made of carved butternut. The statues on the base represent early Christian writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul; and 5 Doctors of the Western Church: Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. To the left of the pulpit is an 1873 statue of the parish patron, St. Francis Xavier. Above, is the Basilica Coat of Arms. Across the sanctuary on the right, or north, side is an 1850’s wood carved statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the oldest artifact in the church. Above, is the coat of arms of the current Pope.
Facing now away from the sanctuary and towards the entrance into the church, note that the main body (nave) of the Basilica is 66 feet wide and 140 feet long; it seats approximately 1,000 people. The restored center aisle, installed in 1998, is the first floor of its kind in the nation to combine the new technologies of epoxy based terrazzo, and computer generated water jet laser cutting for the brass molds. The symbols in the floor are, from the back of church, three shields of coats of arms of: The Archdiocese of Dubuque, Pope Pius XII, The Basilica, and The Papal Insignia of the Tiara and Keys. As one walks down the aisle from the back, the “story” reads: Here in the (1.) Archdiocese of Dubuque. (2.) Pope Pius XII named St. Francis Xavier Church (3.) a Basilica, making it (4.) a Papal Church.
Looking up toward the choir loft, you immediately see the 1959 Rose Window, with its Native American designs, and the 1971, 37-rank Wicks Organ. The painting of the Last Supper on the balcony front, was donated by Lotie Brielmaier in 1905, and formerly hung above the High Altar. In the east wall arches on either side of the loft, are paintings of more groups of angels with musical instruments. Below the choir loft to the left and the right are two wooden confessionals, built by the Dubuque Altar Company and installed in 1897. They are made from carved butternut wood.
Of the 64 stained glass windows and transoms, installed in 1889, ten contain pictures of the life of Christ and His saints. The rest are made up of geometrical designs. Beginning from the back, on the left (north) side wall are: St. Joseph and the Child Jesus working; St. Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata and St. Helen; St. Boniface baptizing the Germans after cutting down their sacred tree; and near the front St. John Berchmans and St. Aloysius Gonzaga. On the right (south) side wall, from the back are: St. Stanislas Kostka receiving Communion from an angel; St. Kunegunda and Our Lady of Consolation, the patroness of the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg; St. Francis Xavier (This window is interested for a number of reasons. St. Francis Xaviers, 1506-1552, was an early Jesuit and Missionary in the Far East, and is the patron saint of this church. As he preached in India, the parish ordered a window depicting Francis Xavier preaching to the “Indians”. The artist made them Native Americans! Also note the style of St. Francis’ hair, mustache and beard – very much the style of 1889.) The last window on this side, near the front depicts St. Philomena and Mary Immaculate.
Here is the 1897 Altar of St. Joseph, and the Holy Family. This is 36 feet high and 15 feet wide. In the central niche is a 1900 Bavarian wood carving of the Holy Family with an angel presenting a small church to the Infant Jesus. Surrounding this niche are four oil paintings. The top two (left to right) are the Betrothal of Mary and Joseph, and the Flight into Egypt. The bottom two (left to right) are the Holy Family at Work, and the Death of St. Joseph.
Lower on the altar, behind the crucifixion scene, are oils of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Elizabeth, and statues of St. Catherine and St. Anne. At the base of the altar (left to right) are small statues of Sts. Francis Xavier Cabini, (an American saint, who passed through Dyersville occasionally on the train), Dominic, Francis and Isidore (patron of framers), with a central oil of the death of St. Francis Xavier in the wilderness. Atop the altar in a central niche is a statue of the Guardian Angel.
In front of this altar is an 1870’s oak Baptismal Font, recently re-finished by a parishioner. Near the baptismal font is the Easter (or Pascal) Candle stick. This is a turn-of-the-century piece. Two others like it, but gilded, are in Good Shepherd Church, Beverly Hills, CA. During the Easter season, this candle stick is kept next to the pulpit.
Proceeding along the north wall is a statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague, and the North Doors lead to a newly glass-enclosed porch, with a new statue of St. Francis Xavier, carved by Mr. John Becker, a local artist.
The next major piece in the Basilica is the Altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is also called the Rosary Altar. This Altar is of the same dimensions as St. Joseph’s Altar. At the bottom of the front of the altar are carved the Joyful Mysteries, from left to right, the: Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple. Across the center, in oil and statuary, the Sorrowful Mysteries: The Agony in the garden, Scourging at the Pillar, Crowning with Thorns, Carrying of the Cross, and Crucifixion. Above, beginning at the left top and going counter-clockwise around the niche, care the Glorious Mysteries in oil: The Resurrection, Ascension, Descent of the Holy Spirit, Assumption, and in the center niche, the Coronation of the Virgin by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Rosary on the Virgin’s arm is a gift from Saint John Paul II. At the top of this altar is another statuary piece of Sts. Dominic and Catherine of Siena receiving the Rosary from the Madonna and Child.
To the left of the Blessed Virgin’s Altar are 2 statues: an 1873 statue of St. Anthony of Padua, and a 1926 statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, the “Little Flower.” This latter statue was restored in 1997 for the centenary of the saint’s death, and pope John Paul II giving her the title, “Doctor of the Church.”