Story of Great-Grandfather’s Sacrifice for Basilica Brought to Light

Part Two

The eulogy, sadly, was a 100-year fog.

“It’s amazing how information can get lost in less than a century,” said Two Rivers’ Nancy Barker as she looked up after referencing a large detailed map of Poland blanketing the café’s table and stacks of substantive paper documents piled next her coffee with a further cache of intelligence tucked away securely in her travel bag.

“I loved doing this research for my mom and I did it for her! She didn’t even know the city (Odrowonz) her grandfather came from in Poland! But I have great pride today walking these streets of Milwaukee knowing my family helped build it and great love especially for the Lincoln Village neighborhood knowing the hard work it took these poor immigrants to build the Basilica. I think the important story is that Milwaukee was built on the back of immigrants. Look at how beautiful and special that Basilica is! He [great-grandfather, Anton, his tragic tale the subject of her quest] was only here for 13 years but just look at the contribution of these common laborers. Look at what they were able to produce! I don’t want my personal story to tarnish the specialness and legacy of the Basilica – that’s not my family’s intention at all. We’re not bitter … we’re proud!”

Nancy Barker’s earnestness and gratification were evident as we met recently at a Wauwatosa café and she shared details of the comprehensive search to dig up that woeful “personal story” and the lost details of her great-grandfather’s death, Anton Kasprzyk, the sole fatality during the five-year (1896 to 1901) construction of the Basilica of St. Josaphat on Lincoln Avenue.

Not long after Kasprzyk’s death in December of 1896, when he was crushed accidentally while unloading a three-ton stone from his horse-drawn wagon while working as a teamster as the Basilica construction commenced, for unascertained reasons the story of his untimely demise were seemingly buried with him. That is, until around the year 2000, when great-granddaughter, Nancy Barker, embarked on a quest to find some answers for herself and her mother and to be able to one day share her findings with the throng of extended family members alive today. Nancy’s mother, Geraldine, after all, was one of 14 children and the line of descendants is long.

To be sure, Nancy had heard murmurs while growing up about an incident involving her great-grandfather, but facts were always sketchy, and nothing was ever confirmed. Late in life Geraldine had asked her Aunt Anna (daughter of Anton and just three or four years old at his death) how Anna’s dad died. She shared some crude accounts recalled from her youth of hearing the Polish word for intestines, “flakas”.

“That must have been quite a memory for a little girl,” Nancy said. “However, Mom didn’t know if it was the truth. After all, if it was true why hadn’t anyone mentioned it? That alone made the story questionable. And also, the fact that the Basilica didn’t have any information proving it. No one alive could corroborate the story. That’s why I was excited to prove the story to be true!”

But before that celebration could take place and Nancy could at last publicize and revel in her discovery; many trips to Milwaukee’s Central Library and County Courthouse were required to exhume the public records that could finally validate the tale. Many months would pass, and countless hours spent investigating microfiche and other files before Nancy made key discoveries in 2002 that would ultimately affirm Anton’s fate. One was an article and obituary notice written in a Polish-language weekly newspaper, the Kuryer Polski, that described the “unfortunate accident” that led to the death of “Antoniego Kasprzyka” (the full spelling of Anton’s Polish name).

“That was it! This was the gold mine!” Nancy exclaimed. “So the story my mother heard was absolutely correct! No one in the family knew the story and people were stunned! It was quite a revelation … they had no idea this had occurred!”

In addition to the article and obituary, Nancy also unearthed a Coroner’s Jury Inquest document, in which witnesses to the fatal accident were questioned and conclusions drawn. One finding could be interpreted as especially revealing:

“The jury learned that Fr. (Wilhelm) Grutza personally supervised the unloading of stones. Members of the jury believe that this tragedy would not have happened had an experienced person directed that job. Such a person was not hired, apparently to save money.”

“As a family we kind of shrug today knowing if someone was there on the job site that knew what they were doing, this wouldn’t have happened,” conceded Nancy. “But the church was everything and everyone was involved … that was their focus. The Basilica is such a monument to what they held dear. For these very poor people to take on the task of building such a monument … well, I can’t imagine these poor laborers conceiving of it, much less making it happen!”

Now that Nancy’s investigative work was done and the course of events could be verified, she and her mother, Geraldine, had another goal in mind. They both desired to have Anton’s personal sacrifice honored in some way, or at the very least, acknowledged. The Big Blue Crane collapse during the construction of the Brewers’ new stadium on July 14, 1999 was still fresh on most people’s minds, and that prodded them to pursue at least some kind of similar recognition of Anton’s service, despite the fact that it was 100 years earlier than the well-publicized deaths of the three ironworkers at Miller Park.

Thus, in 2004, Geraldine Barker presented the information regarding her grandfather to Fr. William Callahan, then pastor of St. Josaphat. Fr. Callahan was so moved by the saga that he installed and dedicated a testimonial cenotaph on the east wall of the Basilica (very close to the actual accident site) on Dec. 23 of that year, the 108th anniversary of Anton’s death.

At last, Nancy Barker and her mother, Geraldine, had accomplished their two missions: to discern fact from myth regarding the cryptic death of Anton Kaspryzk and to ensure his legacy will be forever understood and appreciated. They were eager to share their findings with relatives and friends.

It took some time for logistics and personal schedules to mesh, but Nancy and Geraldine were eventually able to orchestrate a special pilgrimage of sorts. In the summer of 2013, Nancy Barker was able to gather the large scattered tribe all together for a family reunion and organize a trip to the Basilica of St. Josaphat for a tour of the church and neighborhood. More than 100 family members congregated in Milwaukee and boarded two buses to take them to the site. Each of the disparate sects wore a distinguishing color of t-shirt to help convey their place in the family tree. They were about to get an education.

“Forty grandchildren were told to bring their families,” Nancy said. “And no one knew the story!”

On the day after Christmas, 1896, Anton Kasprzyk was laid to rest at St. Adalbert’s Catholic Cemeteries located at 3801 S. 6th Street. He was buried next to his 4-year-old daughter, Julia, and 4-month-old daughter, Stella. Other notables buried at St. Adalbert’s are Clement Zablocki, the stalwart Wisconsin Democratic Congressman from 1949 until his death on Dec. 3, 1983; and Alan Kulwicki, a local NASCAR champion racing legend that died in a plane crash in 1993. But there is a conspicuous difference between the three burial sites. To this day, Anton Kasprzyk’s grave remains unmarked.

As fate would have it, also interred nearby is Rev. Wilhelm Grutza, the founding pastor and visionary of the Basilica of St. Josaphat, the driven and thrifty overseer of the church’s construction with the strong will and contagious enthusiasm. Grutza died on Aug. 20, 1901, less than a month after the great dedication ceremony of the newly completed church that took place on July 21, 1901. Thousands flocked to his funeral to pay homage.

Rev. Grutza was 45 when he died, the same age immigrant teamster Anton Kaspryzk was on that day five years earlier when the derrick chain snapped above his horse-drawn wagon in a failed attempt to unload a three-ton stone salvaged from the Chicago post office when it “toppled over and buried him, crushing him shockingly” and the “mangled remains were taken to the morgue.”

Today, Nancy Barker believes her great-grandfather’s story is deserving of an appropriate and overdue epilogue.

“I’ve decided to give Anton a proper grave marker,” she said. “I’m in the process right now of working with a monument company and my sisters to design a headstone that matches the ones in the family plot – but also has an image of the Basilica on it.”


Click here to read Part One of this story.

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