German immigrants who settled in the Solomon Valley near Beloit established St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in 1852. By 1898, the walls of the original small stone church were bulging and were held together only with the help of a steel rod. It was Monsignor Michael Heitz who decided a bigger and better church was needed. In 1899, he secured the well-known architect Joseph Marshall of Topeka, Kansas, to draw the plans.
For two years, farmers quarried and hauled limestone to the church site. From professional stonemasons, Msgr. Heitz learned to dress stone himself so he could instruct parishioners who contributed their help.
Foundation work began in the fall of 1900, and the cornerstone laying and blessing by Bishop Cunningham was on June 4, 1901.
Completed in 1904, the church was built around the old church in the form of a Latin Cross. It measures 150’ long and 74’ wide at the front (south) entrance. The nave (middle body) is 61’ long and 66’ wide. The transept (forming the arms of the cross) is 87’ long and 34’ deep. The church walls have a thickness of 24″. The towers are 22’ by 22’.
Original plans were for the towers to rise to a height of 112’, but because it was decided that the extra height would add too much weight, the towers are only 100’ tall, 108’ including the crosses adorning each tower. As work progressed around it, the old church was torn down in March 1901.
The stone from the old church was used for the arched nave ceiling which reaches a height of 40’.
Monsignor Heitz said St. John’s was the first church in the USA built with flying buttresses and a ceiling entirely made of stone. It was, at the time, the largest church west of the Mississippi River.
The post rock church is trimmed with Indiana limestone. At the arched main entrance are six granite pillars in three colors.
Inside are eight huge Vermont granite pillars bracing the high arched ceiling.
The granite shafts are topped with sculptured capitals, each a bit different. These pillars form an arcade on either side of the nave. The pillars were so heavy that they were left on railroad flat cars until there was a good snow. Sleds were built to bring them, one at a time, to the church site by horse power.
There are twenty-nine colored windows in the entire church. Those above the central entrance and in the lower portion of the larger windows are stained glass. The others are of a special process of painting. These beautiful windows depict various saints, biblical characters and scenes. Especially striking are the windows of the east and west transept, the window of St. John the Baptist over the high altar, and the Ascension scene in the choir loft.
The Stations of the Cross are cast in plaster in a type of raised figure known as “bas-relief.” These are beautifully and realistically designed.
The large white Carrara marble altar with brown African marble trim was installed in 1906. It is a duplicate of an altar, which the French erected in a church in Rome to honor Pope Leo XIII. Monsignor Heitz brought a picture of this altar back from a visit to Rome. This is now called the altar of repose, where the tabernacle containing the Holy Eucharist is kept.
The new Mass altar, side altars, lecterns, and Communion stations are also of imported Carrara marble.
Two delicately carved Carrara marble statues, one of St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church, and a second of Mother Cabrini, Patroness of the Missions, enhance the sanctuary area.
With the parish out of debt, Monsignor Heitz decided to complete his “dream church” with fresco paintings, a form of painting applied directly to wet plaster rather than to canvas.
Monsignor Heitz knew of an outstanding church artist from New York, Gonippo Raggi, who had decorated churches in the dioceses of New York and Boston. Raggi studied at the Academy of Santa Lucia, Rome and earned renown for his designs and paintings for St. Cecilia across the Tiber in Rome. Monsignor wrote to him, describing what he desired for decorating the sanctuary.
Gonippo Raggi, assisted by his brother, Palamedo, completed work on the sanctuary paintings by Easter 1913. The paintings represented the “Birth of St. John the Baptist,” “St. John Preaching in the Wilderness,” “His Trial before Herod,” and finally “His Head on a Tray Being Presented to Salome.” The brothers came back in June to do the transept paintings.
In 1923, the brothers returned to paint the remainder of the church walls and designs, some of which have been covered up with subsequent remodeling. It was on this return trip that Gonippo brought St. John’s parish a tremendous gift — two huge canvas paintings, which even today grace the south walls of the of the church.