The story of St. Louis’ Old Cathedral is intimately tied to the city that took shape around it.
In 1764 city founders Pierre Laclede and his first lieutenant, Auguste Chouteau, knew well the importance of faith in their burgeoning community. One of their first decisions was to set aside a piece of land for the erection of a Catholic church.
Nearly 250 years later, the Basilica of St. Louis, King — or the Old Cathedral as it is affectionately known — still stands on this same land as a testament of this area’s rich Catholic history.
It also has a close connection to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. It was here, in 1845, that the first U.S. conference of the French society was founded.
The cathedral’s story began in 1770 when a small log cabin church was built just several hundred yards from the mighty Mississippi River. Six years later, this mission church of St. Louis was recognized as a canonical parish.
1n 1826 St. Louis became a diocese which covered close to half of present-day America, with Bishop Joseph Rosati serving as its first leader. The cornerstone of the present structure was laid in 1831, and the cathedral was dedicated three years later, making it the first cathedral west of the Mississippi.
At the turn of the 20th century, plans were made for a larger cathedral to be built several miles west of the riverfront. This monumental structure was dedicated in 1914. The Old Cathedral continued its day-to-day work as a downtown city parish. In 1961, it took on a new role when Pope John XXIII declared it a basilica. By doing so, the Pope recognized this holy and historical building as a gift to the universal Church and not just to the community of St. Louis.
The cool air of the Old Cathedral was a welcomed retreat from the thick, humid St. Louis weather as I entered the church on a recent summer visit. I was there for a weekday noon Mass, along with what appeared to be a handful of business people on their lunch hours.
Out the windows to the left of me were the tall buildings of downtown. Looking out the right window, I could catch a glimpse of the glimmering St. Louis Arch. It was hard to believe that at one time this small tract of land that surrounds the cathedral composed the entire river city of St. Louis.
The interior has a colonial aura to it. No intricate handiwork or dazzling colors here. Rather plain hues and simple designs give the church a simple feel. Antique chandeliers from the ceiling hang on both sides of the altar. I suspect that not much has been changed in the decoration and ornamentation in the cathedral’s long history.
White marble statues of Sts. Joan of Arc and Louis IX, King of France, in front of the main altar give the basilica its French identity. St. Vincent de Paul, who is the secondary patron of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, along with St. Patrick, are honored with statues on each side.
I was struck by the large painting of the Crucifixion behind the main altar, and later learned it was a reproduction of 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velazquez’s work. In my travels I’ve rarely found a painting that serves as the church’s main crucifix. However, Velazquez’s detailed depiction of the death of Christ serves as a powerful reminder of Christ’s sacrifice for us.
On the opposite end of the church is an antique painting of the coronation of St. Louis. It was hung above the baptismal font, perhaps as a reminder of our own entrance into the mission of the Church. The painting was a gift of the King of France to Bishop William DuBorg in 1818. Also on display in the nave of the cathedral are the canopeum (umbrella) and the tintinnabulum (small bell). Both of these items are historical ornamental insignias of a basilica.
In the 1930s the St. Louis riverfront had fallen into decay. Plans were being laid to renew this area of the original city settlement by building a historic monument. Thirty-three years later ground was broken on the St. Louis Arch, a memorial that commemorates Thomas Jefferson and the westward expansion of the United States.
The only building to be spared in the plan was the Old Cathedral.
Literally standing in the shadow of the Arch, the cathedral is not to be outdone in stature. Just as the Mississippi River once marked the journey West for early settlers, so too the Old Cathedral stands strong as a memorial of the faith that went with them.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society, founded in France in 1833, arrived here 12 years later. As it turns out, St. Louis, King of France, and St. Vincent de Paul were both known for their kindness to the poor — Louis as ruler of France for 44 years, and Vincent as a simple priest working day and night with the indigent, the enslaved and the pariahs.
What great models of leadership were Louis, for whom justice was a vital standard, and Vincent, who felt he never did enough to serve the poor, as we prepare to elect new leaders for our country.
May their examples inspire not only those in office, but all the faithful, to live deeply their Catholic faith.
Basilica of St. Louis, the King
The Old Cathedral
209 Walnut Street
St. Louis, MO 63102
Planning your Visit:
Mass is offered twice a day during the week and five times on the weekend. The Old Cathedral’s museum is open seven days a week. Please check the website for specific days and hours.
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