The Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, also known as the “Old Cathedral,” was established in 1764 by Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau, who founded the city of St. Louis only one year earlier. The Old Cathedral was the first Catholic church, and the first church of any denomination, established west of the Mississippi River. It began as simply a one-room log cabin and is considered by many to be the “Mother Church” of the St. Louis diocese. Located in the heart of the city, it attracted many residents who were seeking a place to worship and practice their faith. The Basilica played a critical role in shaping religion, especially Catholicism, in the early days of St. Louis.
As the city of St. Louis began to grow, the church grew with it and became a more prominent landmark of the city. In 1776, the church was expanded to a larger sized log building in order to accommodate the increasing size of the church’s congregation. By 1831, St. Louis’s population had grown immensely, and, by Bishop Rosati’s orders, an entirely new building was constructed in place of the original structure.
Being the first official church west of the Mississippi, the Old Cathedral played a large role in developing Catholicism at the start of westward expansion in America. Not only did it shape religion in early St. Louis, but it also was an integral part of the developing city’s culture. The church provided a place for people to gather together to pray, receive spiritual guidance and education, and, according to the church’s website, it was regarded as the “hub of civic activity.”
The mission of The Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France is to be “a Catholic community dedicated to better knowing and serving God. Our mission is to serve the spiritual needs of our parishioners and to nurture the thousands who visit the Basilica each year.” In the Catholic tradition, the liturgies of weekly and daily masses provide a strengthening of the relationship between the Catholic parishioner, God, and the church. The Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France provides a perfect space for these worshipers to restore and consolidate these relationships.
“We celebrate our past and treasure our legacy of inclusivity and hope in the future. We seek to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ and we welcome people from all walks of life and of all faiths…travelers who visit from far and near.” From the earliest use of the Basilica, parishioners opened their arms and the doors of the Basilica to any person who wanted to celebrate the Mass with them or any person of any faith.
Attached to the Old Cathedral is a museum showcasing numerous historical artifacts dating back as early as the church’s reconstruction in the 1830s. Some of the artifacts on display include one of four original reliquaries on the high altar from 1834, a proclamation signed by St. John XXIII designating the Old Cathedral as a basilica in 1960, photographs taken at the time of construction of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, an ancient Spanish crucifix, replicas of the three flags that flew over St. Louis when it became a U.S. territory in 1804, in addition to numerous other photographs, paintings and artifacts. The museum is also the site of the tomb of Bishop Joseph Rosati, St. Louis’s first Bishop. The museum establishes a strong connection between the Old Cathedral and the impact it had on St. Louis’s history. The artifacts preserved in the museum serve as a symbol of the Basilica’s significance to the development of religion in St. Louis, and the Basilica is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Saint Louis the city and the Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France are both named after King Louis IX of France who is the patron saint of the parish, the city, and the cou nty of Saint Louis. He participated in many religious events during his time. For example, King Louis IX “took the cross” for a Crusade when he was thirty. He also deserves credit for extending justice in civil administration in France. King Louis IX was a man of his people and of his own charity. In fact, he founded many hospitals and visited the sick, even the lepers. He united the poor and the wealthy, lords and townsfolk, and priests and knights. If a parishioner of the Basilica of Saint Louis found these benevolent acts and services of King Louis IX, he or she would understand why the Basilica was named after King Louis IX.
Just as King Louis IX provided charitable acts to various groups of people, the Basilica does the same in the form of the Saint Vincent DePaul Society, where the people of Saint Louis can provide for the needy. It is very clear that King Louis IX is what the Saint Louis Basilica wraps their focus around.
In the early days of Saint Louis, the Native Americans owned the land and the French came to take over, led by our street’s namesake Laclede himself. The early Catholics of the area believed that there were three things that could turn you against God, and they were the Flesh, the World, and the Devil, which is the title of the book by Patricia Cleary. They had a system of beliefs that entailed that everyone is set on a path at birth. The only things that can take you off of your path to god are the flesh, the devil, and the world. The flesh leads us to temptation, to sin. The mind is pure and wants to go to God, while the body is made of the earth that the devil has corrupted. The world takes you off of your path with its infinite distractions and temptations. Finally, and most obviously, the devil takes you off the path of God by corrupting your soul and taking it to hell eternally. The book by Cleary includes an exploration of this in the early days of Saint Louis before the Basilica.
The Old Cathedral has a unique history that has made a significant contribution to the city of St. Louis. It contains artifacts that preserve the church’s legacy and its ties to the early development of the city. The Basilica has served as a foundation for Catholicism and embodied a spiritual mission that still persists today.
Research and writing by Kyle Burns, Lauren Cardoza, and Keller Murray
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