The Central West End is one of St. Louis’s most iconic neighborhoods. Sandwiched between Midtown and the eastern edge of Forest Park, the area, which was once home to T.S. Eliot, William S. Burroughs, and Tennessee Williams, is known for upscale restaurants and shopping, as well as lavish and ornate houses on gated streets. The Central West End is also home to many churches and other religious congregations, of which the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica is probably the most well-known. Farther west is a cluster of smaller congregations of varying faiths working together to better their community.
Multiple places of worship dot the Central West End, open to people of many backgrounds, religious faiths, and sociopolitical convictions. The religious atmosphere in the Central West End affects the lives of the people living in the area because it gives them an opportunity to express themselves in a new aspect.
Cathedral Basilica The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis is one of the most memorable churches in the city and is known for its beautiful mosaics. The current cathedral began construction in 1907, but it wasn’t until 1914 that the first service was held. It took many more years for the mosaics themselves to be completed. Designed by multiple different artists and encompassing over 40 million pieces of glass, they depict a wide variety of images important to Christianity and the City of Saint Louis. The mosaics tell stories of the Bible in the same space that they tell the history of Catholicism in Saint Louis. For anyone wishing to learn and experience the deep roots Catholicism has in St. Louis, the Cathedral Basilica is the best place to go. To learn more about it simply visit the other Arch City Religion pages about the Church and Mosaics respectively.
Second Presbyterian Church The history of the Second Presbyterian Church begins when an early settler, Stephen S. Hempstead, discovered that more than one hundred families in what is now the Central West End area were either Presbyterian or Congregationalist. At the time, there were no churches that provided for those families. Hempstead got in contact with Reverend Salmon Giddings to help out and start a new church. In 1839, the Second Presbyterian Church was established. It was built on a piece of land purchased by Pierre Chouteau. In the twentieth century, the church provided a number of activities for members and the surrounding community, including Young Adults, a program that provided activities for teens and younger adults to participate in; Boy Scouts, which provided activities for the young boys in the area to join; and a lot of groups and activities for women and children so they felt included in the community.
The Second Presbyterian Church is characterized by its unique structure, inspired by the Romanesque Revival style that was commonly used in the late 1800s. The Second presbyterian Church, although bearing the same name as many other Presbyterian churches across the country, has a unique history rooted in Saint Louis, one that involved many campaigning efforts to be revitalized and improve its facilities. Some of the most notable features of the Second Presbyterian Church include its spectacular stained glass windows, which are based on Sunday Book illustrations, as Tiffany Designs were not particularly interested in religion. Some other notable structures in the Second Presbyterian Church include Niccolls Hall, a room that served as the sanctuary of worship from 1896-1900, the Education Building added in the 1930s, and the gymnasium included in the expansion of the Education Building.
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and Greek Festival Greeks have a long history in Saint Louis and specifically in the Central West End. The first Greek immigrants started arriving in the late nineteenth century. At the very beginning of twentieth century the Greek community established their own liturgy, and in 1906 Rev. Panageotis Phiambolis was sent by the Holy Synod of Greece as the first priest. Unfortunately differences in the parish led to a split. One group stayed as the Aghia Trias (Holy Trinity) church and those that split off as the Church of Evangelismos (Annunciation). However their split was short lived as seven years later in 1917 the two parishes reconciled. And by September of that year they had secured a priest, a former Protestant church, and, on October 3, a name, “St Nicholas.” By the end of October 1917 the congregation had its first own liturgical service, starting the significant influence of the Greeks on St. Louis.
The next twenty years marked the birth of the modern St. Nicholas Church. After a tornado destroyed the existing building in 1927, the parish went to work seeking a new place of worship. Like they had when first starting out, the parish rented a former Jewish synagogue to continue their mission. But they found the situation to be inadequate, so after the year they continued a search for a place to build a new church, the first one of entirely their own. After a long and hard two-year search they settled on the present day location and construction began in December 1930, with the first service held in the church in September 1931. To this day St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church has remained in the same place in the Central West End, slowly expanding over the years to accommodate the growth in the parish coinciding with popularization of the Greek Festival.
Since the founding of St. Nicholas in 1917, the parish has had a celebration each September. For around sixty years it was a quiet annual picnic held by the church, with Greek food, music and dancing. Then in the 1980s the celebration began to attract the attention of people outside the church parish. The co-chair of the 2017 event, Christina Ginos, when asked about the festival said this about the sudden expansion, “We started to market it differently, and the big thing was that we got gyros. In the ’80s, gyros were really popular, they were everywhere, so that brought people in.” The parish's ethnic picnic quickly grew into an annual labor day celebration for all people to appreciate Greek culture. Recent estimates have around 40,000 people visiting the popular festival. From its humble beginnings, St. Nicholas has given the Central West End a festival to unite the entire neighborhood and city as a whole.
Many more communities of faith call the Central West End home. Along Kingshighway, six of these religious bodies have organized into an interfaith social justice collaborative. Interfaith collaboration is not a recent development in the Central West End. In the northwestern corner of the neighborhood is the Holy Corners Historic District, named for the two churches and one synagogue that stood at the corner of Kingshighway Boulevard and Washington Place. Beginning in January of 1931, St. John’s Methodist Church, Second Baptist Church, and Temple Israel joined together yearly for a fellowship dinner, hosted by each congregation in turn, a tradition that carried on into the 1970s, even after Temple Israel and Second Baptist left their locations at the Holy Corners.
Today the tradition of interreligious cooperation is carried on by the Holy Grounds Collaborative, a group of six neighborhood congregations working together to address social justice issues in the Central West End. Central Reform Congregation, Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church, First Church of Christ, Scientist, First Unitarian Church, Second Presbyterian Church, and Trinity Episcopal Church make up the Collaborative, which was formed in 2002 and meets monthly at one of the member churches (Holy Ground Collaborative). The Holy Ground Collaborative is located in an area of the city where issues of inequality and injustice are uniquely highlighted: the northern boundary of the Central West End, Delmar Boulevard, marks the division of the city along both racial and economic lines.
There is a stark divide in the socio-economic status of those people who live in the northern sections and those who live in the southern sections of the city of St. Louis. Historically the city has been known as one of the most racially divided cities in the United States, especially between the primarily Euro-American south and African American north. North of Delmar Boulevard, the median home value is $78,000, and only 5% of residents have earned their bachelor’s degree. South of the boulevard, homes are valued at $310,000, and 67% of residents have earned a bachelor’s degree (Harlan). Delmar Boulevard cuts directly through the Central West End neighborhood, a hotbed for social reform in a city that seems to have gone deaf to the cry for justice.
Protests of injustice and police brutality have also been very prevalent over the past few years in the Central West End neighborhood. These protests are led by charismatic individuals who are doing all they can to make a change in the community. One of these individuals was Darren Seals, known to be a champion of civil rights in the local community. From the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson to Seals’ mysterious death in the Central West End in 2016, the citizens of St. Louis have labored to raise awareness for the recurring acts of police brutality in this city. Congregations and religious leaders based in the Central West End have joined their larger community in protests against police violence and what they perceive as unequal justice for black and white residents, most recently in the fall of 2017 after the acquittal of Jason Stockley. This occurrence sent shock waves through the entire city of St. Louis as the former police officer, who shot and killed the unarmed Anthony Lamar Smith, was able to walk away from the case almost scot free. This enraged local community members because justice had not been rightfully served.
During the protest of the Stockley verdict, in which protesters marched from one side of the neighborhood to the other, Central Reform Congregation invited demonstrators into the synagogue, providing them a safe haven from riot police. Rabbi Susan Talve framed the decision to protect protesters as in line with the principles of CRC, saying, “We were founded on these values of standing with each other in difficult times, and hopefully being part of the solution and working to cross divides” (Rosenberg). These values are reflected in the mission statement of the Holy Ground Collaborative:
Apart from engagement in political protests, the Holy Ground Collaborative is very active in the Central West End directly helping local residents and striving to achieve social justice in their neighborhood. Since the Collaborative was founded, they have repaired an elderly neighbor’s home which was in danger of being condemned, built a Habitat for Humanity house, removed lead-based paint and then re-painted fences in three neighborhood schools, and canvassed the neighborhood with information on lead poisoning. They have also been involved in local political issues, holding candidate forums for neighborhood elections, neighborhood-based voter registration drives, and an interfaith service protesting Missouri Medicaid cuts. The Collaborative also holds an annual food drive to benefits the pantries in member congregations that feed the hungry in their neighborhood. Additionally, they provide a monthly soup kitchen at Trinity Episcopal Church, with the meals prepared by each member congregation on a rotating basis. They have recently presented a workshop on dismantling racism and started a no-interest emergency microloan program for members in need.
From the Holy Corners Fellowship to the Holy Ground Collaborative, the tradition of interfaith collaboration is alive and well in the Central West End. The member congregations of the Holy Ground Collaborative work hard to better their neighborhood and the lives of the people who live there, and demonstrate necessary unity in an increasingly troubled and divided city.
Researched and written by Derek Beam, Austin Gebke, Mariah Doyel, Patrick Eustace, and Jay Hollman, Brittany Leong, and Megan Meyer
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