e city of Saint Louis is filled with sacred images and various works of art relating to faith and religion. The Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, also known as the Old Cathedral, and the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, also known as the New Cathedral, stand as symbols of Catholic belief and remain well-known icons of religious architecture. These sites have been essential parts of Catholicism in the city of St. Louis by bringing people of all different backgrounds together to marvel in their beauty and live together in the same faith.
St. Louis has a rich history of immigration and new starts to life in America. In the early nineteenth century, many Irish, French, and Germans found themselves establishing their new lives as Americans in St. Louis. The population of St. Louis neared 80,000 by 1850, showing enormous growth for a city only really established as a village in the late 1700s. Religion has been, and likely always will be, a fundamental part of the culture and history of St. Louis. In 1764, a French merchant chose this region as the site of his fur trading post. Ultimately, a village was built and named after King Louis IX of France, hence the city’s name “St. Louis." Due to being originally set up by the French, the city has very deep roots in Catholicism and is very connected to the Catholic church. This can be seen today with the numerous parishes, Catholic schools, and renowned Saint Louis University.
In 1826, the Diocese of St. Louis was founded. The creation of the diocese was actually in the works for quite a while. Louis William Valentine DuBourg served as Bishop and “apostolic administrator” for the New Orleans area during the early 1800s. Eventually, he asked for his headquarters, so to speak, to be established in the relatively new Missouri territory. Bishop DuBourg recruited “two Vincentian priests and their small group” to America from Europe and eventually they made their way down to St. Louis. Once the Bishop had also arrived and was ready to work in St. Louis, faithful Catholics worked with the Bishop to set in a motion a plan to build a church for worship. In addition to establishing a church, Bishop DuBourg worked to set up Catholic education for residents in St. Louis. This included bringing in nuns to open girls’ schools in the not far area of St. Charles, opening an academy for boys in St. Louis, and establishing a seminary in Perryville for young men to be educated and consecrated in their Catholic vocation.
The Old Cathedral began in 1764 as a simple one-room log cabin and served as the first Catholic Church of Laclede’s Village, later to be named the city of St. Louis. It then became a larger log church in 1776, until it was replaced by a brick church in 1818 under Bishop DeBourg. In 1831, it was decided that the brick church should be replaced so construction for the Cathedral began. The Cathedral which was designed by Morton and Laveill was completed in 1834 and served as the first Cathedral west of the Mississippi River. It has been called the “Mother Church” of St. Louis and the first log church was the only church open to any denomination of local settlers until about 1816. According to the Cathedral's website, the Old Cathedral was a symbol of the beginning of Catholicism in the colonial West. The architectural style of the Cathedral is Greek Revival and includes features such as tall columns and pediments, painted plaster exterior, horizontal transom, moldings, and embellishment.
The building process for the new Cathedral began with the breaking of the ground ceremony on May 1, 1907, and the physical building began on October 18, 1908 with the laying of the cornerstone ceremony. The outside of the building was finished in 1912 with the first mass in 1914. Thousands of artists began working to make 40,500,000 pieces of mosaic into cohesive artwork, which wasn’t finished until 1988. The New Cathedral was designed by George D Barnett of Barnett, Haynes, and Barnett of Saint Louis. Their designs included a circular Sacristy (the room where the priest prepares for services and where vestments and other ritual objects are kept) which would be placed on the north end and was not built when the main structure was completed in 1914. A Sacristy was eventually built, but was designed instead by George John Magualo of Magualo and Quick. This exemplifies the complexity of their plans and how many different architects and artists it took to complete the cathedral. The architectural style of the Basilica is Byzantine Revival and Romanesque Revival. The features of the Byzantine Revival were round shaped domes and round topped arches.
In the late 18th and early 19th century an architectural movement known as the Greek Revival swept the United States and Northern Europe. This architectural theme consists of many white buildings because they were meant to resemble the wealthy public buildings that were made of white marble. Common materials used during this era were stucco, wood, standing steam tin, cedar shingles and stone. Low pitched, temple-like roofs and defined details were often seen as well as two windowpanes each with six panes. The windows on the buildings were often decorated especially in sections of three per window. The most common aspect of the Greek Revival are pillars and columns however these columns were oftentimes square or octagonal rather than the classic round structure (Historic Styles).
The Byzantine Revival is a form of architecture that was used in western Europe. It became commonly used in the 19th century. This type of architecture was mostly used in religious buildings and featured a symmetrical round type building plan. It also included a domed roof which rested on either a squinch or the pendentive. A squinch is when there is an arch in the corners of a square base turning it into an octagonal shape. The pendentive is when there are triangular segments that extend off a sphere and continue to the ground to allow a circular dome to cover a square room. Other features of the Byzantine structures are very tall and large spaces as well as luxurious decorations like marble columns and stone, beautiful mosaics and inlaid stone pavements. The opposite half of the cathedral is a Romanesque revival which also became relevant in the 19th century. This style of architecture drew inspiration from past Romanesque styles of architecture which date back as far as the 11th century. One defining feature of this style of architecture is the use of large arches which were placed over doorways and windows. Another feature used in Romanesque architecture was the use of very thick stone walls. In the late 1990s a large stainless steel sculpture was added to the side yard of the church. The 14' stainless steel sculpture Angel of Harmony was made by the Polish artist Wiktor Szostalo and features an apparently black angel who is standing behind three children with differing ethnic backgrounds like Asian, Hispanic, and European. Angel of Harmony was a gift from Adelaide Schlafly in the memory of her deceased husband Daniel Schlafly who worked as a Catholic layman who fought for racial justice.
The Old Cathedral was a grand structure when it was built three quarters of a century ago, but all admit that the new Saint Louis should have another (Cathedral)-more handsome and more worthy…of the great Catholic city of the West.
Archbishop John J. Kain (1896)
This quote was written by Archbishop John J. Kain in a letter to the people of the Archdiocese in October 1896. The New Cathedral was created simply because the people wanted to build a new church to replace the old one. It would be even more stunning and representative of the city than the original.
The Old and New Cathedral differ architecturally in many different ways but they still retain their similarities. The main differences lie in the dome of the New Cathedral, the decorative window of the Old Cathedral, and the many flags of the New Cathedral. In addition, the Old Cathedral represents architecture similar to that of the Greek Revival while the New Cathedral Represents architecture similar to Byzantine Revival and Romanesque Revival. Despite their differences each church is similar in their symbols of new eras of religion here in St. Louis. The Old Cathedral was a symbol of Catholicism in the colonial west, being the first cathedral west of the Mississippi River. The New Cathedral stands as the symbol of the modern era of Catholicism here in St. Louis with its sculpture to represent racial harmony. Although the structures within the churches may change, the Old and New Cathedral will still be connected to one another as they represent the sacredness of the city of Saint Louis.
From the Old Cathedral to the "new" Cathedral Basilica, these structures have been unifying pieces of history and religion that tie the city of St. Louis together. Together they remind us that we come from different backgrounds but there is a common history and, for many, faith, that can put those differences aside.
[This content will be updated for clarity and the unedited audio is provided here as oral history of the tour in November 2016.]
Content researched, written, and compiled by Sarah Birtch, Megan Cladis, Paul Cleveringa, Stephanie Gurevich, William Kane, Rebecca Mitchell, Talha Muzaffar, Clare O'Carroll, Daniel Perez-Arnold, and Kyrollos Shenouda.
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