Sitting majestically at the corner of 11th Street and Biddle in St. Louis, the Shrine of St. Joseph stands as a witness to modern day faith and community. From the reverence and respect towards Joseph held in its yearly feasts, through the ritual of kissing the relic of St. Peter Claver, the shrine has much to offer to the diversity and uniqueness of St. Louis. It plays a key role in making St. Louis truly sacred.
The Shrine of St. Joseph has had a deep and rich history, starting with the foundation of its parish by the Jesuit priests of Saint Louis University in 1843. First a church to the many immigrants of the St. Louis community, St. Joseph’s has grown and developed into one of the most wondrous and beautiful churches in the city of St. Louis.
In the mid 1800s, thousands of German immigrants began to pour into the St. Louis area, and needed a place of worship. Bishop Peter Kenrick saw the need for the creation of a church that would serve them exclusively. With the help of the Jesuits of Saint Louis University, and the donation of land of the wealthy widow Anne Biddle, the church was constructed. The name, St Joseph, is a fitting one, as St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers.
With the church’s evident success, the Jesuits saw it right to expand it. The sisters of Notre Dame staffed the church and its school for children for the years to come. After its enlargement in the 1860s, it became the largest church in St. Louis. Later on, in response to the cholera outbreak of 1866, Father Joseph Weber commissioned for a monument to be created as a tribute, and in hopes that he would intercede for the church by stopping the deaths of Christians due to cholera. After the creation of this monument, it is said there was a significant decrease in the number of those who had died because of the disease. Furthermore, the Altar of Answered Prayers was carved by specialists in 1867, designed as a replica to the Altar of St. Ignatius in the Jesuit Gesu Church in Rome. However, the altar made for the St. Joseph parish had a statue of St. Joseph and the Christ Child instead of St.Ignatius. Underneath the statue it reads, “It ad Joseph,” which when translated from Latin means “Go to Joseph.” The altar cost more than the original pledge, but the parishioners were happy to raise the extra money to pay for it, in gratitude of St. Joseph saving them from cholera. The altar is still located inside the Shrine of St. Joseph today and serves as the Main Altar. Father Pierre Jean De Smet led the dedication service once the remodeling of the church was completed in late 1866.
As great as its expansion and miracles were in the late 1800s, the church saw a steep decline in the late 1900s. Parishioners of the church were moving out, as smaller industries began to move in, and the church began to deteriorate, on the inside and out. In 1954, the towers had to be shortened for safety reasons, and the cupolas were replaced with heavy hexagonal caps. Once the Jesuits left the St. Joseph Parish, it became staffed and owned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Just as everything seemed lost, a group of five men of different backgrounds and occupations came together to fix the church in the 1970s. Ted Wofford, Gene Boll, Charlie Finninger, Bob Vaughs, and Bob Artega formed a group called “The Shrine of St. Joseph’s Friends” and underwent a twenty-year effort to restore the church to its former glory.
On March 18, 1864, Mr. Strecker, a German immigrant living in St. Louis, visited St. Joseph Parish in hopes that St. Peter Claver would be able to provide him relief from his terminal illness. Ignatius Strecker provided for his wife and nine kids by working at the local soap factory. In 1863 he was injured while working at the factory when his chest was struck with a piece of iron. While the injury seemed to be healing at first, it began to get progressively worse after two months. The wound became extremely inflamed, and a tumor began to grow rapidly on his breastbone. Even the family physician could not help cure the infection. Multiple treatments were administered but the infection worsened. After nine months, Strecker went to one of the best doctors in America, and the doctor deemed that he only had two weeks left to live. After medicine had failed him, Ignatius Strecker turned to the Divine Providence.
His wife was a very devout woman and attended church regularly. Right after Ignatius’s visit with the doctor, Mrs. Strecker went to Church. Father Francis Xavier, a famous missionary, was there to preach. After his sermon, he stood outside the church and blessed the sick with a relic of the Blessed Peter Claver. Peter Claver was a 17th-century Jesuit who preached to black slaves and his relic was “held to have great intercessory powers with God" (Shrine of St. Joseph) Mrs. Strecker was convinced that being blessed by the relic would help her husband. The next day, Ignatius Strecker dragged himself to the church. Father Weniger blessed Stecker, and allowed him to kiss the relic. According to accounts, once his lips touched the relic, the visible parts of his wound began to disappear. Ignatius claimed that this act alone strengthened his faith and courage, and he knew immediately that he would recover from his injury and the subsequent illness that followed. The next day, Ignatius returned to work, and was able to work through the whole day, despite his tremendous fatigue. He recovered from tuberculosis, and his injured ribs and breastbone all healed within the next couple of weeks. Even Ignatius’s doctor, who wasn’t Catholic, recognized that what happened to him was a miracle. After investigation, the miracle was authenticated in 1887 and Peter Claver was canonized as a saint the next year. Back in St. Louis, Ignatius made a complete recovery and later died of typhoid fever. It was documented that his death had nothing to do with his previous illness.
The shrine of Saint Joseph is a major part of Catholic history and the history of Saint Louis that still affects its surrounding community everyday. The church educates and brings together people from all places to celebrate this moment in history. They give tours to anyone wanting to learn and have open doors to all people of all walks of faith. Though they are open to all walks of faith, the people volunteering are eager to help anyone start their faith journey and will answer any questions about Catholicism.
Along with tours and teachings, the shrine also has outreach programs into the city of Saint Louis. Their biggest project is the volunteer ran thrift store sponsored by the church. Volunteers provide all the work needed to run the store while also providing a warm welcome to those visiting. Donuts and coffee are usually offered to anyone stopping in to look around. This thrift store provides local families with a inexpensive option for furniture, clothes, and religious themed objects. It can also provide a sense of community due to the warm nature of the atmosphere and volunteers. All money raised from this goes to the church which allocates the funds appropriately.
Content researched and written by Ryleigh Akridge, Kelsey Garbe, Tyler Guist, Tegan Hoover, Aiswarya Ramaswamy, Rebecca Riley, Haley Steck, and Omar Uraizee.
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