Soulard St. Louis is a lively district that is known primarily today for its Mardi Gras festival, but it also has a rich history and religious presence. The different religions can be seen throughout the history of Soulard. Soulard had many different cultures due to immigration to St. Louis in the early 1800s. Mardi Gras is important to the Catholics of the district as well as many others not from the district who participate in the Mardi Gras celebration. Another moment in history is the devastating cyclone of 1896 that destroyed parts of Soulard but also worked to bring the community together. Religion in Soulard is not as present as it once was, but evidence of the different cultures and religions still exist in the district today. Religion in Soulard is present through the history, celebrations, and cultures that make the district what it is today.
When we all first got to the Soulard neighborhood there wasn't much to look at. We originally got dropped off in front of the Farmers Market (which of course was closed) which made it seem like a ghost town on a Tuesday afternoon. Walking through Soulard the first thing we all noticed was that there was no one in sight and there was a lot of construction going on. Still having hope we continued to walk around, trying to find something that we could relate to and trying to find the main street. We were drawn to a church that was tall and beautifully constructed. Red bricks and stained glass windows with big front doors. Although we couldn't go in, we suspected this church was something that the neighborhood was proud to have in their community. We soon/later learned that this first church we saw was Trinity Lutheran Church. Next we saw the church of Sts. Peter and Paul with the light colors and beautiful architecture that can be seen from anywhere in the neighborhood. Another thing that was noticeable was all the bright colors and houses that gave off a kind of New Orleans feel. This New Orleans feel was seen in the bright colors of the houses and the Mardi Gras decorations that stay up all year round. It was especially nice with all of the leaves changing colors and the trees lining all of the streets.
Antoine and Julia Soulard came from France and moved into the land and claimed it as their own. Antoine Soulard was a surveyor once he and his wife moved here in the 1840s, the area became known as Soulard. The city and neighborhoods consisted of French culture and architecture under Antoine and Julia’s influence. Up until the 1840s, the city expanded and had included the immigration of Germans, Slavs, Croatians, Italians, and English. Catholicism was the more dominant religion that these cultures practiced throughout all of Soulard. Multiple churches for each of these cultures sprung up during this time to help the people practice their faith in their language. As of today, the church of Sts. Peter and Paul still stands in the middle of Soulard to congregate the community in worship. Each of these immigrant communities helped bring about different cultures, views, and religions that make up what Soulard is today.
Mardi Gras is often associated with New Orleans, Louisiana and French tradition. This New Orleans feel is brought to Soulard every year for the Mardi Gras parade and festival. Pieces of Soulard’s French influence can be seen throughout the district just by exploring and talking to its residents.
Mardi Gras in the Catholic faith is associated with the day before Lent begins, often called by the English translation, Fat Tuesday. This is the day where Catholics can indulge and take part in the vices that they will give up the next day, on Ash Wednesday- the beginning of the Lenten season. The celebration of Mardi Gras in Soulard includes a parade and many people of all different religions partying before the reflective season of Lent that ends on Easter Sunday.
On the afternoon of May 27th, 1896, a tornado struck the Saint Louis area that ended up changing the lives of the people in the community forever. This tornado hit its full force and potential in Soulard. Almost all of the churches in the community were destroyed, including the Catholic church Sts. Peter and Paul and the German Catholic Church that once stood in Soulard. Many of the churches and buildings that were destroyed still had the potential to be rebuilt in the same place they originally stood. Some people even stayed inside the churches for shelter but were forced to seek different asylum when the roofs of buildings started to cave in. Even though this tornado terrorized the Soulard community it brought people together to help rebuild the community. This is known as the “Great Cyclone” because it was one of the most deadly. Two-hundred fifty-five people were killed because of the tornado in total, it tore through much of the St. Louis area. The tornado ran across the Mississippi River at the Gateway Arch, approximately 7,500 buildings destroyed or damaged, it was so forceful that trains were tossed from tracks. Tom Gullickson, president of the Soulard Business Association, shared with us that the community takes pride in the fact that they were able to come together to rebuild the community in the wake of this disaster. Even with the destruction of many Soulard’s churches and buildings, the people remained faithful and came together to rebuild. The disaster brought out the best in people and helped bring the faith to light in the community.
Soulard is a district with a very rich history, many different types of people and cultures existed there and continue to today. However, there are not as many religions represented in Soulard today. When we spoke with Tom Gullickson, he told us that there are only two churches that are still operating today. One is the Catholic church, Sts. Peter and Paul which was established in 1848. Gullickson’s impression of the community is that it is still largely Catholic, although other faiths are represented. The other church is the Lutheran church, Trinity Lutheran, which was established first in a basement in 1839. This Trinity Lutheran congregation is the oldest west of the Mississippi and still exists in the Soulard area where it first began. There used to be seven different churches, all with different languages and cultures in the area. Now only the two churches exist and the only religious school, which was a part of the Sts. Peter and Paul parish, has recently been closed as well.
Research and writing by Lizzie Homire, Julia Valdez, and Hannah Williams
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