St. Francis Xavier College Church, located in the heart of mid-town St. Louis, has been a staple in the community for many years. Founded by the Jesuits, the parish church has remained connected to St. Louis University and to the surrounding neighborhoods of midtown St. Louis since it began in the early 19th century. Known for its beautiful liturgies, exquisite architecture, and community involvement, the College Church draws from over 70 different zip codes in the St. Louis Area.
The corner of Lindell and Grand Boulevard in the city of St. Louis is home to the beautiful Saint Francis Xavier College Church. Located in the heart of St. Louis and on the campus of Saint Louis University (SLU), for generations students and local residents have grown to love and admire such a building. One can even say that the College Church is at the center of some lives due to its location, but it was not always like this. When SLU was founded in 1818, despite it being a Jesuit institution, there was no parish connected to the University. It was not until 1836, eighteen years after its founding, that Bishop Joseph Rosati received permission to found a parish. The Jesuits dedicated the new parish to Saint Aloysius. As the parish grew, the Jesuits decided that a growing parish would need its own church and began construction on April 12, 1840, but not in the location of today’s church. This church would be named after Saint Francis Xavier but because of its location on SLU’s campus, it was known as the College Church.
As the city of St. Louis expanded, SLU decided to move the College Church to a more central location in the city. In 1867 property was purchased at Lindell’s Grove and Grand Boulevard and in 1879 Archbishop Kenrick granted the Jesuits permission to build a brand new church on the property. The new church’s design was an English Gothic style, making it very unique and was designed by architects Thomas Walsh and Henry Switzer. Construction began in 1883 and on June 8, 1884, the basement was completed. It was not until many years after that the construction of the upper church was completed. The church was dedicated in 1898 and in 1914 the addition of the tower was implemented when the bells were installed. The bells were originally from Seville, Spain and had been brought to New Orleans in 1789 by Lutherans before they were eventually taken to St. Louis by the Jesuits.
St. Francis Xavier is the third oldest parish in St. Louis and the first English-speaking parish in the city. Ever since its completion at the turn of the twentieth century, College Church has been a focal point for SLU students and the surrounding communities of St. Louis. The College Church is well-known. If one asks about the corner of Grand and Lindell, one will know that they are talking about the beautiful College Church.
Located in the heart of the city in Mid-Town St. Louis, true to Ignatian tradition, the College Church is designed to be connected to the life and struggles of the community.
The final design of the upper church created by Thomas Walsh was refined by Henry Switzer. Switzer gave the exterior a more English Gothic quality by lightening the supports, pushing entrances forward from the base and by building up the pediments. Every niche on the tower of the building holds a distinct sculpture of a saint crafted. The design and shape of the windows from the outside follows an intentional pattern. The visual language of the windows is rooted in the Medieval Church where icons were commonly used to express Catholic faith. Seen from miles away, the most compelling aspect of the exterior, though, is the tower and steeple. The intricate architecture of the building and design draws many to the Church.
Upon entering the church, the entire effect when looking at the altar suggests a glimpse into heaven. On either side of the Church, monolithic granite columns draw one’s eyes upward. These columns are striking and are also very functional in supporting the brick arches and upper walls. The internal embellishments were created of wood and finished in plaster to appear to be stone. On the upper walls, this method allowed for lightweight fan vaulting, a method commonly used in Gothic architecture, and eliminated the need for additional exterior supports. The colorful stain glass windows in the interior are created with a 13th century design but use much more modern figures in the drawings. The windows contain stories of Jesus’s life, figures from the Old Testament and of Jesuit saints. The lives of the saints depicted in the windows explain the mission of the university and connect its members to the community of St. Louis.
"College Church is a unique, wonderful, Christ-filled place. It feels like home.”
The wider Saint Louis community along with the student body of Saint Louis University uses the college church for much more than celebrating the Catholic mass. The church is an integral part of outreach, including cultural and religious services for people of many diverse backgrounds.
Events often take place at the church that center around bringing unity to the many divided communities of Saint Louis. On September 10, 2016, parishioners from many Catholic churches along with SLU students walked together from the Saint Louis University campus to the north side of Delmar Boulevard. Delmar is used as a socioeconomic barrier in Saint Louis, with many poorer and conventionally African-American communities residing on the north side. This walk symbolized Catholics everywhere coming together to show love for all in Saint Louis.
The college church also promotes Catholicism to the community surrounding the church in many more direct ways. To continue spreading reverence for Jesus of Nazareth, the church hosted a half mile walk down Grand, the major street intersecting Saint Louis University. 150 people were in attendance, and they even blocked traffic in the process. As they marched, the people all sang and payed respect to their savior, in the highly visible streets of SLU’s campus.
Saint Francis Xavier College Church also hosts many unique events to promote healing and creating a better world. Saint Louis University boasts a highly ranked medical school and gifts of people’s bodies help the medical school to continue educating world class doctors. To honor the courageous people who donated their bodies to help promote the advancement of medicine, an interfaith service is celebrated at the church every year. The prayers done in the service reflect the faith backgrounds of the medical students and the families of the donors. No matter what the faith of the attendee is, they are brought together in the place of worship. In addition, a service is held in the church when nurses receive their white coats before starting clinicals.
The church truly does serve as an architectural symbol of SLU’s mission for students: to be men and women for and with others. Staying firm with the Catholic belief that the death penalty is morally wrong, SLU students held a vigil for an inmate in Missouri as he was being executed in 2014. The college church also has a program to aid homeless and underprivileged people get the necessary identification to vote. Through programs like these, SLU students announce that they truly do practice what they preach. The culture created at Saint Louis University establishes a student body that is driven to fight the injustices around them.
Events like this establish a unique culture towards religion at SLU. Students are not afraid to show their love of God and humanity. In fact, many students connected with College Church are extremely proud to be faithful. One student among many, Chase Enright, is extremely proud to be involved with campus ministry and the 9 pm, student-lead, Sunday mass:
“I think that being a catholic youth involves a different mindset. There is a greater sense of community in student masses rather than in masses with family. At student masses, we, as students, express love for each other through our common connections. We are all SLU students and we love our faith, and each other.”
The church as a whole is standing tall to bring together a community and the campus within it, while other barriers are trying to break it apart. The church is a constant that spreads unity and God’s love to all in Saint Louis.
Daniel Carter and Riley Dunn are two of many people working behind the scenes at College Church. Riley is the pianist for the weekly student masses as well as a music coordinator for all masses that take place at College Church. He is also a member and leader of a Christian Life Community on campus. Riley described the church as the deciding factor for his college decision. He stated, “I was down to the wire deciding between SLU and a few other different schools, and I came to a student 9PM Mass, and because of the beauty I saw - both of the building and of the community it held - I knew that SLU was going to be my home.” Daniel Carter is an executive board member of Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s organization on campus, as well as a member of the LIFT Committee, which is the student organization that is involved in planning masses and service events at College Church. Daniel is also an altar server at the Sunday evening masses. When asked what he loves about College Church, Daniel wrote “Whether it be 70s liturgical music or the tacky vestments, College Church is a unique, wonderful, Christ-filled place. It feels like home.” Daniel is also a recent convert to Catholicism. He explained that his favorite memory at College Church was his Confirmation because he was surrounded by a community he “ knew loved and cared for [him] very deeply.” These kind of experiences show us how College Church is important to the individuals on campus.
“I was down to the wire deciding between SLU and a few other different schools, and I came to a student 9PM Mass, and because of the beauty I saw - both of the building and of the community it held - I knew that SLU was going to be my home.”
In order to get a better look at the SLU community as a whole, we conducted an email survey. The survey was offered to SLU undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni of any religion. The results showed that 39% of the survey takers were of the freshman undergraduate class and that 71% of the total population identified with a Christian religion. Out of the entire (self-selected) responses, 65% felt that their religion was positively impacted by College Church, while the other 35% felt that it had no impact on their religion. The SLU community was then asked their opinion concerning the impact that St. Xavier currently has on the SLU community, with specific respect to the student body. The responses can be seen in Figure 1. (Editor's note: The survey data here is preliminary and suggestive. Findings will be updated as more responses are tallied.)
In an interview conducted with Christine Dragonette, who is the Director of Social Ministry at the College Church, she expressed that the church plays a very important role in the St. Louis community. She stated that the church can be seen as a “welcoming and open faith community” not only to Christian but also to non Christians through the many services and programs that the church offers. She also expressed that even though the church did play a peaceful role and opened its doors for open dialogue during the Ferguson riots, she would like to see the church placing more “church and faith leaders on the streets conducting peaceful protests and marching for justice.” An important program that the church offers to the Saint Louis community is that every Tuesday and Wednesday the church has walk-in hours where the church helps guests with low income access Ids and birth certificates, and this program is open to everyone.
A look at College Church's relation to the broader St. Louis region would not be complete without noting that it is a highly sought venue for weddings and marriage ceremonies. As an indication of its popularity, it is said that the wait list to be married in the church is over a year. Engaged couples are attracted to the space for its beauty and grandeur and the church uses these connections to form stronger ties to the couple and, through them, the community.
One of the first things that must be done to be married at St. Francis Xavier College Church is that a couple who wants to be married must go through a pre-marriage seminar and meet with the priest or deacon who is to marry them. Baptism certificates, a certificate saying that the seminar is complete, and a Missouri marriage license are also required to be married in the church. One rule about the wedding ceremony is that a pianist from the College Church and a cantor are required since the ceremony is more liturgical. For the reception, the Ballroom at the College Church is allowed to be rented out and is catered.
Many couples take pictures inside the church and outdoors, as many of the couples being married there attended SLU in the past. The church is known for its beautiful ceremony and its simple decoration, as the beauty of the Church is enough for many couples. It is a very popular spot to be married, and many have raved about their wonderful and beautiful experience.
Having looked at College Church's past and present, what can we predict about its future? It is tricky business, but from all that we have learned in researching St. Francis Xavier College Church some trends may give us a glimmer of insight into what roles the church will play in the future. This estimate can be made in both a qualitative and quantitative sense. Beginning with the quantitative it is important to look the trends produced by Figure 2.
[Again, noting that these trends are based on a very limited sample of self-selected responses] Figure 2 shows the percentage of mass attendance vs. years of attendance at SLU. As can be seen the trend reveals that after a 50% decrease in attendees occurs each incoming freshman class thereafter has a higher number of attendees than the year before. If this trend was to be extrapolated into the upcoming years it can be expected that the amount of mass attenders would again reach 100% before taking another sharp decrease. Therefore, the quantitative approach suggests that St. Xavier will continue to have an important place in SLU’s community. The qualitative approach strengthens the quantitative assessment of the community. Some comments left by survey takers were as follows.
“St. Francis Xavier is a sacred place that allows SLU students to come together to enhance spiritual bonds and grow as human beings. For me, it is a safe place to think and talk to God personally. I love the atmosphere and the feelings I get when inside St. Francis Xavier.”
“The 9PM mass is fantastic!”
It is clear both quantitatively and qualitatively that the church has an integral role to play in the upcoming years with the SLU community. However, its roles in the Saint Louis community remain unclear from the data and knowledge collected. If efforts are made by the church leaders to continue and reach out the community with service and charity it can be expected that St. Xavier will continue its current role in the community and also play a key component in solving some of the modern problems faced by the community.
Content researched and written by Anna Bommarito, Musharib Chaudhry, Kristen Fronmuller, Alec Herzog, Trace Jones, Jane Lavelle, Karishma Patel, Monica Shuler, Emily Smith, and Hannah Vasil.
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