Since its completion in 1844, St. Mary of Victories Church has placed a perpetual stamp upon St. Louis that has added to the religious culture of the city. The beautiful interior serves as a reminder to the parishioners of its contributions to sacred St. Louis, its community, and history. The church is special to St. Louis as it was one of the first ethnic churches in the city, starting as a German Church and later becoming the city’s Hungarian Catholic Church and cultural center in 1956.
In the nineteenth century, an influx of German-Catholic immigrants into St. Louis created the demand for German priests and a German church. Having been ignored until 1843, the German Catholics reported American bishops for disregarding their needs. In response to these demands, Bishop Peter Richard Kenrick bought a piece of land from Ann Lucas Hunt that surrounded a German settlement. His attempt to settle the German Catholics’ wishes was successful, as he also gained control over the rest of the land. Upon that land, a church was completed on September 15, 1844.
With that very church, named St. Mary of Victories Church, German Catholics in the city of Saint Louis won a spiritual and cultural victory for themselves. Bishop Kenrick’s letter, written on May 25, 1845, describes St. Mary’s as a “succursal parish”- or subsidiary parish - for the area’s five hundred German-Catholic families. This letter allowed the German-Catholic culture and language to be continued and practiced in St. Louis. The later addition of a parish school and priest housing, renovated from an old house across the street, further aided the Germans’ foundation for cultural identity as well as the alliance and relationship between religion and education that was highly appreciated by the Germans.
After much dispute over the injustice among German and English speaking parishes, Archbishop John Joseph Kain announced that all foreign speaking parishes will be equal to English speaking parishes, and no distinctions will exist between them. However, although this dispute was settled, the parish continued to decline for other reasons. In 1939, the parish experienced its first phase of destruction, caused by the National Park Service who destroyed part of the parish boundaries to build the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The urban life of this parish continued to decline when the Third Street Interregional Highway was destroyed within a few feet of the front steps of St. Mary of Victories. However, in 1957, a new wave of parishioners started a life at this parish. Recent Hungarian immigrants had been worshipping at a parish that was “unable to maintain the complex.” At St. Mary of Victories, Hungarian Catholics and their American descendants have confidence to preserve and make known their language, culture, and heritage just as they saw the Germans were able to successfully accomplish.
St. Mary of Victories Church was designed with red brick by architects Franz Saler and George Barnett, representing architecture of the 16th century Mannerist style. The nave of the church is rectangular, and the surrounding eight, tall stained-glass windows, that were once admired for their artistry in an 1844 German newspaper printed in Cincinnati, were also used as a design for the church.
As for the interior design, St. Mary of Victories is the first completely designed liturgical interior in Saint Louis. The city’s first professional church artist, Max Schneiderhahn, is responsible for the development of this interior design. The German immigrant “brought the craftsmanship tradition of liturgical art to the St. Louis area”where it continued to be prominent until the early 1960s (par. 3). Several pieces of this interior design were developed by Schneiderhahn, including the altars, statuary, communion rail, the carvings, as well as the oil paintings of the Stations of the Cross.
The architecture of St. Mary of Victories is so highly praised by the public that it was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and the City Landmarks Registry. This church site itself serves as the focal point of the pioneer “Chouteau’s Landing” district, which is one of the early commercial and residential immigrant neighborhoods in pre-Civil War era St. Louis. Not only is the architecture itself significant, but several relics collected within this church serve an important purpose as well. They serve as a reminder of the important figures among the church and the religion that people praise daily.
In a video interview on the St. Mary of Victories’ website, Father Brian Harrison talks first-hand about the history of the church and his personal experiences as its spiritual director. He is originally from Australia, but he has lived in St. Louis for nine years. (We had the honor of meeting Father Harrison when we attended St. Mary of Victories).
One of the things Father Harrison talks about is how St. Mary of Victories is now officially a chapel. Therefore, Father Harrison is a Chaplain of St. Mary of Victories. It is no longer a parish church because it is in the “old part of downtown,” and the community has decreased over the years with a result of less attendees.
Father Harrison also talks about how they have a unique form of celebrating Sunday mass. He continues to say that it is the only mass of its form in St. Louis. In 2008, he began to celebrate the Vatican II mass in Latin. He uses the old high altar that is facing God, rather than facing the people. He explains how the church has the option for people to kneel to receive communion, rather than the custom modern way of standing. Some of the traditions feature a Latin "Novus Ordo" Mass, Ad Orientem, with Gregorian Chant, and having only male servers at the altar. It is important to the church to use young boys as servers due to the original idea of “altar boys.” These young boys are seen to be potential priests.
Father Harrison emphasized in his video interview that attendance is small, but he loves the community of St. Mary of Victories. He said that the future of St. Mary of Victories “depends on how much human and material resources we can bring.” He continued on to talk about the prayer they have every Sunday mass to give thanks for what they have been able to do for so long because the future is questionable as to how much longer they will have this beautiful church.
We had a scheduled tour at St. Mary of Victories Church with volunteer Max Kaiser as our tour guide. Max told us how he has been a volunteer at the church for over twenty years, following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps who also volunteered at St. Mary of Victories. Max gave us an overview of the history and architecture of the church, including the stained glass windows, paintings, statues, and other special features. He also told us about how St. Mary of Victories is one of the first ethnic churches in St. Louis. It is registered on the National Register of Historic Places and was consecrated by the Vatican in 1866.
Despite its few parishioners, St. Mary of Victories Church will continue to contribute to sacred St. Louis through its unique services and welcoming community. It will likely long be a home of the region's Hungarian Catholics, and will continue to offer a unique experience of religious and historical importance.
Research and writing by Shania Eversgerd, Gianna Levato, and Emma Mancuso.
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Harrison, Brian. “Saint Mary of Victories Catholic Church.” Online video clip. St. Mary of Victories Catholic Church in St. Louis. August 22, 2016. April 18, 2017.
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Kaiser, Max. Personal interview. April 30, 2017.
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