Founded in 1854, St. John Nepomuk Catholic church is the oldest Czech church in the Americas. It was founded to cater to the Czech immigrants who began arriving in St. Louis in large numbers in 1848. Although one of the first Czechs to arrive was a Jewish eye doctor, many of the Czech immigrants were Catholic.
To understand this church and its following a little better, one must first know about its patron saint, Saint John Nepomuk. St. John Nepomuk is a well-known and controversial Saint hailing from Bohemia, a region in what is now known as the Czech Republic. He was a Catholic priest and scholar and was later, allegedly, involved in a conspiracy involving the Queen of Bohemia and her husband's (King Wenceslas) affairs. St. John, being the confessor to the Queen, was then interrogated by the King about the knowledge that his wife possessed about his mistress, Susanna. Ultimately, St. John was drowned, after being tortured with fire, in the Vltava River. He was then martyred by Bohemian Catholics, who saw his devotion to silence and confidentiality admirable. He is now the martyr of the Seal of the Confessional and the Patron Saint against calumnies. He is also seen as the protector against floods and drownings because of his violent death.
St. John Nepomuk Church is located in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis. Soulard is one of the oldest areas of St. Louis and began its life as agricultural plots for the early French and English settlers. The mid to late 19th century, however, saw St. Louis’s population growing quickly, largely due to settlement by European immigrants. One such group were the Bohemians (Czechs) who settled in Soulard in what became known as Bohemian Hill. As members of the Habsburg Empire in Europe, Czech immigrants were often bilingual (German and Czech) and also, to a large degree, literate. By the time they began arriving in large numbers in the 1850s and 1860s, Soulard had shed its agrarian roots and become a center for industry and commerce at the edge of downtown St. Louis.
St. John Nepomuk Church began its life as a small frame building built in 1854. It was the first Bohemian Catholic Church outside of Bohemia. The church as it stands today was built in 1870 and renovations were finished in 1897 after a tornado destroyed many buildings in the Soulard neighborhood.
St. John Nepomuk’s early days were strongly influenced by one of the church’s early pastors, Father Joshph Hessoun. He began his pastoral duties in 1865 and is described in Soulard: The Ethnic Heritage of an Urban Neighborhood as "a charismatic man who for the next forty-one years would be the mentor of the Catholic Czechs in St. Louis”. He encouraged assimilation with other national groups and participation in St. Louis politics, all the while providing St. John Nepomuk parish as a refuge of the old world.
All of the current church buildings, except for the print shop, were constructed during his pastorate. This is somewhat ironic, as he is responsible for founding the Czech language newspaper Hlas (The Voice) in 1873. This newspaper, edited by a Dr. Dostal (who would later be a key figure in the formation of the Czech Republic after the First World War), had wide circulation throughout Czech settlements in the Midwest.
While the church's parishioners are no longer predominantly ethnically Czech, it remains both an important reminder of the Soulard neighborhood's past as well as a distinctive feature of its present. As the church's website proudly proclaims, "we embrace our Czech heritage, but our church is attended by people of all backgrounds from all over the Metropolitan St. Louis area."
Researched and written by Jay Dalvie, Theo Elkow, and Maggie Field
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