The “Apotheosis of St. Louis” statue is one of many statues located in St. Louis’ Forest Park. This statue portrays King Louis IX of France as an equestrian soldier with a raised sword, appearing to take leadership in battle. For visitors to St. Louis, the statue might raise many questions such as who is Saint Louis and how has his influence affected a city in the Midwestern United States?
Saint Louis was a devout Catholic. His mother, Blanche of Castile greatly influenced his Catholic upbringing and strong morals. Renowned for his charity, Saint Louis, King of France, was known to be very kind, giving him much credit to his subjects in the kingdom. There are many accounts of him humbly serving the poor, feeding lepers, and giving away money to those who needed it. He was a modest king, who was known to not be greedy. As he was devoted to giving, he was also devoted to fighting for his faith in the crusades. He fought two crusades, but died in his second of dysentery. Saint Louis greatly influenced the religious arts, since he was known to purchase and even build many churches and cathedrals. He also built many hospitals and houses for the bind, reformed prostitutes, and fed the poor from his table. Saint Louis, the only king to be named a saint, has been recognized in history as a great and humble king. His story influenced many, among them Pierre Laclede, a Catholic Frenchman who named a city after him.
On July 7, 1755, Pierre de Laclede Liguest left France aboard the Concorde, a ship bound for America. Although he didn’t know it, he was about to found a great city that would later be known as the Gateway to the West. Laclede and his work crew named the new settlement where they landed between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers "St.Louis," in honor of the legendary king, Saint Louis IX.
In the earliest days of settlement in Saint Louis the settlers set off with the intention of practicing their Catholic religion faithfully in this foreign land. But despite the clear importance of religious affiliation in the settlement, many Catholics did not appear anxious to support the church or to conduct themselves in a godly manner. As a member of the clergy said in what he saw of St.Louis in the early days was that he was frankly appalled by what he saw of the settlers. Their sin of choice, alcohol. The clergyman said that “They simply drank too much.” Patricia Clearly, from her book The World, the Flesh and the Devil: A History of Colonial St.Louis, sums up the ideology of early Saint Louisans with this: ”As they wrestled with the problems of building a new community in the 1770s, St. Louisans adapted religious, radical, sexual and legal norms to suit their needs, embracing a consensus style governance and tolerance of questionable behavior that made it possible for the community to survive and thrive.”
Saint Louis was the last major achievement of the French in North America (Faherty). Originally, many Catholics settled in Illinois but later moved to Saint Louis as more and more farmers realized the growing potential that lay on the other side of the Mississippi. In 1764, St. Louis became a prominent city as an influx of migrants quickly increased the population. The town was known for it’s peaceful attitude and lack of violence. French colonial policy dictated for a respectful relationship with Native Americans so there was a lack of disturbances that typically occurred in other colonial cities. March 10, 1804 was a very significant day for Saint Louis. Napoleon sold the property to the United States in the famous Louisiana Purchase. From that day on, people began entering Saint Louis in droves. By the 1820s, French immigrants and their descendants made up half of the population of the city.
As stated previously, St. Louis, Missouri, a city in Midwest that borders the Mississippi River, is a city known for its Catholic roots. A stereotypical St. Louis saying is, “What high school did you go to?” because of the multitude of high schools in a small region, especially Catholic high schools. Many of these schools were founded by French Catholic leaders as they settled St. Louis to spread their heritage on the new frontier. The Archdiocese of St. Louis was founded in 1818 under the leadership of Bishop Louis DuBourg. DuBourg fulfilled his mission of Catholic education in the Louisiana Territory with the accompaniment of Father Pierre DeSmet, Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne, and Father Joseph Rosati. Today, their mission is honored in the Catholic school system with DeSmet Jesuit College-Preparatory for boys, Duchesne High School in Florissant and the Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Charles, Rosati-Kain High School for girls, and even a building at Saint Louis University bears the name DuBourg Hall. According to The Old Cathedral by Gregory M. Franzwa, DuBourg was the founder of Saint Louis University. Later, other missions journeyed to St. Louis. According to Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Catholicism was scarce in America and the French missionaries were interested in cultivating Catholicism in America from the stories they read in Annals of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. After the turmoil of the French Revolution, Mother St. John Fontbonne, from whom Fontbonne University derived its name, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyons wished to help expand the mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph to Missouri. With the leadership of Bishop Rosati and their spiritual director Father Charles Cholleton, the sisters established an institute for the deaf in St. Louis and they eventually grew to educate young women. The Sisters of St. Joseph’s mission continues today in St. Joseph’s Academy. Just by hearing the St. Louis education system, visitors can see how the legacy of French Catholic history thrives in the city today.
In addition to the many Catholic institutions founded by the French, the Statue of Saint Louis in Forest Park, a popular park in St. Louis, demonstrates the city’s Catholic roots alive today. Charles Henry Niehaus began sculpting the statue out of plaster in 1903, and the original model stood at the main entrance of the 1904 World’s Fair. Following the World’s Fair, the statue was cast in bronze, and presented to the city of St. Louis by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company. After negotiating prices with Niehaus, the statue’s original sculptor, the company finally hired a local firm, W. R. Hodges, to cast the statue in bronze for $37,500. Niehaus protested Hodges work, and sued for ownership rights of the statue. Months after the dedication of the statue to Forest Park, Niehaus was given payment and recognition for his original work, which is why the statue we see today is inscribed, "designed by C. H. Niehaus." The new statue was officially unveiled October 4, 1906. The base of the statue reads, "Presented to the City of St. Louis by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in commemoration of the Universal Exposition of 1904 held on this site."
As we can see, St. Louis bears rich French roots and its French Catholicism influence continues to thrive throughout the city. According to the Association of Religious Data Archive, of the nearly one million in population in St. Louis County, 230,488 identify themselves to be Catholic and 247,000 as Protestant. There has also been a decrease of 23.4% from 2000-2010 in the Catholic population and an increase of nearly 100% for many Protestant denominations.
Although declining in population in recent decades, St.Louis remains a historically Catholic city in many aspects and the prevalence of the church is evident in the everyday lives of many St. Louisans, from community fish frys during Lent, to elaborate Christmas displays in December, to the names of streets and neighborhoods throughout the city. With Saint Louis as the city’s patron, the city remembers and honors its founders and sparks interest to the city in touch with its deep history. From the statue of Saint Louis atop his horse ready for his crusade to the massive Cathedral Basilica, the impact of Saint Louis IX is monumental to say the least.
Content researched and written by Sarah Cerkvenik, Chase Enright, Sarah Esparza, Zarah Habibollah, Alexis Stogner, Brett Thomas, and Sarah Tran.
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