Like so many downtown churches across this nation, the Shrine of St. Joseph in St. Louis reflects the ebb and flow of this river city. Ethnic groups have come and gone; businesses and shops have risen and fallen.
But the Catholic shrine has stood strong in its identity as a sanctuary of answered prayers for more than 160 years.
The shrine will celebrate St. Joseph’s Day this week, March 19, with a Mass at 12:10 p.m. There will also be a Mass anticipating the feast on Sunday, March 15, at 11 a.m. Blessed bread will be distributed after Mass.
According to tradition, families celebrating the feast often prepare St. Joseph’s Bread, which is made in the form of crosses, staffs, wheat sheaves, images of St. Joseph or the braids of the Blessed Mother. Some people believe that if St. Joseph’s Bread is kept in the home, the family will never starve.
The story of this historic church begins in 1843, when the Jesuits founded the parish. Its dedication to the patron saint of workers, St. Joseph, was a fitting one, as it was at the heart of a working-class immigrant neighborhood. Not long after its establishment, the Notre Dame Sisters moved in and began to staff the parish school.
By 1880, St. Joseph’s saw a large renovation, which enlarged and remodeled the church. This project included the building of magnificent twin towers and the addition of an elaborate Romanesque face to the church. Interestingly, due to safety reasons, these striking towers had to be shortened and its elaborate cupolas replaced with hexagonal caps in the 1950s.
In its colorful 160-plus year history, the Shrine of St. Joseph has been known for two miraculous events, one of which was officially approved by the Vatican.
The first miracle occurred in relation to the church’s main altar. Known as the Altar of Answered Prayers, it was the scene of many prayers in 1866, when a cholera epidemic struck St. Louis. It was one of several cholera epidemics the city endured throughout the 19th century, caused by bad drinking water and a poor sewer system. At the peak of the epidemic, St. Joseph’s was the site of as many as 25 funerals a day.
The pastor, Jesuit Father Joseph Weber, gathered his parishioners together to storm heaven with prayers. He asked his congregation to make a vow to God: If spared from this epidemic, they would work toward the erection of a suitable monument in honor of St. Joseph. Miraculously, no one contracted the sickness. To this day, a stunning statue of St. Joseph and the Christ Child stands above the tabernacle behind the main altar.
St. Joseph’s was also the site of a Vatican-authenticated miracle in 1861. That year, German immigrant Ignatius Streckner, a local factory worker, was injured when he accidentally ran into a pointed piece of iron. Two months later, the injury had become an infected growth on his chest.
Streckner’s wife, a woman of deep faith, attended a parish mission at St. Joseph’s during this time; the priest blessed those attending with a relic of Father Peter Claver, a 17th-century Jesuit missionary who served the slaves in what is today Colombia. She urged her husband to go to the mission.
Streckner attended the next day. After receiving the blessing, he felt a sudden increase in courage, strength in faith, and an utter assurance that he would recover his health. His sore began to disappear, and his chest healed rapidly. His doctor was astonished.
Two years after the cure, a canonical investigation was initiated. In 1887, the miracle was officially declared authentic. It was one of two miracles that allowed St. Peter Claver to be canonized in 1888.
Saved by Friends
In 1965, the Jesuits left St. Joseph’s and turned the church over to the Archdiocese of St. Louis. By the 1970s, the shrine and its surrounding neighborhood had fallen into decay and urban blight. In fact, the church was slated for demolition. Tragedy struck in 1979, when the pastor of the parish, Father Edward Filipiak, was murdered inside the church’s rectory.
News of his death served as a rallying cry to save this historic church. Donations began to pour in. A little more than a year later, the Archdiocese of St. Louis granted stewardship of the shrine to the Friends of St. Joseph — a nonprofit group of volunteers dedicated to funding and restoration of this historic landmark.
More than 25 years later, the restoration continues. Over the years, the historic baroque towers have been restored, doors and pews have been refinished, and the shrine’s religious artwork and statuary have been given new life.
Not surprisingly, St. Joseph’s is home to a faithful group of Massgoers and pilgrims who often have some historic or familiar tie to the shrine. St. Joseph’s also celebrates numerous weddings throughout the year. Who wouldn’t want to have their marriage blessed in such a historic site by St. Joseph, the patron saint of families?
With its brilliant artwork, high-reaching arches and stunning stained-glass windows, this historic church has a cathedral-like feel. To pass through the heavy wooden doors of St. Joseph’s is to take a step into another era.
Its numerous statues and side altars reflect the shrine’s rich devotional heritage. Years of neglect, the threat of destruction, and even the murder of church’s pastor could not keep this landmark shrine from being a sign of hope and prayer.
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.