Sacred Space in ‘Gateway to the West’
St. Francis de Sales Church Draws the Faithful After Reopening
True beauty is often seen against its sharpest contrasts, and this proves true for the angelic bastion of grace at the heart of South St. Louis.
Take a step inside St. Francis de Sales Church on a Sunday morning, and one is overwhelmed by the transcendence of faith in Christ the King.
Like from another world, the organ’s all-encompassing notes surround the congregation, weeding out any distractions and gloriously painting what seems like a scene from the Revelation of St. John. A Latin choir joins in, using sacred music to help the congregation see the choirs of angels surrounding the altar during the sacrifice of the Mass. Each celebration draws souls to the confessionals, as they prepare to receive their Eucharistic Lord. Incense rises with a smell of devotion.
It is the tabernacle that steals the show, for the golden cradle of the Blessed Sacrament is at the center of every eye in the church, as well as the focus of every song and every whisper of prayer.
The first-time visitor probably wouldn’t notice the water damage flowing down the sides of the church’s tallest columns. They would probably miss the fact that the foundation of the tower was shifting and that the historic stained-glass windows are bowing. They might be surprised to find out that the organ, confessionals, lighting and other interior elements have not been repaired since 1966.
But, by far, the biggest shock to the first-time visitor would be that, in June of 2005, St. Francis de Sales Church was closed and scheduled to be torn down.
‘Cathedral of South St. Louis’
The parish was founded by German immigrant dairymen in 1867. Originally rooted in a much smaller church across the street from where St. Francis de Sales stands now, the German immigrant community eventually outgrew it.
In 1894, Father John Peter Lotz, the parish’s third pastor, made plans to build a bigger church. He traveled to Berlin in order to consult with an architect there, but soon after excavating the basement for the new church, the parish decided that it would not be able to fundraise enough to build such a grand church. So they decided to put a roof on the basement and use it as a church until they could agree on what to do. Soon after that, a tornado swept through South St. Louis, taking many lives and the old church with it.
Father Lotz died a few years later, and the next pastor took over the building project. Father Frederick Holweck changed some of the plans, making it affordable for the parishioners to build their German Gothic-Revival-style church. The new church was dedicated in 1908.
The parish soon became one of the largest in the city, and during the 1930s, St. Francis de Sales came to be referred to as "the Cathedral of South St. Louis." The campus grew to include a rectory, convent and two school buildings. The church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
As the St. Louis population spread to the suburbs in the 1970s, the St. Francis de Sales neighborhood was hit hard. This is when the church began to deteriorate, for the parish served less and less people each Sunday, with most of the financial support moving far west of the city. This continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
St. Francis de Sales eventually came to serve a Hispanic community, until it closed in June 2005. This wasn’t the only parish in St. Louis that was scheduled to close that year; many parishes were hit by the population shift.
When the newly appointed archbishop of St. Louis, now-Cardinal Raymond Burke, toured these empty churches, St. Francis de Sales caught his eye. Despite the dilapidated condition of the church, the elegantly designed interior and exterior most likely made an impression on him, as well as the over-300-foot-tall spire.
How could the archdiocese destroy a high altar that tops 50 feet, the side baptistery decked with walls of Byzantine-style mosaics and the European Gothic style of the pointed and arched stained-glass windows?
The 130-foot-long aisle is one of the longest in St. Louis, and the interior is uniquely German, with its ceilings over the side aisles almost as high as those over the main aisle. The generic wooden statues are complemented by the ceiling frescoes modeled after those in the Gothic churches of Germany, although none of them shine so brightly as the north transept altar to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Could they take all of that down, as well as the Shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes in front of the church?
The new archbishop could not let such a treasure go, so he called in an order that he knew could restore this church to its former glory. During his time as bishop of La Crosse, Wis., Cardinal Burke successfully worked with the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest to restore a church in Wausau, Wis. Through his efforts, he erected St. Francis de Sales as an oratory of the order; the oratory serves the Archdiocese of St. Louis as a center for the extraordinary form of the Roman rite. The Institute of Christ the King set to work on cleaning and restoring St. Francis de Sales in July 2005.
The sanctuary has been restored for the daily celebration of the liturgy; the sacristy has also been restored. The sacristy was a priority for the institute because that is where priests prepare for their most important role. It is now a beautiful red, painted in the style of St. Louis IX’s chapel, and restored with a counter from another church that closed. The altar in the sacristy is used for priests in the area to practice the traditional rite. The pulpit was moved from the middle of the church to the front, and the institute added two new confessionals. While there is more cleaning and repairs to do, the magnificent design of the church remains the same.
Restoration isn’t the only thing that the Institute of Christ the King does well. It is also in the business of restoring the traditional Mass. The institute’s charism is to celebrate the liturgy to the fullest, and since they’ve taken charge of St. Francis de Sales, 600 to 1,000 people are drawn to the oratory every Sunday. The average family drives 20 miles to get there, and the median age of the congregation is 30 years old.
In addition to the St. Francis de Sales-like preaching (the bishop-writer’s feast day is Jan. 24), with truth covered in charity, the oratory feeds souls with confession, adoration, daily Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. The neighborhood around the church has also improved since the Institute of Christ the King entered the picture. A school and a day-care center were put in next door, which has brought new life to the campus.
At St. Francis Oratory, one can contemplate truth and discern how — as St. Francis de Sales himself put it — to "be who you are and be that well."
Mary Frances Moen
writes from St. Louis.
St. Francis de Sales Oratory
2653 Ohio Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63118
- Jan. 12-25, 2014