St. Joseph’s Shrine of Miracles: Spared From Cholera and Closure
How one St. Louis church survived epidemic and decay to attest to saintly intercession.
Years before the Shrine of St. Joseph in St. Louis became a “shrine,” when it was first the parish of St. Joseph Church, it became renowned for two miracles. The first was a Vatican-approved miracle for the canonization of St. Peter Claver.
The day was March 16, 1864.
Ignatius Strecker, a German immigrant and father of nine, literally dragged himself into the church. Months earlier, after being injured at work, his physical condition began to deteriorate severely, he developed tuberculosis, and the best doctors diagnosed him as incurable, giving him only weeks to live.
At the time, Father Francis Xavier Weninger, a renowned Jesuit missionary, was giving a mission at the church. Strecker’s wife heard the priest preach about Blessed Peter Claver, another Jesuit missionary. She hurried home and begged her dying husband to ask for Peter Claver’s intercession to recover. Somehow he mustered the strength to visit the church the next day — just as Father Weninger was going to bless the people with a relic of Peter Claver. When the missionary saw how sick Strecker was, he had him kiss the relic. At once the dying man felt his strength return.
Within a few days his incurable wounds were completely healed, his tuberculosis disappeared, and he was able to go back to work. The Vatican authenticated the miracle and used it as one of two for St. Peter Claver’s canonization.
“After that miracle the Jesuits decided to enlarge the church, and that’s virtually what you see today,” said Howard Matthews, a longtime member of the Friends of the Shrine of St. Joseph as well as a shrine tour guide.
While the addition was being built in 1866, St. Louis suffered from the outbreak of a cholera epidemic. This is when the second miracle happened. An average of 280 people died each day as the epidemic raged. At St. Joseph Church, the Jesuit priests and brothers worked tirelessly to help parishioners as well as other victims. From 10 to 25 funerals were held each day.
More Prayers Answered
Then, one Sunday summer morning, Father Joseph Weber, the pastor, encouraged the parishioners to make a solemn vow to God that if, through St. Joseph’s intercession, “we can be spared of any more cholera deaths, we will build a fitting monument to St. Joseph,” Matthews explained. The pastor asked each individual to sign the vow and to make a monetary pledge to underwrite the monument for whatever amount they could give. The poor congregation pledged an astounding $4,000 (equivalent to about $125,000 today), according to the church’s archives.
Everyone quickly called what happened next the second miracle. Matthews explained what transpired: “From that Sunday, every single person and their family was spared of the cholera death. With that, the parish decided to build the massive altar, 60 feet high” to honor St. Joseph. The altar was put in place that same year and is the same altar prayed before by famed Jesuit missionary Father Pierre De Smet, who, on Dec. 30, 1866, officiated at the dedication.
From that time to today it is known as “The Altar of Answered Prayers” because of St. Joseph’s intercession in that cholera epidemic. The very ornate altar, resplendent with various repeating decorative designs, moldings and dentils throughout its different tiers, was carved in Chicago to resemble one in the Jesuits’ Church of the Gesu in Rome.
Marbleized Corinthian columns topped with gold frame the three arched shrines in the middle tier. In the center shrine, standing under an arch and a dome of golden seashell, is a statue of St. Joseph with Jesus, pictured as a young boy of about 10. Jesus is depicted holding a book and looking up lovingly at his earthly father, while Joseph is depicted looking at Jesus. Joseph is shown with his left arm around Jesus’ shoulder while Jesus is shown raising his hand to hold Joseph’s fingers. The resplendent colors — the image of Joseph wears a blue tunic and a light purple cloak trimmed in gold, and Jesus’ image bears a light-green tunic similarly trimmed — add to the tableau.
Directly above, carved at the base of the upper tier, are the words Ite ad Joseph — Go to Joseph.
Joseph and Company
Matthews estimates the larger-than-life-size statue to be about 8 feet tall. Other life-size statues abound throughout the shrine, too. To either side of the depictions of Joseph and Jesus are two similarly arched shrines on the same level, but slightly smaller. Each has a carved statue of a Jesuit saint — Ignatius of Loyola in one and Francis Xavier in the other, as a tribute to the Jesuits who founded the parish.
Higher still, on stacked tiers topping the four columns, are similar large statues of the Four Evangelists. Among the angels also depicted in carved statues on the same level are two who kneel as they hold a radiant, crown-bearing Shield of the Holy Name emblazoned with the abbreviation for Jesus — “IHS.”
Filling the dome above are heavenly murals of the Assumption of Mary in the center, showing the Blessed Mother with her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim, to one side and to the other side David and Abraham. Images of colorful angels on sky-blue backgrounds abound high along the nave between the windows’ Gothic arches.
Of course, the foundation of everything is the main altar, where the central tabernacle is designed like a golden classical building with triangular pediment and golden wrought columns. On the golden tabernacle door, a crucifix radiates rays to remind us of the Sacrifice of Christ, the Resurrection and the Sacrifice of the Mass.
Colors are abundant in the church, including in the paint choices for the statues of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart, which stand high on decorative platforms attached to columns at the sides of the sanctuary.
The shrine altar of the Blessed Mother reflects the classic lines and architectural beauty of the main altar. Matthews pointed out the story of the image of our Blessed Mother in this altar’s shrine, which happens to be protected by a glass facing. This depiction of the Blessed Mother, crowned, holds the Child Jesus as he blesses the world.
“The statue in Mary’s shrine was originally meant for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris,” he explained. It was carved in northern Spain; but, “in 1872, they could not get the statue safely there,” likely because of the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. “Meanwhile, the Jesuits had ordered a smaller one to be placed in that location. The company notified the Jesuits they already had this statue and would sell it instead of the cheaper one and at the cheaper price.” Naturally, the parish agreed and received this carved wood statue in 1873.
A Third Miracle
What many could call a third miracle happened in 1979. St. Joseph Church, founded for the German immigrants beginning to arrive in the Gateway to the West in the 1840s, grew and thrived over the decades as one of the largest German congregations anywhere. But around 1920, the families living and working in the nearby factories slowly started moving away, many to buy small farms.
By the mid-1960s, “nearly everyone who lived there had moved out,” Matthews said. With few people left, and with no money to rehabilitate the rundown church, the Jesuits who had founded the church gave it to the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1965. As the church fell into a state of decay, a handful of the few parishioners left tried to keep up the deteriorating church. By the 1970s the archdiocese considered selling the property to a company ready to level the church and surrounding buildings. The one priest assigned to the church refused retirement, stayed in the rundown rectory, and was tragically murdered by robbers.
Then six businessmen formed the nonprofit Friends of the Shrine of St. Joseph to save the church; in 1979, they got Archbishop John May on board. In the following year, the archbishop gave them stewardship of what was by then the Shrine of St. Joseph if they would bear all restoration and running costs, while the archdiocese would be responsible for all ministry there. If they weren’t successful, the church, now not a parish but a shrine, would be sold. Everyone involved in the proposal responded to it with a resounding “Yes!”
Money was scarce, but St. Joseph the Carpenter surely inspired many local craftsmen and laborers. “In the early days we got lots of help from labor unions and labor groups for the infrastructure,” Matthews explained. “They never charged us a nickel. And we got a $100,000 donation from a Jewish man who grew up in the neighborhood, had friends who were Catholics, and he wanted to see the church saved.” All this spurred the Friends of the Shrine on to save the local landmark.
St. Joseph’s Resurrection
By 1985 they had enough money to begin the extraordinary restoration that went on through the mid-’90s. Even before 1979, architect Ted Wofford, who was a restoration specialist, came aboard gratis; he spent 40-plus years supervising restoration and bringing top artisans with him for this labor of love. They scraped through seven layers of paint to find and then replicate the original colors for the restoration.
The ornamentation, from 20,000 square feet of highly decorated ceilings to 50 works of liturgical art that includes many statues, most life-size and carved of wood, now once again inspire prayer. Individuals and families “adopted” a work of art or statuary to help with costs, and two women artisans worked five years restoring nearly every one.
Among the statues are images of Our Lady of Fatima, St. Anthony of Padua, a guardian angel with a child, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Jesus with Mary at the foot of the cross, the huge 5-foot-by-5-foot statue of the Death of St. Joseph, Infant of Prague, the only new statue of Padre Pio commissioned and carved in Italy and blessed by the shrine rector the same day as his canonization in Rome, and, of course, a statue of miracle-intercessor St. Peter Claver.
Even the original tracker organ built in St. Louis and installed in 1890 was totally rebuilt as new.
When all was completed, the St. Louis Review described the shrine as “magnificently, lovingly, painstakingly, and even eye-poppingly restored.”
Ted Wofford would call this restoration another “miracle,” as “six men, who had no common thread but the church, could come together, without friction, and against enormous odds, to do the impossible.”
In fact, Matthews credits a video of the shrine that EWTN had aired in 2004, then ran annually for 11 years, for bringing the shrine to international attention. “A week after that [first airing], we got calls and correspondence from all over asking: ‘How did laypeople save the church?’” Matthews said, naming places like Ireland, Philippines and South America as locales of such queries. His response: “The lifeblood of the shrine are the volunteers.”
Since then the shrine has added a second appellation. “Today, young couples refer to it as the ‘Wedding Church,’” Matthews said, “because of the hundreds of marriages celebrated here.”
Whether for weddings, Masses or tours, this Shrine of St. Joseph, a Catholic landmark, is truly a place of miracles and a tribute to its beloved patron, St. Joseph.