A Century of Masses

Pope St. John Paul II Designated the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis as a Basilica

(photo: Wikipedia)

It was October 1914. World War I was under way in Eastern Europe, the Schoenstatt movement, a lay Catholic apsotolate, was born in Germany, and in St. Louis, the first Mass was celebrated at the archdiocese's new cathedral.

The first Mass at this magnificent new church was offered on Oct. 18, 1914.  Interestingly, this was the same day that the cornerstone was laid to commence construction of this new cathedral in 1908.

"We don't know much surrounding the first Mass," said Nicole Heerlein, communications specialist for the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis. “We can assume it was a large affair and probably very holy and ceremonial. Bishop John J. Hennessy, former pastor of St. John's Pro-Cathedral in St. Louis, was the celebrant.”

The local St. Louis newspaper described the first Mass as “majestic, a showcase and awe-inspiring.”

The story of the cathedral began in the late 1890s, when St. Louis Archbishop John  Kain bought property in the city for the purpose of a new cathedral.

The archdiocese's original cathedral, known as the “Old Cathedral,” had served its purpose.

“The Old Cathedral was a grand structure when it was built three-quarters of a century ago,” wrote Archbishop Kain in a pastoral letter to the archdiocese in October 1896. “But all will admit that the 'new' St. Louis should have another (cathedral): one that is more handsome and more worthy of this great Catholic city of the West.”

His phrasing brings to mind what the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God, the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ. ...This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the angels and saints. Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier” (2502).

Each year, thousands of people visit the cathedral, gazing upwards to experience this glorification of God in the form of 145 million pieces of stone and glass, which shape one of the largest collections of mosaics in the Western Hemisphere.

The mosaics were completed in 1988 and portray themes found throughout the Old and New Testaments, as well as events in the life of St. Louis IX, the city's namesake, and a number of prominent figures in the history of the Church in North America and St. Louis.

Amidst the hundreds of baptisms, first Communions, confirmations, ordinations, marriages and funerals, this St. Louis landmark has been the sight of a number of historic celebrations.

Among them was the funeral of Cardinal John Glennon in March 1946. The cardinal-archbishop of St. Louis led the archdiocese for more than 40 years and was the guiding force behind the construction of the cathedral after Archbishop Kain's death in 1903.

His funeral Mass at the cathedral was described by the arcdiocesan newspaper as “the greatest funeral in city history.”

The March 22, 1946, edition noted that around 250,000 faithful paid tribute to the cardinal, as well as dozens of bishops, 700 priests and 1,200 nuns.

“The sun shone against the delicate rose windows over the high altar of the cathedral and into the sanctuary, which was unadorned except for the white and yellow papal flags on either side of the sanctuary,” the story stated.

In a similar manner, there was standing room only in the cathedral in November 1963 for a requiem Mass offered for the repose of the soul of President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated just days earlier.

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch story reported on the Mass: “An overflow of mourners gathered in the St. Louis Cathedral on Lindell Boulevard for a solemn requiem Mass for Kennedy on Monday, Nov. 25, 1963, the day of his funeral in Washington. The cathedral was filled, with many people packing the side galleries. Mourners unable to find room in the pews, knelt in the aisles.”

The grand cathedral in midtown St. Louis has always been a cathedral, but not always a basilica. 

It was designated a basilica in April 1997 by Pope St. John Paul II.

“An interesting tidbit: While we can, obviously, only have one cathedral, St. Louis does have two basilicas,” explained Heerlein from the cathedral. “The 'Old Cathedral' (located in downtown St. Louis) is designated [as a basilica] as well. Its official name is Basilica of St. Louis, King. We are the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, often called the 'New Cathedral' by locals.”

In 1999, Pope John Paul II paid a visit to this newly proclaimed basilica. He has been the only pontiff who has visited the cathedral-basilica of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

During his visit on Jan. 27, 1999, the Holy Father, who was proclaimed a saint in April this year and whose feast day is Oct. 22, knelt before the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the Blessed Mother's chapel at the cathedral for evening prayer and an ecumenical and interfaith event.

Again, the church was teeming with believers, from around the nation and beyond, who came to pray with the pope. 

During the event, the John Paul II said, “We are here together in this striking cathedral-basilica to worship God and to let our prayer rise up to him like incense.”

On Oct. 18, 2014, the 100th anniversary Mass at the cathedral was to be a weekday Mass. The archdiocese held a special gala earlier in the month to commemorate this house of worship's centennial of prayer and praise.

However, regardless of whether it is a weekday Mass in October or an Easter vigil liturgy in the spring, Eucharistic worship at the cathedral-basilica, with its stunning mosaics and grand design, is a taste of heaven.

May she blessed for another 100 years and beyond.


Eddie O'Neill writes from Rolla, Missouri.

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