I’m rarely in the Old Cathedral at night except for weddings, Holy Days that occur during the week or when welcoming a Leadership Team from Ascension Health to St. Louis. Tranquil by day, the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France is hushed and luminous at night. Then spectres from the centuries in which the building is steeped crowd the cathedral even as a futuristic, ribbon of steel arches in the windows to the east.
Once upon a time, you could look out the cathedral’s west windows, beyond the statue of St. Joan (Jeanne d’Arc) and see covered wagons being drawn by horses over Third Street (originally Rue des Les Granges/today Memorial Drive). You might glimpse Abe Lincoln climbing Market Street to defend a client in the Courthouse on the hill above, or see Sam Clemens making his way down the bluffs to pilot a steamboat to New Orleans and back. Or watch a delegation of Osage bearing gifts and making their way to treat with William Clark in his Council Room (today that would be just north of the Gateway Arch). So much history has passed before these windows!
Situated on the only piece of land in St. Louis that has never been bought or sold, the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France is the fourth Catholic Church built on the third square that Pierre Laclede laid out in the center of the village in 1764 for a village church and cemetery.
The first in 1770 was a simple, poteaux-en-terre (vertical post) church modeled upon Holy Family Log Church in Cahokia, Illinois and replaced six years later with a larger, white oak structure in the same style. There, in December of 1809, Sacagawea witnessed the baptism of her little son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, after which William Clark adopted him and raised him in St. Louis with his own children.
Named for the patron saint of the French king Laclede served in the military, the first church on this site and those that followed it, bore the name of a 13th century monarch who was also a knight. Mounted on a steed atop Art Hill in Forest Park, Louis IX of France is a striking if perhaps surprising representative for an American city.
The earliest surviving sculpture of St. Louis dates to the 14th century, a little over one hundred years after he died. Reputed to be a true likeness of the man who ruled France for fifty plus years, rode into battle and was called upon by other European monarchs to mediate disputes before all-out war erupted, he does not appear the modern image of a warrior. But this knight was also an ascetic. Father of eleven children, founder of hospitals and the first court of appeals in the western world, Louis IX would endow the Sorbonne and erect in Paris one of the greatest cathedrals ever built, Sainte-Chappelle, a soaring, breathtakingly beautiful monument of faith.
The facade of the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France (which held the title of oldest Catholic cathedral west of the Mississippi River until it was designated a basilica by Pope John XXIII for its historic significance) bears inscriptions in four languages: French (the first language of St. Louis), English, Latin and Hebrew. This is the only place remaining downtown where the French origins of La Poste de Saint Louis are clearly engraved in stone:
Ma maison sera appelle la maison de priere./My house shall be called the house of prayer.
In 1907 an enormous cathedral basilica began to rise four blocks north and some three miles west of the Old Cathedral, about as different in scale and style as one can imagine, for a community that had far-outgrown the original.
Romanesque-Revival with a Byzantine interior and adorned with eighty-three thousand square feet of mosaics, the New Cathedral also bears the name of St. Louis, whose life is illustrated from childhood to adulthood in tesserae panels lining the narthex (the basilica’s entry and gathering space).
Louis became king upon the death of his father, while still a boy. His mother, Blanche of Castille, governed in his stead until he married at age nineteen and assumed full reign of France. A portrait of St. Louis kneeling in prayer before his coronation hangs on the southeast wall of the Old Cathedral.
It was a gift to Bishop Louis DuBourg, first bishop of the Louisiana Territory, from King Louis XVIII of France, a descendant of St. Louis. The fleur-de-lis which cover his shield and cape constituted his family’s coat of arms, and have become another symbol identifiable with the City of St. Louis.
The mosaic art work in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis is stunning. Over eight thousand colors reflect the skill and devotion of artists who fashioned it over three quarters of the 20th century. The first humble church of St. Louis is illustrated there amidst the early history of the St. Louis Archdiocese. The archangels which span the length of the basilica walls with outspread wings are splendid. But one of my favorite sections depicts St. Louis as a child being counseled by his mother.
I grew up learning about the human frailties of St. Louis of France as well as his strength and wisdom. Between the two basilicas, which capture such different aspects of his personality and such different eras of St. Louis history, I have come to understand his place in the context of a far greater mystery and design.
But the image that remained with me as I made my way home was of the simplicity and serenity of the Old Cathedral drenched in the morning light, and of the quiet figure standing guard within the sanctuary of a city named for him.
Photo Credits: “Sainte Chapelle – Upper Chapel, Paris, France, October 14, 2005” – author: Didier B(San 67fr) from Wikimedia Commons at wikipedia.org. Attribution: Share Alike 2.5; “14th Century Statue of St. Louis” – in the public domain at wikipedia.org. All other photos: Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog, taken with my cell phone.
References: The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis Brochure and Inscriptions on the Body of the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France on the St. Louis Riverfront.
Illustration Credit: “The First Church in St. Louis” – in the public domain at wikipedia.org.