St. Francis de Sales' History & Future
St. Francis de Sales church, built at the turn of the last century, is known to locals as the Cathedral of South St. Louis because of its elegantly-designed exterior and over 300-foot spire. St. Francis de Sales Cathedral is an imposing Gothic revival building. The High Altar alone is more than 50 feet high and forms a unique throne for Christ the King, present in the ornate Tabernacle under the species of the consecrated host. This church is the ideal setting for the sacred solemn liturgy, and its adjacent buildings seem to be made for the needs of our continuously growing community.
This church is the only church in the St. Louis area of German Gothic architecture and is based on the design of a church in Germany. St. Francis de Sales has been an anchor of its neighborhood since its founding after the end of the Civil War in 1867. The campus includes the church, a rectory, convent, and two school buildings. The church is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
St. Louis, the Rome of the West, has long been known as a focal point of genuine Catholic life in this country. Steadfast faithfulness to Holy Mother Church and the Roman Pontiff, filial devotion toward Our Lady, and a deep Eucharistic piety are the characteristics of this city.
The Church's Features
- St. Francis de Sales church buff-colored exterior features large, pointed arched windows, decorative columns and ornate trim.
- In the tradition of the European Gothic churches, St. Francis de Sales is adorned with a magnificent array of stained glass windows.
- The church 130-foot long aisle, one of the longest of the churches in St. Louis, and its beautiful interior and solemn liturgy has made it a popular place for weddings. The church has four bells including one from the original church.
- Gothic or pointed arches used inside the building create tall, open spaces and directs the eye skyward and giving the interior a grand appearance.
- The interior features multiple apses, and richly carved wood, statues and details.
- The church interior was designed as a German hall church with ceilings over the side aisles almost as high as those over the main aisle increasing the open feeling and spaciousness.
- The High Altar and the reredos, the ornate screen behind the altar, are in a large apse. Smaller apses on the sides of the main apse feature altars to the Blessed Mother and to St. Joseph.
- The transept projects from the side of the nave, feature altars to Our Mother of Perpetual Help to the North, and the Infant of Prague to the South.
- The Baptistery features Byzantine-style glittering mosaics. It is the same artists who worked on the mosaics in the (new) Cathedral Basilica. Lapis Lazuli stone from Persia was used for the blue sky mosaic in the vaulted ceiling.
- The reredos, altars, pulpit, communion rail, pews and confessionals in the church are of carved wood. The 52-foot high reredos features a series of pinnacles with niches depicting different scenes and is framed by carvings of angels. It was made by E. Hackner Co. of La Crosse, Wisconsin.
- The churchs stained glass windows were created by Emil Frei, Sr., considered to be St. Louis premier stained glass artist. Frei and his wife had emigrated to San Francisco from Germany but were so homesick for the Old Country, they decided to return there. On their way across the country, they stopped in St. Louis to visit some German friends. They were so taken by the German community of South St. Louis, they stayed. Emil Frei, who had studied at the Munich School of Arts and Crafts, went on to design the stained glass windows of several St. Louis churches.
- Also in the church are statues of St. Francis de Sales, St. Nicholas, St. Henry, St. Teresa, St. Catherine, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Aloysius, St. Ann, St. Anthony and St. Francis of Assisi.
- The altar of the Infant Jesus includes statues of St. Lawrence and St. Stephen.
- The altar of the Blessed Mother features statues of St. Rose and St. Cecilia.
- The elaborate interior frescoes were painted by Fridolin Fuchs, another German immigrant. Fuchs said he based his ceiling frescoes on the artwork in the Gothic churches of Germany.
- Clock faces were added to the steeple following the 1917 anniversary celebration.
- A shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes is on the Churchs front lawn.
St. Francis de Sales parish was formed in 1867 by seven German immigrant dairymen who had been members of Saints Peter and Paul parish, located at Eighth and Allen streets in near by Soulard. At the time, the area west of Jefferson was not very populated but German dairymen purchased a tract of land at Gravois and Ohio with plans to build a new church.
Plans were made to build a new brick church at a cost of $12,850, a pricey amount in those days. The church was named in honor of St. Francis de Sales, a French Jesuit missionary who was instrumental in combating Calvinism. He is credited with bringing back over 50,000 protestants to the Church. He later became bishop of Geneva and was canonized a saint by Holy Mother Church in 1665. Francis died at Lyons on December 28, 1622 and was buried at Annecy on January 24. He was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1877 and Patron of the Press in 1923.
A cornerstone-laying ceremony held September 15, 1867 was marred when a stand collapsed. No one was seriously injured, but it was determined that vandals had sawed some of the timbers supporting the stand the night before.
The first Holy Mass was celebrated at the church on Christmas 1867 while the building was still under construction. Three babies were baptized that morning.
On May 24 of the next year, the church was dedicated. A census revealed St. Francis parish already had 800 members. The parish quickly grew and in 1869, a parish school was opened. The parishs second pastor, a recent arrival from Germany, purchased property adjacent to the church where a three-story school, including a residence for the nuns, was constructed in 1872. The St. Francis de Sales Benevolent Society organized April 19, 1874 still opperates today. Several other parish organizations were also formed during these years including, in the winters of 1884 and 1885, the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
In 1883, the parishs third pastor, Father John Peter Lotz, enlarged the church by adding a new sanctuary and bell tower. Five years later, he built another three-story school. In 1894, Father Lotz began to make plans to build a new church. He traveled to Berlin to consult with German architect E. Seiberts and came back with plans for a grand church of cut stone with a 350-foot center spire, two large supporting towers, two smaller towers over the transepts, two additional spires and elaborate finials. But it soon became clear the cost of so elaborate a building would be far more than the $135,000 earmarked by the parishes building committee. After excavation on the basement begun, it was decided that the cost of so grand a church was beyond the means of the parishioners. Parish leaders decided to finish the basement, put a roof on it and use it as a church until a final decision could be made on what to do about proceeding with plans for the new building.
Before the basement of the new church could be completed, the devastating tornado of 1896 destroyed the original church. Over 300 persons from South Saint Louis City died in that storm. A few years later Father Lotz died and a year after the arrival of his successor, Father Frederick G. Holweck, plans were underway to build the new church but with some changes. Instead of cut stone, the church would be brick and terra cotta; the transept towers and twin steeples were eliminated and the exterior trim streamlined. A 12-foot iron cross weighing 900 pounds topped the 300-foot tall steeple. In 1952, the rusting cross was replaced by an 18-foot gold leaf cross.
By early 1907, construction on the new church had begun. It was dedicated on Nov. 26, 1908. Even with the changes, the building had a grand, elaborate look to it. A parish newsletter a year after the church was dedicated proclaimed, the portal of the front entrance is an exact copy of the famous Gothic portal of the Cathedral of Munich.
After construction was completed, Fridolin Fuchs, a German immigrant, was hired to paint the interior frescos, and a Benedictine Monk from Arkansas did the drawings for the two large paintings in the churchs transept.
By 1917 when the parish celebrated its Golden Jubilee, it had grown into one of the largest in the city. Twenty years later plans were made to build a new grade school and open a parish high school.
During the 1930 growth years, it became popular to refer to St. Francis de Sales church as the Cathedral of South Saint Louis.
For many years the sermon at Holy Mass was given in German, and classes at the school were conducted in German. As late as 1930, half of the parish's publications were written in German.
In 1939, after razing the boys school built in 1872, a new school was built. Plans were also underway to establish a high school as there was a shortage of Catholic high schools in Saint Louis. In the fall of 1939, a junior high school was established and later it was expanded to include a high school. The first class graduated in 1947.
In 1964, an elevator was installed at the churchs Lynch Street entrance to accommodate parishioners. At that time only two other churches in St. Louis had elevators.
In 1966, as the parishs 100th anniversary approached, a restoration of the building was undertaken, and two years later St. Francis de Sales was named one of the 62 significant historic buildings and sites in Saint Louis by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
As suburbs developed and the population shifted away from the city neighborhoods, the parishs numbers began to decline. In 1973, the elementary school was consolidated with three others, and St. Francis de Sales High School closed in 1974. And as urban blight became an issue for the neighborhood, a Parish Community Development Office was opened the next year. It evolved into the DeSales Housing Corporation, and the parish became a center for many social service agencies. The DeSales Community Housing Corporation, now independent, has spearheaded improvements in the area. As the parish celebrated its 125th anniversary, it continued to serve parishioners of more than a dozen nationalities.
In 1990 a church preservation fund was established to raise funds to maintain the church building.
As population shifts continued through the 1980s and 1990s, St. Francis de Sales parish served a Hispanic population until 2005.
In June of 2005 St. Franics de Sales "parish" was closed by the Archdiocese of St. Louis and was consolidated with another neighborhood parish. The church building, and campus was scheduled to be torn down and sold.
The Oratory Today
In July 2005, the church building, and campus was given to the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest to maintain and administer the sacraments according to the 1962 Roman Missal. The Archbishop of St. Louis, His Grace, the Most Reverend Raymond L. Burke erected the church as an Oratory of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. Today, St. Francis de Sales Oratory serves the entire archdiocese of St. Louis and is the center of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.
About the Institute of Christ the King
In January 2005, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest became a part of the great Catholic tradition of St. Louis. His Grace, the Most Reverend Raymond Leo Burke, Archbishop Emeritus of St. Louis (2004-2008), now the Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, and friend of the Institute, has called our community to serve God with the Roman Rite of 1962 first at St. Agatha parish, and since July 2005, in our own magnificent Cathedral of South St. Louis, St. Francis de Sales.
To learn about the Institute of Christ the King, see "Who We Are".
Restoration of the Oratory
Currently the Institute is raising the necessary funds to restore the magnificent church building entrusted to our care. The most immediate need involves the 300-foot-tall steeple, which is gradually pulling away from the building, because of inadequate foundation support. Repairs to the roof, restoration of the stain-glass windows, the frescos and other renovations are also needed to maintain the churchs grandeur as a place of worship and inspiration.
Visiting the St. Francis de Sales
From downtown St. Louis, take Tucker (12th Street) a few miles south to Gravois at Ohio. Turn right on Ohio. The church will be immediately on the left.
There are several restaurants in nearby Lafayette Square and the Soulard Neighborhood a little north of the church on Gravois.
St. Francis de Sales is handicap-accessible.