Cathedral Basilica Celebrates its 100th
This year the Cathedral Basilica—home to one of the largest collections of mosaics in the Western Hemisphere—is celebrating its 100th birthday.
The basilica is known to locals as the “New Cathedral”to distinguish it from the “Old Cathedral,”officially “Basilica of Saint Louis, King”which is downtown adjacent to the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (Gateway Arch).
When Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau plotted the site of their new trading post along the Mississippi in 1764, they designated— in the Spanish and French tradition—a block for the construction of a church.
Until about 1816, the one-room log church built on the site was the only church in town. A larger one replaced it in 1776, and construction began on a new brick church in 1831. When completed three years later, it was designated a cathedral—the first west of the Mississippi.
St. Louis—its population fueled by the great immigration from western Europe—was a growing city when Archbishop John J. Kain proposed a “new”cathedral in a pastoral letter in the fall of 1896.
“The old cathedral was a grand structure when it was built three quarters of a century ago,” he wrote adding, “but all admit the new St. Louis should have another more handsome and more worthy of the great Catholic city of the West.”
It was not the best of times to build a new church. Months earlier a historic tornado ripped through St. Louis killing hundreds of people and leaving a large swath of damage. The community was still rebuilding from the destruction.
But the “new”cathedral project was on.
Archbishop Kain purchased property on the northwest corner of Lindell at Newstead that same year.
Archbishop Kain, however, was in ill health and passed away soon thereafter. His successor was Archbishop John J. Glennon—later to become Cardinal Glennon.
“Cardinal Glennon then was really the one charged with putting this building together,”Nicole A. Heerlein, communications specialist for the Cathedral Basilica, said.
On Oct. 18, 1908 workers laid the cornerstone on the building designed by George D. Barnett of the St. Louis firm of Barnett, Haynes and Barnett. It was as grand a cathedral as any found in Europe with a dome soaring 150 feet, higher than St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.
The initial Mass was celebrated at the Cathedral Basilica on October 18, 1914, exactly six years from the date the cornerstone was laid.
Since construction wasn’t completed until 1914, the cathedral’s “birthdate”spans several years but it seemed appropriate to celebrate the year the church opened as its birthday, Heerlein said.
Although the building’s structure was completed in 1914, installation of the mosaics covering 83,000 square feet inside would continue for almost 80 years. The work stopped during the Depression and various wars and was finally completed in 1988.
The walls of lobby or vestibule of the church are covered with mosaics telling the story of the life of St. Louis IX, King of France, and patron saint of the city and the basilica, foreshadowing what you will see inside.
The mosaics in the basilica are of two types—Byzantine mosaics composed of intensely-colored tiles and Italian mosaics in more muted shades.
Some highlights of the interior:
– The historic bay and dome covered in mosaics portraying American saints, milestones of the establishment of the Catholic church in St. Louis, works of the brothers and sisters who served the community and other significant events
– The central dome rising 143 feet above the cathedral’s floor with panels dedicated to the Holy Trinity, Ezeckial the Prophet, the woman of the Apolcalypse and Elias taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. Pendentives with mosaics of four angels depict the Old Testament, the New Testament, Ecclesiastical Authority and civil authority
– The West Transept with images of Jesus’baptism and Ascension to heaven
– The East Transept which portrays Christ’s resurrection
– The Sanctuary Dome with mosaics of the 12 apostles
– Bishops Hall with mosaics of the coats of arms of bishops and archbishops of St. Louis
– A life-sized replica in bronze of Michelangelo’s Pietá
– Four chapels. The Blessed Virgin’s Chapel and the All Saints Chapel, both on the west side, were installed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The All Souls Chapel, over the burial place of Cardinal Glennon, Cardinal Ritter, Cardinal Carberry and Archbishop May, and the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, reserved for private prayer, are on the east side of the basilica.
Visitors with children in tow—and even some without youngsters—will enjoy a Quest brochure (available in the back of the cathedral). The brochure gives an easy-to-understand description of the building’s architecture and makes a scavenger hunt of sorts for some items depicted in the mosaics. Children delight in looking for a deer, a dolphin, a pelican, a boy on crutches, the Statue of Liberty, a snail and items in the mosaics.
The fact that St. Louis has not one but two basilicas can be confusing.
“Actually, it’s rare to have two in one city,”Heerlein said. “Once you’re designated a basilica, you always maintain that designation. The basilica title designates that you’re a place of worship of special distinction. So while this (church) became a basilica, that one (the Old Cathedral) still retains its title and its prominence. There is sometimes confusion over the two churches in St. Louis especially for people who are not from here.”
If you go. . .
The Basilica, located at 4431 Lindell, is open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
The best way to see the Cathedral Basilica is on a one-hour guided tour available Monday through Saturday by appointment. On most Sundays a guided tour that does not require reservations (except for large groups) is held following noon Mass.
You can also do a self-guided tour at any time the cathedral is open and not in use for Mass, weddings or other events. You can call 314-373-8241 to ensure the church is available. Tour brochures can be downloaded from the website.
You can also take an online tour of the cathedral.
St. Louis Cathedral Concerts features concerts performed in the Cathedral Basilica by visiting musicians and choirs. Concerts are usually scheduled from October to May. Further information about the concerts is available on their website.
The Mosaic Museum in the lower level houses displays showing how the mosaics were designed and installed and also includes:
- The cathedral’s original Kilgen organ console
- The chair used by Pope John Paul II during his visit to St. Louis
- Historic vestments and precious objects used in the various rites of the Church
- A crypt where remains of some of Saint Louis’ Cardinals and Archbishops are interred
- The needlepoint prie-dieu kneeler in the crypt that was created by members of the parish for Pope John Paul II during his 1999 visit to St. Louis and the Cathedral Basilica.
Museum hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Saturday and noon-4 p.m. on Sunday. A $2 per person donation is requested.
Want to join Birthday Celebration? The Cathedral Basilica is having a Birthday Party on Sunday, October 12 at the Chase Park Plaza. Enjoy cocktails and a delicious dinner for $150. Want an invitation? Contact Carole Less at (314) 373-8240 and leave your name, address and zip code and you will be sent an invitation!