When Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau began to settle Saint Louis (1764) they assigned three large plots of land to serve business, the general good, and worship. The plot reserved for the church was a bit removed from the hustle and bustle of the riverfront, but adjacent to the other two. Settlers built homes surrounding these three pieces of land.
The original church was a small wooden structure, no bigger than a one-room log house. It served as the only church in town until 1816; worshippers of all religions converged on it. In 1816 Bishop Louis William Valentine Dubourg (I have seen it spelled as DuBourg and DeBourg) made a long and arduous trip from the East Coast in order to consecrate the church.
Bishop Dubourg’s story is nothing short of fascinating. He was born in Haiti. At the age of two his family sent him to France to be raised and educated. That’s right: they sent a two-year-old away for good. He became a priest shortly before the French revolution was in full swing. In case you didn’t know, there was significant anticlerical resentment among the revolutionary leaders. Dubourg, after some detours, ended up in Rome. He came up the ranks and was eventually named bishop of New Orleans. The territory under his supervision went all the way up to Saint Louis.
Dubourg returned to Rome to be consecrated. During his stay he managed to convince a few priests to return to America with him. One of them was Joseph Rosati. When Rosati arrived in Saint Louis, ahead of Dubourg, to prepare the church for the new bishop’s visit he found a hovel that was falling apart. There were no doors or windows in the tiny room. He slept on the floor, using a buffalo skin as his bed. Within a few days he was able to make the place look halfway decent, just in time for Dubourg’s arrival. All of them marched in full clerical garb on the city streets (hard to believe that there was more than one) to meet their new congregants.
Dubourg was heavy into education. As part of the effort to evangelize the Osage tribe, and in order to educate the village children, he was able to talk a few Jesuit priests into moving to Saint Louis. The Academy of Saint Louis, later on to become Saint Louis University High, was born. There is reason to believe that Dubourg later on tried to remove the Jesuits from what had become a successful school. He was unable to succeed.
By 1826 Saint Louis showed signs of becoming a powerhouse. Dubourg, based in New Orleans, asked Rome for help. Father Rosati was named bishop of Saint Louis. Dubourg, disappointed and maybe embittered by many political and financial issues, resigned his post during a visit to Europe. He never made it back to America.
Bishop Rosati took the ball and ran with it. By 1831 he laid the cornerstone of the building that we now know as the Old Cathedral, under the direction of architects Lavelle and Morton. When it was completed in 1834 there was a need to celebrate seven Sunday masses, such was the growth of the congregation. Interesting to note that one of the issues that most vexed Bishop Dubourg was how to find priests that could preach in English, since most of the settlers had either stopped speaking French (after the Louisiana purchase in 1803), or never spoke it to begin with.
Bishop Rosati was able to recruit many nuns to move to our town. When the Daughters of Charity arrived they established Mullanphy Hospital, which later became De Paul Hospital, the first acute care facility west of the Mississippi (it remains the oldest continuously operating business in the city, and west of the Mississippi).
The cathedral decreased in importance in 1914, when the current (new) cathedral was finished. The neighborhood surrounding the Old Cathedral deteriorated. By 1933 it mostly consisted of abandoned warehouses and seedy residences. Once the decision to build the Arch was made, there was talk about demolishing the old building. Fortunately, we were able to preserve it.
The architectural style is known as Greek revival. The church has a marble altar. Several works of art that Bishop Dubourg managed to secure from the King of France remain, the most prominent one being an accurate copy of Diego Velazquez’s famous painting of the crucifixion. The gold letters in the façade are in Latin (God one and three) and Hebrew (Yaweh).
In 1961 the Old Cathedral was named a basilica by the pope. This is a distinction that is given to some churches that are felt to have historical, architectural, or artistic value. Basilicas (from the Greek for royal house) are entitled to display the canopaeum (silk canopy), tintinnabulum (bell), and the papal symbol of the crossed keys.
Sunday masses are still held in the Old Cathedral. It is also a very popular place for Catholic Saint Louisans to get married, second only to Saint Francis Xavier (College) church. You are welcome to visit the inside of the building if there is no celebration going on. There used to be a cemetery outside the church where prominent Saint Louisans were buried. Most of these graves have been moved to the Bellefontaine Cemetery.
The land on which the Old Cathedral stands is the only plot of land in Saint Louis that has never changed hands.