A Preservation Plan for St. Louis
Part I:  Historic Contexts

10 - Religious Life

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Churches are made up of people within a community, and so are part of that community. The growth and priorities of denominations reflect the people and their histories, which tell something of that of the broader society.

The Roman Catholic Church

The Catholic Church was first in the territory, and remains the largest. The French government mandated it, to a degree, with its Code Noire of 1724, allowing only Catholics to cross the Mississippi River. After taking control of the region, the Spanish enforced the practice only very loosely. When Laclede and Chouteau arrived forty years after the Code, Roman Catholicism was the de facto official religion of the region's Europeans.

Organized religion appears to have been in short order in the early decades of St. Louis. Visitors often commented on the festive social lives of inhabitants and dearth of houses of worship. This lack of piety compelled Bishop William Duborg to relocate the Diocese of Florida and Louisiana to St. Louis in 1818. He proceeded immediately on a church building between 2nd and 3rd, just west of Auguste Chouteau's home. He held first mass in the new edifice on Christmas, 1819.

Running both the Florida and Louisiana territories was a big job, though. Duborg divided them forming the Diocese of St. Louis in 1826, and named Joseph Rosati its first bishop the following year. Rosati saw quickly that the burgeoning river town was fast outgrowing its first church. He blessed the cornerstone of a new Cathedral on August 1, 1831, at Walnut and 2nd streets. This new Cathedral opened in 1834. Now known as the "Old Cathedral," it became a basilica in 1961 by decree of Pope John XXIII in recognition of its significance in spreading Catholicism into the American West. A new cathedral on Lindell replaced it in 1914.

St. Louis did play a role in the spread of Catholicism in the trans-Mississippi West, especially among Native Americans. This was home base for the "black robes" traveling to the upper Missouri River as missionaries. Fr. Pierre deSmet, one of the most prominent missionaries into the Northwest, lived and worked from St. Louis in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Catholic Church provided needed social services as well. It constructed a hospital in 1845, which evolved into City Hospital. Later, St. Louis University's Fermin Desloge Hospital, completed in 1933, made an additional contribution. Its St. Vincent's sanitarium to treat "nervous and mental ailments" moved to Normandy in 1895. It created the Guardian Angel Settlement Association in 1911 under the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul to run its Guardian Angel Day Nursery. In post-World War II St. Louis, Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Ritter was an early leader in improving race relations in St. Louis, overseeing the desegregation of both the Archdiocese school system and St. Louis University in the 1940s.

The Jewish Community

Despite the Code Noire of the eighteenth century, it is likely that a modest Jewish community existed in St. Louis in 1803. Demographic changes in St. Louis created a gathering of Jews large enough for services by 1837. Louis Bomeisler, a German from Philadelphia, probably conducted the first service in St. Louis for Rosh HaShanah on September 29. He proceeded to order a Torah, prayer books, and Taleisim for the new group. Twelve men met four years later at the Oracle Coffee House at 2nd and Locust to write the constitution for Achdut Yisrael, the United Hebrew Congregation.

Two more congregations sprouted quickly, B'Nai Brith and Amoona El, which merged before the end of the decade into B'Nai El. The key figure in the merger was Rabbi Bernard Illowy, who fled Austria-Hungary in 1848 after protesting anti-Jewish policies of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Joseph. He preached his first sermon at United Hebrew on Thanksgiving Day of 1848.

B'Nai El was first to erect its own building, in 1855. Famed Jewish philanthropist Judah Touro of Providence, Rhode Island gave $5,000 for the new edifice, to be constructed at 6th and Cerre. Dubbed the "coffee mill" for its eight sides and turret, B'Nai El was the first synagogue west of the Mississippi River. United Hebrew followed closely, dedicating its new building at 420 North 6th later that year. By 1860, the Jewish population in St. Louis swelled to 5,000 souls.

B'Nai El later moved west, to a new Temple at Flad and Spring, just north of Tower Grove Park. Completed in 1906, it is the oldest surviving building constructed for a Jewish congregation in St. Louis. After the congregation moved to the West End in 1930, the building was used variously by Compton Heights Christian Church, St. Margaret of Scotland Roman Catholic Church, Sherman School, and most recently as apartments.

By the time Reformed Judaism founder Rabbi Isaac Wise died in 1900, all the St. Louis Jewish congregations were part of the new American brand of Judaism. The first group in the St. Louis met in 1863, forming Shaare Emeth (Gates of Truth) three years later. It built a synagogue in 1869 at 17th and Pine, with Solomon H. Sonnenschein as its rabbi. A gifted orator, Sonnenschein built Shaare Emeth into the leading Reformed congregation west of the Mississippi. Later in life, Sonnenscheim started Temple Israel with a group from his old congregation. By the end of the century, both United Hebrew and B'Nai El had changed to Reformed as well. Growing concern in the early twentieth century about this Americanized brand of the faith led Orthodox Jews in St. Louis to organize Vaad Hoeir in 1924 as a union of all local Orthodox Jewish congregations.

Like the Catholics, the Jewish community was a social force in St. Louis as well. Charitable assistance started in 1871, when supporting and assisting refugees from the Chicago fire arrived with only the shirts on their backs. As Russian Jews immigrated to America, members of the local Jewish community found themselves facing constant needs to help recent arrivals. Moses Fraley gathered together small relief organizations under one umbrella, United Jewish Charities. A generation later, in 1901, Fraley again orchestrated a concerted fund raising effort for many organizations with his Jewish Charitable and Educational Union. Food, clothing, and shelter were followed by other forms of assistance starting in the 1880s: English classes to help immigrants assimilate (a high priority in advice from Wise); the Home for Aged and Infirm Israelites; Jewish Hospital in 1902, which moved to its present site in 1927 from Delmar and Union.


Among the first to worship together were the Baptists, who started meeting together in 1796 in homes. But nothing formal came about until John Mason Peck arrived in 1817 as a missionary. He and James Welch formed First Baptist Church, with a primarily black congregation. Peck created a Sunday School for African-Americans, and in 1825 ordained the great leader of the period, former slave John Berry Meachum. Within two years, Meachum was pastor at First Baptist Church, and soon thereafter running schools for African-American children as well. The Baptists were active abolitionists, as the demographics of their congregations suggest: of the 46 Baptist churches on the Missouri Association roster, the two largest black churches enrolled 1,445 members; the thirteen largest white churches had 1,023.

Other Protestant denominations came at about the same time, each with a similar experience. The Presbyterians arrived in 1817, and built their first church building seven years later. The Episcopalians followed in 1819, founding Christ Church at 2nd and Walnut (now Christ Church Cathedral), and the Methodists in 1821. For the most part, these denominational churches were formed by Americans emigrating from other places in the United States such as New England and the southeastern seaboard. The first Lutherans came from Saxony in the late 1830s to practice their more conservative Lutheranism. Within ten years they created Trinity Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and moved Concordia Seminary here. William Greenleaf Eliot brought Unitarianism to St. Louis, and closely allied it with the abolition movement locally.

African-American Churches

The first church in St. Louis accepting black members was Baptist, under the leadership first of Peck and, after 1825, Meachum. But the 1840s was the first period of growth for African-American congregations in St. Louis. Another, Second African Baptist (now Central Baptist), started in 1846, with a special emphasis on training young clergy and laymen for local and international mission work.

The other large black denomination in St. Louis was the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Started in 1840, St. Paul's AME was the first black Methodist church west of the Mississippi. The AME movement began when Richard Allen led a group of black parishioners out of a Philadelphia church in 1787 to form their own worship service. St. Peter's, an outgrowth of St. Paul's, followed seven years later. It constructed its first building in 1866 at Elliott and Montgomery. St. Paul's finished its new edifice in 1872, making it the first church west of the Mississippi built by and for African-Americans. Quinn Chapel AME acquired the public market building in Carondelet in 1880 to convert to a house of worship. St. James AME, by contrast, worked after 1885 to establish a African-American presence in The Ville.

As with the Catholic and Jewish congregations, black churches have a history of social consciousness. Meachum's Freedom School to avoid legal bans on educating blacks after 1847 is the start of a long heritage. During the post-war civil rights movement, Ministers and Laymen for Equal Educational Opportunity (MALEO) staged marches on the St. Louis Public School Board in the late 1950s over the de facto segregation in public education. Antioch Baptist was among the first churches to house Head Start, preschool, and day care programs. St. James AME initiated James House in 1970 on the old Poro College site as the first church-developed housing project in St. Louis. Unlike other Protestant branches, black churches have a legacy of leadership in relating faith and action.


Many saw cemeteries as unhealthy necessities of cities by the 1830s. St. Louis passed a city ordinance in 1823 banning burials within the city limits, forcing cemeteries to move beyond the outskirts of the city. By the time of the Civil War, though, attitudes were changing somewhat with the "rural cemetery movement." No longer merely burial grounds, these new cemeteries featured wandering paths through wooded hills and vistas, interspersed with tombstones reflecting the best taste in modern architecture. Victorians commonly used them as walking parks, especially with the advent of the picturesque design movement.

Local cemeteries created after the 1830s mixed beauty with necessity. Bellefontaine opened in 1849, just before a cholera epidemic broke out. The need for its 332.5 acres was immediate. Calvary Cemetery, created adjacent to it in 1857 for Catholics at the instruction of Archbishop Peter Kenrick, boasts a similar design and appeal. Bodies were exhumed from other burial grounds in the city dating to 1770 and reinterred there. As in life, Jews had to create their own institution; Mount Sinai was created two years after Calvary.

Most of the famous and infamous in St. Louis are buried in one of five major cemeteries. Bellefontaine residents include explorer William Clark, world's fair chairman David Francis, brewers Joseph Griesedieck and Adolphus Busch, educator Susan Blow, Confederate officer Sterling Price, and adding machine inventor William Burroughs. Calvary includes early settlers Auguste Chouteau and Antoine Soulard, Civil War General William T. Sherman, Dred Scott, mayors Raymond Tucker and Joseph Darst, Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Ritter, and author Kate Chopin. Mount Sinai is the final resting place for famed St. Louisans including department store families of May, Stix, Baer, Fuller, and Edison; orator Rabbi Leon Harrison, and philanthropist Mark Steinberg. Father Dickson Cemetery, named for nineteenth-century minister Moses Dickson, is now on Sappington Road. Buried there are American ambassador to Liberia James Milton Turner and Madame C. J. Walker. Homer G. Phillips and Wendell Pruitt are interred at St. Peter's Cemetery on Lucas and Hunt. 

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