Restoring Saint Francis de Sales Oratory
by Phil Roussin
For over one hundred years, the silhouette of Saint Francis de Sales has been a distinctive mark on the skyline of Saint Louis, Missouri. While the area surrounding the church has undergone considerable change, the 300-foot tower has remained a steadfast symbol of Catholic tradition and hope.
Now, the Oratory is being renewed by the faithful witness of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest. In this article, parishioner Phil Roussin discusses the history and the reality of this American treasure.
History and Background
In 1867, seven German dairy farmers purchased a plot of land between Gravois and Ohio streets on which to build a new church. With the laying of the first cornerstone on September 15, 1867, Saint Francis de Sales Church began to serve as the spiritual and social anchor of the community. Over the next 40 years, a new generation of Americans built the church with the hope of a prosperous future in their new country. They first added a school, then a convent, then started to plan the next phase: a larger church which would capture the grandeur of the eternal expression of truth.
By the 1890s, Saint Louis had become the fourth largest city in the United States after New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Amidst the post-Civil War economic expansion, bustling Saint Louis City became the proud owner of a new transportation infrastructure, as well as one of the world’s first skyscrapers: the 10-story Wainwright Building.
It was against this backdrop that the parishioners of Saint Francis de Sales planned to build their new, larger church. Led by their pastor, Fr. Lotz, the largely German congregation looked to their ancestral heritage for a set of architectural plans. The original German design called for an elaborate Gothic Revival church built with cut stone and two towers at each transept arm. However, at this point an act of Divine Providence definitely intervened. Before the basement of the church could be completed as planned, the most devastating tornado ever to strike Saint Louis happened on May 27, 1896. The original church was all but completely destroyed, and much damage was inflicted likewise upon the homes of the entire neighborhood. All plans to raise funds for a new church had to await the return of normal conditions among the people of the parish and the city.
On May 27, 1908 — the twelfth anniversary of the terrible tornado that had destroyed the old parish church — parishioners raised the old church’s iron cross on the pinnacle of the church’s majestic new steeple, amid the full and loud ringing of the new church bells.
However, it was not long before the work continued without interruption. It is interesting to note that on the twelfth anniversary of the terrible tornado (May 27, 1908), at the precise time that the tragic tornado had destroyed the old parish church, parishioners raised the old church’s iron cross on the pinnacle of the church’s majestic new steeple, amid the full and loud ringing of the new church bells. There was cause for much rejoicing.
This immense new church was built to symbolize the hopes and dreams of the immigrant community, deeply rooted in the traditions and heritage of their forefathers. It was a brick and mortar symbol of American values of the time: faith, beauty, and grandeur in the midst of hard work and community sacrifice, venerable traditions in a new land, and hope for the future. This spiritual edifice embodied the aspirations of an American community. What came to be known as the Cathedral of South Saint Louis would also be a living tradition of the past.
This immense new church was a brick and mortar symbol of American values of the time: faith, beauty, and grandeur in the midst of hard work and community sacrifice, venerable traditions in a new land, and hope for the future.
Decline and Renewal
Since its dedication in 1908, the fate of Saint Francis de Sales Church has closely dovetailed with that of the city of Saint Louis. As the city grew, the parish also grew continuously through the 1950s, adding a thriving high school to its campus in 1939. However, in the 1950s the population of Saint Louis steadily declined due to outward migration towards the suburbs. Fox Park, the neighborhood of Saint Francis de Sales, followed the same pattern. By 1974 the parish dissipated to the point that Saint Francis de Sales High School would close for good. With decades of dwindling support, the condition of the church and surrounding campus began to deteriorate visibly and rapidly. As the city embarked on various urban renewal projects, so did the Fox Park neighborhood. The DeSales Community Housing Corporation was formed from the congregation of Saint Francis de Sales in an effort to stay the tide of decline. In recognition of its architectural, cultural, and historic significance, Saint Francis de Sales Church was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. In spite of these efforts, the decline continued, and the church was in danger of being closed and demolished.
In recognition of its architectural, cultural, and historic significance, Saint Francis de Sales Church was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. In spite of these efforts, the decline continued, and the church was in danger of being closed and demolished.
In 2005, an important change took place in the effort to preserve this magnificent church. Under then-Archbishop Raymond Burke, Saint Francis de Sales was erected as an Oratory of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, serving Saint Louis as the premier center of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Since the architecture and the interior of Saint Francis de Sales were originally designed for this use of the Roman Rite, the church was perfectly suited for this new endeavor.
With its new mission, the appeal of Saint Francis de Sales would be extended beyond the boundaries of the original parish, and beyond any singular demographic group. For the first time, there was hope that the deserted infrastructure would slowly regain active and purposeful use. The perfect balance between usage and preservation would be an effective means of safeguarding a cultural treasure of Saint Louis.
The New Focus
In 2008, Saint Francis de Sales’ centennial celebration was attended by members and visitors from all over the Saint Louis metropolitan area and beyond. Two consecutive annual surveys (2010 & 2011) show that the average family drives 20 miles (one-way) to attend Holy Mass at Saint Francis de Sales. These annual surveys also reveal the median age of the congregation to be less than 30 years old. The church building may be old, but the youthful families it attracts are as vigorous as ever.
One aspect of our preservation work is to bring to life the repository of sacred music used in the Church’s highest liturgies. A living tradition, sacred music has enriched the hearts and minds of many souls in every age through the centuries. At Saint Francis de Sales Oratory, the ever-growing repertoire of ancient chants, classical music, polyphony, and magnificent organ pieces can be heard in the context for which they were originally composed.
At Saint Francis de Sales Oratory, the ever-growing repertoire of ancient chants, classical music, polyphony, and magnificent organ pieces can be heard in the context for which they were originally composed.
The Restoration – A Daunting Task in Small Steps
Due to the size of the campus and the enormity of the church, restoring its dilapidated infrastructure is a daunting task from any perspective. Nevertheless, since 2005, generous volunteers yielding much success have done the on-going restoration in steady, small steps.
The most recent restoration work on the church building was restoring the damage caused by water on the tall steeple masonry. Brick and terra cotta pieces were missing and damaged, and some of the brickwork was loose. Due to the extreme height of the steeple and the limited reach of standard lifts, a special lift was required to be used that could access the damage at the 150 foot level. Several locations needed work and the timing required calm and clear weather to safely accomplish the repairs.
Another recently completed project was the restoration of two statues of adoring angels that had been lost for many years. They had been given to the parish some time ago but were sent off for restoration and forgotten. While in a search for other liturgical items, the angels were accidently discovered at a specialty restoration company and identified as belonging to Saint Francis de Sales. Through the efforts of some members of the congregation, the statues were restored to their original glory in time to be made available for use during Holy Week devotions at the Oratory.
Through the efforts of some members of the congregation, two statues of adoring angels which had been lost for many years were restored to their original glory in time for Holy Week at the Oratory.
An on-going restoration project concerns the steeple clock that has been non-functional for many years. Pieces of the mechanical gearing that drives the hands at the four faces were missing and the remaining mechanism was corroded and unable to turn. Through the generosity of a local machine company, new parts were made and our volunteer repairman is in the process of installing the new gears, coordinating the four movements and calibrating the speed of the drive motor. We hope to have the clock working in the very near future as an outward sign of the church’s restoration efforts.
A future restoration project is to ensure the continued viability of all of the outstanding stained glass windows that are the hallmark of this beautiful structure. They are all intact but require replacement of the protective outer glass, sealing all the joints to make them watertight, stabilizing them, and cleaning the interiors from decades of soot and smoke accumulation. Due to the number of these windows and the terra cotta replacement work for the columns that provide the exterior support, this work will be phased in over a period of years, working on the most deteriorated windows first.
Through the generosity of a local machine company, new parts were made and our volunteer repairman is in the process of installing the new gears, coordinating the four movements and calibrating the speed of the drive motor. We hope to have the clock working in the very near future as an outward sign of the church’s restoration efforts.
Tradition for Tomorrow
Restoring the campus of Saint Francis de Sales is also much more than brick and mortar repairs. It is equally about restoring the sense of community amongst the faithful and the youth. We discuss this at length with Canon Raphael Ueda, Vicar of Saint Francis de Sales Oratory in the article “How I got to St. Louis“ elsewhere in this issue.)
Photos by Phil Roussin