By Meghan Ferrara
Photos by Susan K. Hurt and Ali Cavanaugh
In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the fledgling United States and ushered in an age of expansion and exploration. Part of the territory that America acquired was the French town of Sainte Genevieve. It was a village teeming with Catholic life – residents from five Native American tribes, France, Spain, and Africa lived under the colonial governments of both France and Spain before 1803.
The town’s focal point was the parish, founded in 1759. Fifteen years after the Louisiana Purchase, on January 1, 1818, Bishop William DuBourg stopped at Sainte Genevieve to celebrate a pontifical high Mass before continuing on to Saint Louis to begin his role as the head of the soon-to-be-formed Diocese of Saint Louis.
This year, on New Year’s Day, in the same church that welcomed Bishop DuBourg, a special Mass was offered to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of his visit. The Mass was celebrated in the extraordinary form by Monsignor C. Eugene Morris and the homily was delivered by Monsignor Michael Witt. The local Juventutem Saint Louis group provided the music for the occasion, which attracted many young Catholics.
Regina Magazine recently spoke with millennial Blanche Kern, who attended the Mass with her brother, Gabriel.
REGINA: What’s your personal connection with Ste. Genevieve?
BLANCHE: My interest came through my involvement with the Missouri Chapter of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA-MO), an organization that owns an historic house museum campus in Ste. Genevieve. The campus is called New France: The Other Colonial America (NFTOCA) and features the Bolduc House; a National Historic Landmark in Ste. Genevieve.
REGINA: Ah, interesting.
BLANCHE: When I heard about the anniversary Mass, I was immediately interested, not only because of the historical significance, but as I am a lifelong Latin Mass attendee, of course I had to be there!
REGINA: And your impression of the Mass?
BLANCHE: The liturgy was exceptionally beautiful and reverent. If I recall correctly, there were three priests, a deacon and sub-deacon, and over a dozen seminarians. It felt like a full house, with about 600 people in attendance; half of whom (I believe) were parishioners.
REGINA: Who were the others?
BLANCHE: Others, like myself, travelled for the occasion. Fr. Edward Nemeth was the pastor and host; Monsignor C. Eugene Morris was the celebrant, and Monsignor Michael Witt delivered an excellent homily detailing some key historical events that lent a colorful backdrop to the occasion. The Juventutum St. Louis choir, led by director Ryan Murphy, sang a beautiful selection of hymns including the medieval Latin “Resonet in laudibus,” and “Guadete! Gaudete! Christus est natus”. It was an unforgettable experience, and one I feel blessed to have witnessed.
REGINA: Was the liturgy hard to understand?
BLANCHE: I am a lifelong Latin Mass attendee, so the liturgy was familiar to me. Nonetheless, I felt in awe at being in this beautiful old church for such a solemn occasion, and surrounded by many descendants of the very people who built the town, and who would have been there to welcome Bishop DuBourg 200 years ago! My impression was that everyone who attended was deeply moved.
REGINA: Why do you think the Latin Mass is so attractive?
BLANCHE: It is easier for the mind to ascend to thoughts of heaven, and feel more connected with the lives of saints, when surrounded by beautiful images, incense, prayers in Latin, and reverent hymns. For myself, it is harder for my mind to wander and be distracted by everyday concerns, while at a Latin Mass.
REGINA: And to young Catholics?
BLANCHE: I have spoken with many millennials who feel the same way. Is there any Catholic who does not WANT to be transported out of this dreary world, and closer to our King and Creator? It seems easier to achieve at the ancient Mass of the Saints. The millennials I meet, who were attracted to the Latin Mass after being formed by the Novus Ordo, are nearly always seeking a more profound experience of worship than their home parish could provide. Why take bronze, when you can have gold?
REGINA: Why did Ste. Genevieve decide to celebrate their bicentennial with a Latin Mass?
BLANCHE: Ste. Genevieve is a town that embraces its tradition and historical role, not only in Missouri, but the country. One sees examples every day, from the food and cuisine, to the historic houses and museums.
REGINA: Okay, but there are many such towns in America.
BLANCHE: There are deeper, and more personal examples, as well… Ste. Genevieve has a strong tradition of Catholicism, dating back to its loyalty to the French Catholic Crown, in the colonial period. They were not fans of the secular aspect of the French Revolution! It seems to make perfect sense that, in a “living history” town, they would honor the commemorative anniversary of the Dubourg Mass by celebrating with a Mass in the traditional rite.
REGINA: How are the Colonial Dames involved?
BLANCHE: We are working to move beyond the simple and older model of being a house museum, to instead being a center to educate and understand the unique culture of Ste. Genevieve, the “Illinois Country”, and the French Colonial Territories at large.
REGINA: Is there conservation work being done there?
BLANCHE: NFTOCA manages five historic houses on the Ste. Genevieve campus: The Bolduc House, The Bolduc-LeMeilleur House, The Beauvais-Linden House, the Francois Valle II House, and the Jean-Baptiste Valle House. Additionally, a sixth building has been purchased and is being remodeled to be opened this Spring, to the public. This shall be called The Centre For French Colonial Life, and this exciting new building will house the Gift Shop, Main Offices, Temporary Exhibits, a Lecture Hall, and Orientation Exhibits about Ste. Genevieve and its role in the French and Spanish colonial period.
Ste. Genevieve is a fascinating destination for groups, or even the solo traveler! Through daily tours, hands-on activities, archaeological digs, lectures, festivals, and living history, NFTOCA aims to keep alive the cultural heritage of Ste. Genevieve, and the figures who built this area.
REGINA: Currently, there is a Congressional Bill to designate Historic Ste. Genevieve as a National Park. How will that affect the town.
BLANCHE: The presence of the National Parks will substantiate the importance of preserving the French and Spanish Colonial Periods. Ste. Genevieve is a unique historical treasure – unlike Williamsburg, these are the original structures in their original locations. Located just an hour south of St. Louis, one can see over 30 historical vertical log structures that have NOT been moved or re-created. Many of these structures are still homes to families, and have been for centuries!