St. Mary of Victories is blessed to share a common history with some of the most influential religious orders that helped make St. Louis what it is today. Our church is considered the "one true home" of the Sisters of St. Mary who got their start in St. Louis, and their name at St. Mary of Victories Church. The sisters would go on to found a health ministry which would become SSM Heath System, based in St. Louis.
In 1870, foundress Mother Mary Odelia was a German citizen working in Paris, running a home for girls that worked as domestic servants in the city. When war broke out, Mother Odelia was forced to leave France, but found the government in Germany was very unwelcoming to her and discriminated against the Catholic Church. She and her sisters moved to the United States because of the persecution, and in a vocational response to serve the poor. They modeled themselves after the charism of St. Francis of Asissi who renounced material wealth and ventured out as a missionary to help those most in need.
The sisters crossed the Atlantic by ship, and then crossed the continent by train to arrive in St. Louis in 1872. The Eads Bridge was still under construction, and it was still about 100 years before the Gateway Arch would be built. They city at that time was bustling with immigrants. Tenament housing was packed with people, and industry was booming - generating jobs and a lot of industrial pollution. The close quarters and pollution lead to outbreaks of disease including smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, diptheria, and scarlet fever. Because they were German, the sisters were immediately attracted to St. Mary of Victories Church, which had been a solid German parish since 1843. At first they stayed with the Ursuline Sisters, and then rented rooms in an apartment across the street from St. Mary of Victories. Ultimately a convent would be built that attached directly to the south side of the Church (pictured at left). At first known as "the Smallpox Sisters" because of their exposure to contagion, they entered and worshiped in the Church to the second balcony (below the choir loft) to prevent infecting the congregation.
The Sisters of St. Mary ministered to the sick in their homes, sometimes spending weeks washing, cooking and cleaning for sick families. To support their ministry they walked the streets asking forfood, clothing, and money for the sick and themselves. On May 24, 1877, the sisters opened their first hospital on Papin Street. The infirmary served the sick and poor, and ultimately it became well known for excellent care of the African American Community. The building, now closed, is still visible from I-64, and stands as a testament to the ministry that would grow in to the SSM Health System, a non-profit Catholic health care ministry serving the communities in Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.
The arrival of an increasing number of German Catholic immigrants in St. Louis created urgent needs for more German priests and a church exclusively for German use. Although Bishop Joseph Rosati (pictured at right) by 1839 had purchased land for a German church (which he planned to name "St. Mary for the Germans"), he was unable to raise sufficient funds to begin construction before his death in 1843 - a year in which Europe was flooded with reports accusing American bishops of neglecting the needs of German Catholics in this country. Rosati's successor, Bishop Peter Richard Kenrick (pictured below left), responded to these demands and accepted Ann Lucas Hunt's donation of a parcel of land that was better situated with respect to German settlement than Rosati's land. Kenrick then purchased, from Mrs. Hunt's brother the remaining half of the proposed church site for $2,500.
Although the cornerstone of St. Mary of Victories was laid June 25, 1843, construction was delayed due to financial problems of the diocese which was burdened with a large debt incurred from Rosati's building projects. This state of affairs prompted Bishop Kenrick late in 1843 to petition the Leopoldine Society of Vienna for aid:
I take the liberty of informing your grace concerning the needs of the German Catholics of the Diocese of St. Louis and especially of this city, the number of which has now risen to 6,000. No serious attempt has so far been made to provide a church, exclusively for the use of the German Catholics, but they have been obliged until now, to attend divine service in the church which belongs to the French and American Catholics....As it would be unreasonable in me to increase my obligations at the present moment, I am constrained to suspend work on the building, which is so near completion. The German Catholics, for the most part, belong to the working classes, and feel all too keenly the pressure of hard times, to give any hope of assistance.
The Leopoldine Society responded favorably and forwarded a large sum. Supplemented by Kenrick's personal gift of $1,000 and local offerings, the church completed only with nave at a cost of $8,000 was dedicated September 15, 1844. According to parish records the architect of St. Mary's was Franz Saler, an Austrian-born parishioner who first appears in the 1843 City Directory as a bricklayer and mason. Credited with being "the favorite building contractor of the Catholic sisterhoods," Saler was also the contractor and builder for St. Patrick's (1845) and St. Vincent de Paul's (1845). During the 1850's he worked as a lumber merchant and founded and owned two German newspapers, the Herold des Glaubens and Taegliche Chronik; by the 1860's, he was involved with book binding and selling. A founding spirit and first treasurer of the German St. -Vincent Orphan Society, Saler was very active in parish affairs and was one of the earliest members of the first conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
While a significant spiritual and cultural victory was won for St. Louis German Catholics with the construction of St. Mary of Victories, Bishop Kenrick's pastoral letter of May 25, 1845, compromised the achievement. In that document the Bishop divided the city into four parishes (previously all were included in the St. Louis Cathedral parish) and, interpreting the ruling of the Council of Trent, established St. Mary's as a subsidiary or succursal parish for the five hundred German families living within the Cathedral parish. Such an arrangement insured the continuity of German language and customs, but because of its succursal status the church was denied full juridical diocesan rights a situation that gave rise to bitter conflict later in the century.
During the pastorate of the first rector, Rev. John P. Fischer (1844-1847), an old log house across the street from the church was purchased for a combined priests' house and school. This early humble provision for a parish school where German was spoken was an important foundation for ethnic identity and the alliance of religion and education valued by the Germans. Father Fischer planned the program for the interior wall paintings of the church and hired St. Louis church decorator Paul Hoegen to execute them. The priest also purchased the stained glass windows praised for their artistry in an 1844 German newspaper printed in Cincinnati. Also stationed at St. Mary's in the early years was Rev. Ambrose J. Heim, who was instrumental in organizing for St. Louis the first conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in North America. Father Heim innovated a banking system for St. Mary immigrants (who distrusted private banks) that was so successful Archbishop Kenrick adopted Heim's method, extending it into the "Archbishop's Bank" and appointed Heim secretary to the Archdiocese in 1847.
St. Mary of Victories' second pastor, Rev. Joseph Melcher (pictured right) from Vienna, had served twelve years as chaplain to the Court of Modena before accepting Bishop Rosati's offer in 1843 for a missionary assignment in the St. Louis diocese. Father Melcher's impressive credentials qualified him for selection as Bishop Kenrick's theologian at the Sixth Provincial Council of Baltimore, 1847. The same year Kenrick appointed him Vicar-General for the St. Louis Germans and sent him on the first of three recruiting trips to Europe (between 1847 and 1864) in search of candidates for the priesthood to serve principally in the diocese's German-speaking parishes.
Two future pastors of St. Mary's, Henry Muehlsiepen and William Faerber, were brought to St. Louis from Germany by Father Melcher in addition to the Ursuline nuns who first taught at St. Mary's school. In 1850, Father Melcher founded the St. Vincent's German Orphan Society on behalf of the many German children who were orphaned during the cholera epidemic of 1849. During Father Melcher's pastorate at St. Mary's (1847-1868), a new brick school was built in 1856 and placed under the direction of the Sisters of St. Joseph who six years later were replaced by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. The new parochial residence, completed in 1859, became a popular meeting place for St. Louis German priests. In 1860, a transept and belfry following the original plans were added to the church, thus bringing the total cost of the building to $13,000, excluding land and interior furnishing. New altars, pews and a pulpit were also installed at this time. It was in October of 1865 that Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, C.Ss.R., itinerant Redemptorist preacher, with other priests, gave a parish mission in the Church. After declining Pope Pius IX for positions of Bishop of Quincy, Illinois (now a part of the Diocese of Springfield, IL), and Administrator of Church affairs in Chicago, Father Melcher was consecrated first Bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin, by Archbishop Kenrick in St. Mary of Victories Church, July 12, 1868.
Henry Muehlsipen, a very popular assistant rector for ten years, was appointed pastor in 1868. After coming to St. Louis in 1855 with Father Melcher's recruits, he entered the St. Louis Diocesan Seminary and was ordained by Archbishop Kenrick in 1857. Called the "apostle of the Germans in Missouri," Father Muehlsiepen was an energetic supporter of German Catholic interests serving as the first editor of a Catholic newspaper, Pastoral Blatt, and establishing a "Priester Verein" for the clergy. His responsibilities as Vicar-General for German, Polish and Bohemian parishes in the city forced his resignation from St. Mary's in 1870. (St. Mary's as depicted in 1874, seen at right.) In 1872, the Sisters of St. Mary emigrated to St. Louis and took up residence (and their name) from St. Mary of Victories.
The long pastorate of Rev. William Faerber (1870-1905) was a critical period in German Catholic history, and during the turmoil of the 1880's Father Faerber came forward as a prominent national spokesman for the rights of German-American parishes. Appraised by historians as an "excellent writer and a man of broad cultural interests," Father Faerber in 1873 became editor of Pastoral Blatt, the mouthpiece for pro-German sentiments. After a period of dormancy, lines of battle were drawn in St. Louis when Archbishop Kenrick's 1842 pastoral letter (establishing that only English-speaking parishes had full parochial rights) was republished in the early 1880's. Repudiating suggestions that German group-consciousness was tantamount to separatism and a "canker eating away the life of the Church in the United States" Father Faerber explained:
As a rule, the German in this country soon makes himself at home, and becomes as good an American citizen as those of any other nationality. He has as much love for free American institutions; there is certainly no danger that the German Catholics will prefer the hegemony of Prussia and of Bismarckism to the greatest and freest republic in the world....How in the future the different nationalities will unite harmoniously in one people, what is to become of the different languages, of the German churches and schools will all be arranged later on. Forcible, premature interference is always dangerous. "In nature there is no leap"....it would be dangerous and foolish to wish, at present, forcibly to solve these delicate questions and complications by suppressing, slighting, disfranchising the people of any nationality.
When eighty-two St. Louis-priests petitioned Rome in 1884 for consideration of the succursal parish issue at the Third Plenary Council in Baltimore (November, 1884) Father Faerber (who was in Rome at the time) gave them his support. Although nothing was settled on this matter when the Baltimore meeting adjourned, the Council's endorsement of parish schools was clearly a victory for the Pastoral Blatt which opposed the "Godless or so-called public schools"" and recognized the vital role of the parochial school in preserving their language and culture. Only two years before St. Mary of Victories had built a new, large brick parish school (now the rectory and parish hall - pictured at right). The poelmics of Americanization versus ethnic identity extended beyond local expression: It divided the American Church hierarchy. While some claimed that German priests were attempting to "perpetuate a young Germany here...and care more for sauerkraut and its concomitants than they do for the souls of Americans,"
Father Faerber queried: But is it possible to give up individualities? To shape all citizens in one mould? Is it a crime to love the dear country of our fathers and ancestors and perhaps of our birth? An appeal to Rome to resolve the inequity between German and English speaking parishes appeared again with the Abbelyn Memorial in 1886. This time both Father Faerber and Rev. Bede Maler of St. Mary of Victories Church entered the arena on the German behalf. The Lucerne Memorial of 1891 raised another storm which forced a position statement from Father Faerber (as Secretary of the German-American Priests' Society) disclaiming any connection with that document which was formulated in Switzerland without American participation. Although the Lucerne Memorial was no more radical than its predecessors in its defense of national churches and schools, misunderstanding and deliberate misrepresentation of the statement led anti-German clerics such as Archbishop Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, to view it as "an effort...to dethrone us and foreignize our country in the name of religion." He placed the blame on "the clique of foreign-minded and short-sighted Catholics of St. Louis."
Another priest, Rev. John Conway, declared that "St. Louis is even more aggressively foreign than Milwaukee" and condemned Father Faerber and Vicar-General Muehlsiepen as "tireless workers in the cause of foreignism" and their efforts "a conspiracy against this country." In view of all this, it is not surprising that Father Faerber's 1891 petition to Rome for intervention on his behalf to build a new German church did not meet with success. Rome directed his request to Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore who concluded that English-speaking St. Vincent's parish could accommodate additional German parishioners and faulted Father Faerber and Vicar-General Muehlsiepen for causing a disturbance.
The struggles over succursal parish status were finally put to rest by Archbishop John Joseph Kain (pictured at left) in the Third Synod of St. Louis, 1896, when it was declared that foreign-speaking parishes would be equal to "those of the English language... and that there shall be no distinction between them in as far as parochial rights and privileges are concerned." By that time, however, other factors had begun to erode the parish's strength as immigration declined and second and third generation Germans left the old working-class neighborhood for better housing. Following the death in 1917 of Father Garthoeffner (who founded and developed the first Archdiocese high schools), the ethnic composition of the parish diversified and included several Syrian families among other nationalities. "
The decline of the parish was greatly accelerated in 1939 by the first phase of demolition, funded by the National Park Service, within the parish boundaries for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Despite these set backs, an extensive interior and exterior restoration project involving all the parish buildings was undertaken in 1941 and completed for the church's Centennial celebration in 1943. Scarcely more than a decade later "urban progress" dealt another crippling blow to St. Mary of Victories when the Third Street Interregional Highway (now Interstate 55} ruthlessly cut within a few yards of the church's doorsteps.
New life was bestowed on St. Mary's in 1957 when the church was turned over to a Hungarian congregation who had been worshipping in St. Stephen's at 12th and Chouteau Streets. Entirely self-supporting, the new parish was unable to maintain the complex. Shortly after their arrival all buildings except the church and school were razed but the Hungarians' commitment to St. Mary's was evidenced by the new roofs on both the church and school, a new floor in the church, and the conversion of the school to a parish hall on the first floor and priests' quarters upstairs. The picture at right shows an early infirmary and convent on either side of the Church. These buildings were once occupied by the Franciscan Sisters of St. Mary who went on to found SSM Health Care.
Now that ethnic consciousness is viewed as a positive force by both Church and State in America, the German heritage of St. Mary's is still a proud foundation for the Hungarians as they strive to preserve their own language and culture through parish-sponsored activities. Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty's visit to St. Louis in 1974 brought strong words of encouragement for these efforts and inspired the establishment of a small school named in his honor to provide children with instruction in Hungarian culture and language (now closed).
Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos
Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos and St. Mary of Victories Parish
It was in St. Mary of Victories that the Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, C.Ss.R., made his Missouri preaching debut. Together with his Redemptorist companions, Fathers Schneider, Jacob and Gulielm, Seelos preached a parish mission in German from the first to fifteenth of October 1865, shortly after the Civil War. The side altar in the south middle portion of the nave of the church honors his role in the historic parish's development. His statue rests on an altar made from the communion rail from old St. Malachy's Church in the Mill Creek Valley (now demolished), and was once used by the now-closed St. Timothy Parish in Afton, MO.
The church is honored to have a first class relic of Fr. Seelos, as well as one of the five known death masks made of the holy priest at his death.
After his ordination, he worked for nine years in St. Philomena Parish in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, including time as assistant pastor to St. John Neumann. He also served as superior of the community, as pastor, then as novice master. Regarding his relationship with St. John Neumann, he said, "he has guided me as a spiritual director and confessor."
Fr. Seelos was always known as kind and approachable, and his reputation as a confessor and spiritual director attracted people from far and wide. He practiced a simple lifestyle and expressed himself simply. He was well known as a catechist for little children, and held this as a fundamental aspect of the growth of the Christian parish community. His reputation in Pittsburgh and in other locations, brought him to the attention of Venerable Pope Pius IX, who in 1854 had declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The pope offered him the bishopric of Pittsburg, but at Fr. Seelos' request, he was allowed to remain with the people, ministering to their needs and traveling as an itinerant preacher in both English and German. From 1863 to 1866 he travelled to locations in Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. This is the time period in which he visited St. Mary of Victories in St. Louis, Missouri. During this time he also met with Abraham Lincoln to plead for seminarians to be excluded from the conscription for the Civil War.
After serving in Michigan in parish ministry, he was assigned in 1866 to the Redemptorist community in New Orleans, Louisiana. As the pastor of the Church of St. Mary of the Assumption, he continued his joyful work and attention to the needs of the faithful, especially the poorest and most abandoned. His ministry there was brief. In September of that year, exhausted from his work with the victims of a yellow fever epidempic, he contracted the disease. After several weeks of enduring this illness, he passed on to eternal life on October 4, 1867 at 48 years old.
Oh my God, I truly believe you are present with me. I adore your limitless perfections. I thank you for the graces and gifts you gave to Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos. If it is your Holy Will, please let him be declared a Saint of the Church, so that others may know and imitate his holy life. Through his prayers, please give me this favor ... (here, mention your special intentions)
Within the consecrated walls of St. Mary of Victories Church are a rich collection of over 280 relics. As described by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, relics are a form of sacramental.
"Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals. These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy." - Paragraph 1667, CCC
Relics are typically bone fragments or other personal possessions of the Saints, which remind us of their sanctity achieved through Christ and of the Ressurection of the Body which we profess and anticipate. Most of the relics at St. Mary of Victories are contained within glass-fronted containers called reliquaries on the High Altar and the side altars within the church. Some are in free-standing ornate brass and gold reliquaries.
Besides sacramental liturgy and sacramentals, catechesis must take into account the forms of piety and popular devotions among the faithful. The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church's sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals,etc. - Paragraph 1674, CCC
St. Mary's collection of relics includes a fragment of the True Cross, contained in a rare reliquary case that resembles a Monstrance. With it are four other relics of Christ's Passion: a thorn from His crown; a particle from the sponge that was lifted to His face during His Crucifixion; a small part of the pillar where He was scourged; and a particle of the stone taken from the Holy Sepulcher, where His body was placed after His death.
Other separte relics from Saints displayed in the statuary or paintings in St. Mary's include - all the Apostles; a fragment of the veil worn by the Blessed Virgin Mary (patroness of the parish); pieces of the mantels of St. Joseph; St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Agnes, and (since 1957) St. Stephen of Hungary, St. Emeric, and St. Margaret. More recently a first-class relic of Blessed Fr. Francis Xavier Seelos, C.Ss.R., who gave a parish mission at St. Mary's 150 years ago, was added to the collection.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, Have Mercy On Us! All Holy Men and Women, Pray for Us!
It was in St. Mary of Victories that the Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, C.Ss.R., made his Missouri preaching debut. Together with his Redemptorist companions, Fathers Schneider, Jacob and Gulielm, Seelos preached a parish mission in German from the first to fifteenth of October 1865.
In 1872, five women came to St. Louis from Germany, under the leadership of Mother Mary Odilia Berger, having been unable to live out their lives of religious dedication and service due to the policies of the German government known as the Kulturkampf. They found lodging in an attic in the church complex, having the same door to their residence as to the church. They organized themselves in 1874 as a religious congregation under the name of the Sisters of St. Mary, taking their name from the church
The charming neoclassical red brick edifice of St. Mary of Victories was designed by noted St. Louis architects Franz Saler and George I. Barnett who designed it in accordance with that of the early 16th-Century Mannerist style. The church was the second Catholic church to be constructed in the city after the Old Cathedral.
The nave is rectangular and, with the transept, forms a cross with the sanctuary at its head. The choir loft is located on the second tier of the two-tier balcony at the rear of the church (see Sisters of St. Mary). Its ornate wooden-carved organ case and stenciled display pipes are among the oldest in St. Louis. Eight tall stained-glass windows with rounded frames grace the nave and the transept, complementing the high arch of the sanctuary. The Egyptian-style doorway to the church is framed by two massive pillars that hold up the heavy wooden cross above the entrance.
The interior of St. Mary of Victories is also remarkable as the first totally designed liturgical interior in a St. Louis church, developed and fabricated by Professor Max Schneiderhahn, the city's first professional church artist. Himself a German immigrant, Schneiderhahn studied at a German University and two monasteries, bringing the craftsmanship tradition of liturgical art to the St. Louis area - where it would remain preeminent until the early 1960s. The altars, statuary, communion rail, carvings and the frescoes were conceived and executed by Schneiderhahn, who also painted the oils of the Stations of the Cross. The ornate statue of St. Mary of Victories, cast in 1844, still stands in the Sanctuary.
The architecture of St. Mary of Victories Church is so acclaimed that the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and the City Landmarks Registry. The church site itself forms the hub of the pioneer "Chouteau's Landing" District - one of the early commercial and residential immigrant neighborhoods in pre-Civil War era St. Louis.