How to Hang With the Saints of St. Louis
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because exploring this city is a lesson in diverse faiths.
By Nick Fouriezos
In 1764, Pierre Laclède, at the bequest of the king of France, selected an area along the Mississippi River as the perfect location for a fur-trading post. Thus was born the Gateway to the West, named after Louis IX — the only French king to become a canonized saint. Names don’t always become self-fulfilling prophecies. And yet, St. Louis now boasts the most churches per capita in the country, and claims of miracles abound by the block. With that in mind, here is a tour to explore the city through its saintly past.
Fans of gorgeous architecture will enjoy it — as will fans of the bizarre.
An Ancient Civilization
A panoramic view of St. Louis, at one time nicknamed Mound City, was once visible from a flat-top Native American structure that now exists only by a stone marker at North Broadway and Mound Street. Destroyed in 1886 to help build the North Missouri Railroad, it was a relic of the Cahokia Indians, who numbered nearly 20,000 at their 12th century peak. Visit the marker, then travel east a half-hour across the Illinois border, where much of the Cahokian culture remains preserved, including Monks Mound, the centerpiece of the sprawling indigenous empire.
Historians say the Cahokians believed the earth was a “Middle World,” connected by a tilting middle axis that switched between the light of the Upper World and the night of the Lower World. In the latter exists a serpent that, in the night sky, becomes the constellation Cassiopeia — however, it was’t evil. While biblical Christianity professes great “enmity” between the woman and the snake, in Cahokian tradition the relationship between Mother Earth and Cassiopeia creates balance in the universe.
A Shrine to St. Valentine — With a Creepy Surprise
In Florissant, a St. Louis suburb, stands St. Ferdinand Church, the oldest church in the area under the Louisiana Purchase. Fans of gorgeous architecture will enjoy it — as will fans of the bizarre. A lit-up St. Valentine statue sits beneath its altarpiece … and embedded in his manufactured hands are two of his actual bones. The odd shrine stems from faith traditions in which the relics of deceased saints were housed in churches for the blessings they imparted, says Geri Debo, the secretary-treasurer for the nonprofit preserving the church.
A Refuge for Latter-Day Saints
St. Louis was the most important non-Mormon city of the 1800s, and “an inland port for Mormon immigration, a haven for Latter-day Saints who were being persecuted,” Fred E. Woods, a Brigham Young University church scholar, told attendees at a conference this summer, according to the Deseret News. The Gateway Arch museum, which is being remodeled, reportedly plans to have an 1840 copy of the Book of Mormon on display, with volunteer LDS historians ready to give tours.
An Altar of Answered Prayers
At the height of the cholera epidemics sweeping St. Louis in the mid-1800s, nearly 300 people died each day. One day, St. Joseph’s church pastor, Joseph Weber, gathered the congregants and prayed that if God should spare them further ailments, they would build a monument worthy of the stepfather to Christ. According to local tradition, their prayers were answered: Not a single family who signed the vow was stricken after that (the miracle was later affirmed by the Vatican, making it “official” in the church’s eyes). Today, the fruit of their promise is found in the Altar of Answered Prayers, a glorious golden tribute to people’s faith even amid the darkest of times.