Maria Hilf Chapel at Church of St. Agnes (Ecclesia Sanctae Agnetis)

Photos by OC-Travel

The church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota is an outstanding parish with the most impressive sacred music program I have seen anywhere in North America.  It is also one of the most beautiful churches in the United States and the most significant of south German baroque and rococo churches on the North American continent.  The church was designed by St. Paul architect George J. Ries and built between 1909-1912 by parishioners who were sons and daughters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and other countries such as Germany and Luxembourg.  Many of these were immigrants working for the railroad, living in the historic neighborhood of St. Paul known as "Froschburg", or Frogtown.   The church with its K-12 school was an ideal location for them, just a brisk walk from the Minnesota State Capital and just off a main commercial shopping and transportation district, University Avenue.  Today St. Agnes is located conveniently just a minutes drive off Interstate 94, visible for miles with its oxidized-green copper Zwiebelturm, or onion tower, a city landmark seen in all directions.  

When St. Agnes church was dedicated in 1912, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul boasted proudly to the parishioners, "You can be proud of your church, next to the cathedral, it is the grandest church in St. Paul."  He continued, "Few parishes will have the courage to do that which you have done.  I congratulate the whole diocese, the whole Northwest, that there is a parish among us which dares to undertake something so great, which shows confidence in the future, and I hope that your example will be followed by others."  The impressive church seats 1,600, making it one of the largest churches in the state.  It not only has a massive church tower, but is also graced with a windowless interior dome.  It has been noted the grandeur of the physical structure is so significant that the parish would make a worthy diocesan or national shrine in honor of St. Agnes.  

One of the hidden treasures of St. Agnes is the tiny Maria Hilf chapel in the back of the church.  This quiet little corner with its resplendent altar is sometimes overlooked by visitors.  It is one of the most beautiful places to pray, near the main entrance and off to the side.  The icon housed in the chapel is apropos, appropriate for a historically German-speaking parish.  Catholics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a special devotion to Our Lady under this title.  The devotion to Maria Hilf is twofold -- firstly, Our Lady is invoked under this title in the fight against sin in the life of the believer as well as in combating against anti-Christian forces. 

The feast of Maria Hilf was instituted by Pius VII.  Today it is celebrated on the General Roman Calendar on May 24th (Sancta Maria Auxilium Christianorum).  Marian devotion to Our Lady has been celebrated under this title since the early days of Christianity, at least the fourth century.  The title has always been associated with the defense of the Christian Faith and Christian Europe.  During the Battle of Lepanto, Pope St. Pius V invoked Our Lady under this title for the victory of Christian armies, achieved and consequently attributed to the intercession of Our Lady under this title.  The Viennese depiction of Our Lady Help of Christians is particularly enchanting.  

The chapel furniture, seen above, was fashioned in the 1920's.  It came from the crypt chapel of Nazareth Hall Preparatory Seminary in Roseville, Minnesota.  At the time the property was unfortunately sold in 1970, the furniture was given to St. Agnes.  The walls of the chapel are stark, without the typical decorative plaster scroll work seen enhancing the walls of the rest of the church.  This helps to emphasize the altar.  Plans are in the works for a permanent shrine to Blessed Karl to be placed in the chapel where the faithful may gather and pray before a first-class relic of the blessed and celebrate his feast day.  Parishioners recall the long-time pastor of St. Agnes, Monsignor Richard Schuler, who was fond of celebrating Holy Mass every year on this altar for the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians until his death in 2007.  

The chapel is described thus in the official parish history written in 1987: "One of the gems adorning both the exterior and the interior of the church is the Maria Hilf chapel, to the left of the main entrance.  Dedicated to Mary, Help of Christians, it has a replica of a painting that hangs in the Mariahilfkirche on the Mariahilferstrasse in Vienna.  Father Solnce had a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin under the title of Maria Hilf, and so a Viennese artist, Joseph Kastner, was asked to paint the picture" (History of the Church of St. Agnes of Saint Paul, Minnesota by Msgr. Richard J. Schuler, pp. 47-48).

Culturally German churches such as St. Agnes quickly became the showcase of German immigrants in Minnesota.  The people were proud of their heritage and where they came from.  They built grand churches in the area including nearby St. Bernard's and the church of the Assumption in downtown St. Paul.  A nearly exact copy of the same painting can be found at a side altar at the church of the Assumption, built in 1871 (see below).  This was likely through the good graces of Austrian-born Fr. J.M. Solnce, who was pastor of St. Agnes from 1897-1912 before he was transferred to the Assumption where he was pastor from 1912-1916.  He is the priest who built the present St. Agnes church and acquired for it the beautiful painting which he specifically placed in the side chapel he included in the overall church plan.  

The two images are seen next to each other here, located in St. Paul, Minnesota:

Similar copies of the same image can also be found throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire and beyond.  The famous shine in Brezje, Slovenia, has a copy of the image in a beautiful side chapel with an incredible, carved golden frame.  A beautiful version of the icon is kept at the church of Mariahilf in Vienna.  This is a special place where many St. Agnes parishioners over the years (including the author) have made a point to visit while traveling through Europe.  This original copy, said to be miraculous, was painted in circa 1530 by the German Renaissance painter Lukas Cranach, a friend of Martin Luther.  Since 1650 it is located in Innsbruck, Austria, in the Domkirche St. Jakob (the Cathedral of St. James).  Needless to say, the original is a masterpiece and well worth a visit to see one of the most venerated Marian images in all of Christendom.  The icon in later years was crowned, portraying today Mary and Jesus wearing 3-D crowns to indicate that a significant miracle had taken place there.  The icon is housed in a beautiful Viennese baroque church, constructed between 1686-1689 in Vienna's Mariahilf district.  Below is a photo of the oil on canvas copy kept at St. Agnes, very similar to the original, with close-up of the hand-carved retable frame with baroque cherub.       

The altar, painted and finished with gold leaf, is from the Daprato Statuary Company; dating from the early twentieth century.  It matches exactly the two side altars and altar rail in the main body of the church.  These items were made from a man-made composite material known as "rigalico," something that was pioneered by the Daprato Statuary Company at their studios in Chicago and New York (the altar and reredos were cast in bronze molds).    

The baroque style chosen for the design of the church and altar was familiar to the immigrants of St. Agnes who came from German-speaking lands.  The style resembles churches seen in the cities and towns south of the Danube,  including Salzburg, Prague, and Innsbruck.  Everywhere the Hapsburgs went, they brought with them variations of the baroque style, effusing color, light, and motion.  

The beautiful monogram mounted on the altar, with acanthus leaves and palm branches, honors Our Lady with the Marian title, Auspice Maria (Under the Protection of Mary) or "AM."  The beautiful stained glass windows can be seen below, a classic example of the Munich school of glass, the work of the F. Mayer Co. of Munich, Germany.  They were installed in 1930.      


As a side note, St. Agnes is my ancestral home parish where I grew up and have returned my entire life.  This is where, thanks be to God, I received my liturgical and musical formation of which I am eternally indebted.  This is also where my ancestors knelt at the same altar rail to receive the sacraments.  Many thanks to the current pastor, a graduate of TAC, Fr. Mark Moriarty,  a good friend who is doing a great job and many thanks to Fr. Bryan Pedersen, a son of the parish, for celebrating the Low Mass photographed here.  We walk among giants.  

Above are exterior views of the chapel, in Indiana Bedford limestone, the stone material used in the construction of many monumental structures.  A golden cross surmounts the exterior chapel roof.  The chapel is clearly in octagonal shape, in some ways a possible faint reference to Charlemagne's Carolingian Octagon at the Cathedral of Aachen as well as early baptismal fonts found in Christian centers such as Cologne in Germany.     

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