The Shrine to St. Joseph and Its Historic High Altar (Archdiocese of St. Louis)

North America has two prominent shrines to St. Joseph that draw the faithful by supernatural instinct, turning to their foster father in heaven with childlike trust and devotion. Both destinations are places of miracles that gather pilgrims from near and afar: one in Montreal, Canada and the other in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Shrine of St. Joseph in St. Louis, Missouri is important for various reasons.  Specific to liturgical arts, what makes the shrine so important is its historic high altar – one of the oldest and largest in the nation.

The shrine was founded in 1843 by Jesuit missionaries from Austria.  Their mandate was to serve the local pioneer immigrants who were German-speaking, with many of them passing through on their way to California via the covered wagon trails.  In 1846 the community built their first wooden structure on the site.  It was the sixth Catholic church in the city of St. Louis.    

As the parish grew, the original church had to be enlarged and remodeled more than once.  The first renovation and addition was in 1865-1866, enlarging the church significantly.  Again in 1880 the church was enlarged once again, with an addition that included a brick Romanesque exterior with a twin-towered façade, completed in 1881.  Originally, its unique hexagonal towers caped with cupolas were slightly larger (they were lowered in 1954).  On the façade is a statue of St. Joseph with these words – the Jesuit motto - carved in Bedford limestone: Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam (“Toward the Greater Glory of God”).

The historic high altar with massive, slightly curved Roman Baroque reredos dates back to the second addition in the 1860s.  It was installed in 1867 and was made entirely of wood.  This altar is recognized as one of the most artistically significant high altars in the United States.  The details of its design were according to specifications submitted by the Jesuit missioners themselves. 

The inspiration for the altar comes from the famous church of the Gesù in Rome, the mother church of the Jesuits, first conceived 300-years earlier by the Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola. The reredos was designed as a smaller replica of the altar of St. Ignatius found in the Gesù.  However, there was one main change – the statue of St. Ignatius was to be replaced with one of St. Joseph depicted with Christ as a boy.

All of this was fashioned by Bueschers of Chicago, at that time a well-known atelier with workshops that produced religious art.  The altar and all of the statues were hand-carved and sourced with local wood.  Beneath St. Joseph are the words in Latin: Ite Ad Ioseph (“Go to Joseph). 

Above in the center is the popular Jesuit monogram  giving glory to the holy name of Jesus: “I.H.S.”  This is usually explained as the initials of Iesus Hominum Salvator (“Jesus, the Savior of Man”).  Or an abbreviation made by using the first three letters of the Greek form of the name of Christ, which in Roman letters is IESOUS – the capital long E in Greek being shaped like our letter H.  The altar was given the status of being a “privileged altar,” another rare sight in the U.S. This means that through a special indult from the Vatican a plenary indulgence was offered to the soul of any deceased person the Mass was offered for.    

The cost of the altar was $6,131, a princely sum in those years.  The grateful parishioners raised the funds, above their original pledge of $4,000, in gratitude of their deliverance from a cholera epidemic in 1866.  At the height of the epidemic parishioners had gathered with their pastor and made a solemn vow to St. Joseph that if through his intercession God would protect the parishioners from the epidemic, a suitable monument would be raised in honor of the saint.   The money of the pledge was raised and none of those who made the vow were harmed by the epidemic.  The new altar was thence called “the altar of answered prayers” on account of its origin. 

The shrine also boasts another rare sight, an ornately carved pulpit with an abat-voix above, a beautiful wooden canopy in Baroque style.  This is suspended above the pulpit - a rare sight in North America.  It is raised well above the floor to enhance audibility and visibility, a glimpse of the art of oratory before microphones were invented.  The pulpit is accessed by steps.  It is attached to a column in the nave of the church, close to the seated congregation in the pews, for acoustic effect. 

The shrine also has a side altar dedicated to St. Peter Claver with another rare sight, a “recumbent” statue of Christ visible inside the altar.  This visual is an old medieval German tradition of lamentation and entombment, depicting a statue of Christ laying down, traditionally exposed one day of the year on Good Friday.  This tradition commemorates the passion of Christ, drawing worshippers into a union with the death and burial of Christ.  Among other interesting statues, there is also a beautiful statue of the Holy Family, with Christ and Our Lady holding St. Joseph on his deathbed.     

The shrine is also the site of a Vatican authenticated miracle that took place on March 16, 1864.  This miracle was approved for the canonization of St. Peter Claver, SJ (1580-1654), a Jesuit missionary in Africa and a human rights defender who was canonized in 1888.  The story of the miracle goes back to Ignatius Strecker, a parishioner and German immigrant who had an internal chest injury, the result of a workplace accident at a local soap factory in St. Louis.  A metal piece had struck his chest and he developed tuberculosis.  Doctors gave him a terminal diagnosis and just a couple weeks to live. 

Soon after this a traveling Jesuit missionary came to the parish to preach a mission on Blessed Peter Claver.  On March 15, describing to parishioners what a powerful intercessor St. Peter Claver was, the retreat master said he would offer a blessing with a relic of the blessed - a piece of bone fragment – with prayers especially for those sick and those in poor health.  Mrs. Strecker, the man’s wife, heard the mission sermon and rushed home to tell her husband.

The following day Mr. Streckler was brought to the church on a stretcher for the blessing.  He arrived in time to receive the blessing with the relic of Blessed Peter Claver.  He was able to reverence the reliquary with a kiss.  Streckler gave testimony that just after he kissed the relic, he experienced a sudden surge of strength and was able to stand and walk out of the church unassisted.  Within a few days he was back at work and in a few months was fully restored to health.  The healing was said to be miraculous because it was unexplainable.  Streckler went on to live another 17 years.     

A canonical investigation was made at the behest of the local bishop to authenticate the miracle.  In 1887 the incident was formally declared a genuine miracle by the Vatican for the cause of canonization of Blessed Peter Claver.  The miracle was therefore chosen as one of the two required miracles for the canonization process.  The following January, to universal acclamation, Claver was canonized a saint.  Thus, the shrine has the distinction of being the actual location of a Vatican authorized miracle.  To this day the tradition continues of the blessing the faithful with a relic of St. Peter Claver after every Sunday Mass.     

As with many inner-city landmark churches in the U.S., the parish community flourished until the post-war years when the neighborhood began to decline and the younger generation moved to the suburbs.  Due to urban renewal projects sponsored by the government the neighborhood homes were removed and replaced with growing frequency through the 1950s and 1960s and beyond.  In the city’s bid to turn a dying area into a business center, older residential homes were replaced with trucking warehouses, transforming the neighborhood into an industrial zone.  

In those years Mass attendance fell.  The parish school closed.  Costly maintenance repairs were not made and the church fell into disrepair with significant damage over time.  The ceiling leaked.  Over the years much of the interior had been pained over with institutional colors, such as grey, and other off-putting colors, something that was done in those post-war years.  Parish funds were gradually depleted and routine maintenance was avoided even for basic repairs.  By the 1970s, due to dwindling numbers and extensive damage to the building, the Jesuits left the parish and there was serious talk of demolition.  However, even in disrepair, there was grandeur in the architecture and empty building.  Beauty has its own power to draw man's gaze to God and divine truths.   

Thankfully, one priest stood in the way of the wrecking ball, an elderly pastor named Fr. Edward S. Filipiak (1899-1979).  He was one of the oldest priests in the diocese that was still working.  Ordained in 1923, he had great devotion to St. Joseph and he loved the beauty and history of the shrine.  He manned his post and lived in hidden poverty at the parish, giving his own money to pay the bills.  The old priest refused to give up hope: “If I leave, they will close it,” he often said.  

Although there were just a handful of people in Mass attendance, Fr. Filipiak was able to bring together in the late 1970s five men from St. Louis who fell in love with the beauty of the building interior and decided to do something to try to save it.  The needs were urgent and first on the list was a new roof among other projects that included interventions to save the windows. 

The men got organized and in 1978 set up a nonprofit to accept donations.  This way they were able to cover the expenses of saving the shrine.  The nonprofit is still in existence today, known as The Friends of the Shrine of St. Joseph, a registered charity that collects donations from generous patrons. An arrangement was made for the foundation to lease the property from the Archdiocese and to invest directly in it.  The efforts paid off.  Volunteers got involved.  Donations were slow to come in.  The pastor had put so much confidence in these men.  The effort was inspired by St. Joseph.  Then the impossible happened.  

On the night on September 30, 1979, three teenage boys broke into the church and attached rectory looking for altar wine.  They heard a TV and entered the pastor's bedroom.  There they tied him up and beat him to death.  Fr. Filpiak was discovered on the floor the following morning, deceased, with 16 broken ribs.  This tragic event brought the Archdiocese together, galvanizing the community and inspiring people to give to keep the church open.  Ove the years over 5 million dollars have been raised for the complete restoration of the church to its former glory, even restoring the original color schemes, rediscovered under layers of paint.  Much of the work was done by volunteers.      

The shrine is today no longer a parish.  While the building remains the property of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the operation and maintenance of the church are still under the direction of the nonprofit that has members and is under the direction of a board of professionals.  By God’s grace, the shrine was saved and has been fully restored.  This is a major success story that needs to be told.  As Fulton Sheen once said, “Unless there is a Good Friday in your life, there can be no Easter Sunday.”  The restoration process that began in 1980 amid the outcry over the priest’s murder, spurring donations from all walks of life, continues to this day.  Meanwhile, the neighborhood has been reclaimed with new housing, allowing families to put down permanent roots and re-build community.  In 1980 the city named the park in front of the church in honor of the slayed priest.    

Needless to say, the shrine came very close to closure, but by God’s grace, it is still standing today thanks to the generous donations of a vast number of contributors from everywhere who have met the growing expenditures over the years and donated thousands of volunteer hours. The shrine is hailed as one of the most beautiful churches in St. Louis.  The nearest parish is St. Patrick’s, about five blocks to the east.  Mass is celebrated at the shrine on Sundays and First Fridays and it is available for weddings and funerals.  A video that tells the incredible story of the shrine can be seen here.

As the year 2020 drew to a close, Pope Francis, perhaps sensing that the Church and the world were in special need of a father’s protection in the challenging times of an epidemic, decided to dedicate 2021 in honor of St. Joseph.  That year marked the 150th anniversary of the Church’s declaration of St. Joseph as the Patron of the Universal Church.

St. Joseph is a man of recollection and silence, with an important role in the economy of grace and salvation.  The purpose of devotion to St. Joseph, as with Marian devotion, is to bring the faithful closer to Jesus.  Joseph, like every saint, is a mediator.  Who can see the stars more clearly, the one who looks with the naked eye alone or the one who uses a telescope?  The telescope brings the eye closer to the star.

Finally, it seems fitting to end with a quote from Pope Leo XIII that helps illustrate the importance of St. Joseph as the foster father of Christ.  We can never underestimate the prestige and importance of St. Joseph: “But as Joseph has been united to the Blessed Virgin by the ties of marriage, it may not be doubted that he approached nearer than any to the eminent dignity by which the Mother of God surpasses so nobly all created natures” (cf. Quamquam Pluries, 3).

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