The Resplendent St. Francis de Sales Oratory in St. Louis

St. Louis, known as the Rome of the West, has long been a focal point of intense Catholic life and culture. Steadfast generations have maintained a stronghold of Catholic identity here, with filial devotion to the Church and her sacred liturgy manifested in a deep Eucharistic piety that has helped inspire the construction of a great many beautiful churches.

The St. Francis de Sales Oratory near downtown is an unquestionable jewel of the St. Louis landscape. It is a raiment of beauty, reflecting in a special way an ordering to the highest human activity, divine worship. This unites itself most intimately with the action of God, the ultimate exemplar of all beauty. In the dignity of the Neo-Gothic edifice and intricate decorations and in harmony with the sacred rites and music, the attributes of eternal Beauty are mirrored for all who visit. It comes as no surprise already many years ago the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects named the parish as one of the most significant historic buildings in Saint Louis. 

St. Francis de Sales founded just after the end of the Civil War. The cornerstone of the original church was laid in 1867 by German immigrants who purchased a tract of land and made plans to build a resplendent church in the German Gothic style. The cost was $12,850, an enormous sum in those days. By the end of that year the first Mass was celebrated inside the imposing new church on Christmas Day while the building was still under construction. 

The current church, built in the Neo-Gothic of Germany, a nod to the late Middle Ages, was begun in 1907 after the need for an upgrade became more than clear. In those years, St. Francis de Sales was one of the largest parishes in the area. Instead of cut stone, the new church was built of brick and terra cotta. The pinnacle was a 300-foot high steeple, topped by a 12-foot iron cross weighing 900 pounds. In 1952, this cross was replaced by a new 18-foot cross covered in gold leaf.

The new and current church was dedicated on November 26th, 1908. The building had a grand, elaborate look to it with a front entrance portal designed as a copy of the Gothic portal of the Cathedral of Munich. The new church, as with the old, was consecrated in honor of St. Francis de Sales, a French missionary and bishop of Geneva who labored to bring back those lost to the Protestant heresy. He is credited with winning back to the fold of Christian unity over 72,000 from Calvinism. Today, St. Francis de Sales church is a city landmark known to locals as the "Cathedral of South St. Louis" because of its size and elegantly designed grandeur.  The spire houses four bells and clock faces that were added to the steeple following the parish's 50th anniversary celebration in 1917.

This church is the only one in the St. Louis area of German Gothic architecture and it is said to have been based on the design of the Ulm Minster, a once Catholic church in Germany that was converted for Protestant use and never given back; today the tallest church in the world. Saint Francis de Sales has been an anchor in the Archdiocese since its founding. The campus thankfully includes the church, a rectory, convent, and two school buildings. 

The buff-colored brick exterior features large, pointed arched windows, decorative columns and ornate trim. In the tradition of the European Gothic churches, St. Francis de Sales is adorned with a magnificent array of stained-glass windows that are tall and wide. The nave is 130-foot long, one of the longest of the churches in St. Louis. 

The interior features multiple apses, and richly carved wood, statues and details with tall, open spaces that direct the eyes skyward, adding to the grand effect of the overall appearance. In the sanctuary there are three apses. The design of the church interior was based on those churches in Europe with ceilings over the side naves almost as high as those over the main nave, increasing the spaciousness, size and majesty.

The main gem of the interior is obviously the Gothic revival high altar with a 52 feet high reredos, an ornate screen behind the altar with elaborate finials. Both hand-carved of wood, rich with gold-leaf details, forming a unique backdrop to the sanctuary and an ideal setting for the solemn celebration of the Classical Rite. The reredos further features a series of pinnacles with niches depicting the crucifixion in the middle with Our Lady and St. John standing at the foot of the cross, framed by carvings of angels. This masterpiece was the product of German craftsmen at E. Hackner Co. of La Crosse, Wisconsin. This firm was founded in 1881 by Bavarian born master woodcarver and sculptor Egidius Hackner, educated at the Munich School of Art. Until 1910 all of his altars were hand carved.  

Matching side altars to the Blessed Mother and to St. Joseph can be seen in their own apses. The altar of the Blessed Mother features statues of Saint Rose and Saint Cecilia. The transept, projecting to both sides of the central nave, features altars to Our Mother of Perpetual Help and the Infant of Prague. The altar of the Infant Jesus includes statues of the holy deacons Saint Lawrence and Saint Stephen. Also in the church there are statues of various saints which the faithful have particular devotion to, including St. Francis and St. Anthony. 

The elaborate interior frescoes were painted by Fridolin Fuchs, a German immigrant who based his ceiling frescoes on the heritage of Gothic artwork in Germany. In addition, a Benedictine Monk from Arkansas did the drawings for the two large paintings in the transept.

The Baptistery features surprise Byzantine-style mosaics, done by the same company that made the windows, made by a team of artists who also worked on the mosaics in the new Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. Lapis lazuli blue stone from Persia was used for the sky mosaic in the vaulted ceiling.

The church's stained-glass windows were a later addition, the creation of Emil Frei, Sr., who also designed the windows of many St. Louis churches. He is considered by many to be St. Louis' premier stained-glass artist. In fact, the stained-glass studio he founded in 1898, Emil Frei, is still in business today. Emil's studio became known for some of the highest quality Munich style pictorial stained-glass windows in the United States, as evidenced by the work he did at St. Francis de Sales, the pinnacle of painting on glass. The windows done in this style are characterized by utterly life like portraits of saints and images from the Bible, particularly of the life of Christ. 

As the suburbs developed in the 1960s and parishioners began to move away to new neighborhoods, numbers began to decline. The schools were closed as urban blight changed inner-city demographics across the nation. As population shifts continued, the parish began to serve more of a Hispanic community. In 2005 the parish was closed by the Archdiocese and the buildings and campus were scheduled to be torn down and sold. 

Later that same year the Archbishop of St. Louis, now Cardinal Raymond Burke, gave the church and other buildings on campus new life when he entrusted them to the care of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, a thriving order from Italy. The church was therefore set up as an Oratory, serving the entire Archdiocese, offering a viable option with the parish returning to the Classical Roman Rite. 


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