Please scroll through the images below to view a timeline of important events in the History of the Old Cathedral.
An Extraordinary History
The history of the Parish of Saint Louis – known fondly as the “Old” Cathedral – and the early history of the City of St. Louis are inextricably bound. Over the course of the last 180 years, they have borne witness to many important events and forever galvanize the Old Cathedral’s place among the most historically significant in our community.
The Old Cathedral is unique, both in St. Louis and across America. It couples a museum that contains many artifacts from the early days of the Catholic Church in St. Louis and local historical information of an active parish community. The parish has survived waves of cholera, fire, arson attempts, urban development that began with the westward migration of thousands of Americans, the Civil War and World War I and II.
The Early Years
In its early years, the Old Cathedral was the only church of any denomination for local settlers until about 1816. It is truly the “Mother Church” of St. Louis, the first permanent church in St. Louis, and the 1834 church was the first Cathedral west of the Mississippi River.
The Old Cathedral signifies the beginning of Catholicism in the Colonial West, spreading faith-based values to all cultures across a developing America.
The Cathedral Block, as designated by Auguste Chouteau in 1764, was among the three largest and most important central blocks in town. The others were the Public Square and Company Block that extended to the edge of the Mississippi River. Residents of St. Louis surrounded these three blocks with their plots of land. The Old Cathedral became the heart of life in the city and was viewed by many as the centerpiece of the city. The current Basilica and its predecessor churches were also the hub of civic activity. It was here that town
residents came for spiritual nourishment, counseling, and to learn. Saint Louis University was born on the church block, arguably from the education citizens received at the Old Cathedral.
From 1834-1843, seven Sunday Masses were held to accommodate the growing population of the area, with the vernacular portion spoken in the various languages of the inhabitants, including French, German and English. Recognizing its origins, all church records were kept in French until the late 1830s. Because the Old Cathedral was the only church in St. Louis, a crypt was opened to hold the large volume of worshippers in the early years. Many native Americans – including the four Nez Perce chiefs of 1831 – traveled by river from the Rocky Mountains to learn about the Christian faith in St. Louis.
The Old Cathedral has witnessed many early incidents of evangelization, and it is where three of William Clark’s children were baptized. Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, was also baptized in the 1776 log church that once stood near the current site of the Old Cathedral.
Despite its unique role in the history of the riverfront and of the founding of St. Louis, the Old Cathedral was almost lost along with nearby neighborhoods along the Mississippi River. By 1933, some forty blocks of the downtown riverfront surrounding the Old Cathedral had fallen into decay. A plan for developing a national memorial on the riverfront was presented to Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann, who had been married in
the Old Cathedral.
In December 1933, Mayor Dickmann called a meeting of civic leaders in the Jefferson Hotel. From this meeting was born the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial that surrounds the Old Cathedral today. President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the US Department of the Interior to acquire the tract of the original city settlement between Poplar Street, and the Eads Bridge west to Third Street.
The only building to be saved and its land not claimed for the park, was the Parish of St. Louis, the Old Cathedral. The Expansion Memorial commemorates Thomas Jefferson and the pioneers who broke open the American West. The Old Cathedral sits on the grounds of the memorial park as a reminder of the expansion of all faiths throughout these territories and the people whose lives were led in witness to their spiritual values in Colonial America.
For that, Pope John XXIII designated the Old Cathedral as the “Basilica of Saint Louis, The King” in 1961. A historically significant sacred space by papal decree, it remains an active place of worship. It is still owned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.