St. Anthony of Padua still fosters an immigrant community 150 years later
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As it celebrates its 150th year, St. Anthony of Padua Parish in south St. Louis boasts of multi-generational families and a welcoming outreach to a multicultural neighborhood.
"People really do feel at home, no matter their cultural background, no matter how long or short they have been in this country, whether they were been born here or not," said Franciscan Father Michael Fowler, who came to the parish as pastor last year. "It's not as obvious at the Saturday night or early Sunday morning Mass, but at the 10 o'clock Mass I really feel I am looking out at the United Nations. There are people born in Africa, the U.S., the Philippines, Mexico ..."
The parish church was rebuilt after a fire in 1994, apparently ignited by lightning. The massive, brick structure on Meramec Street between Broadway and Grand, with its twin, 175-feet towers rising in the neighborhood skyline, stands tall on one of the highest points in the city.
The outreach to immigrants is nothing new at St. Anthony's. At the beginning of the Civil War there were some 60,000 German-speaking people in St. Louis, most of them Catholic. They attended St. Boniface Church far to the south or Sts. Peter and Paul Church close to Downtown. Many lived too far from either of their churches and crowded into a makeshift chapel near what is now Marquette Park.
Archbishop Peter R. Kenrick heard about German-speaking Franciscans in Illinois and asked them to establish a parish between the two churches in south St. Louis.
Initially a frame house served as the Franciscan friary and church and later a separate friary and stone church were built. A theological seminary, later a house of studies, was established by the Franciscans, continuing until 1927. St. Anthony's became the headquarters of a new Franciscan province in 1879.
The stone church became too small for the growing parish, and the present church, 226 feet long, was completed in 1910. The current friary was built in 1932. A gradual expansion of parish elementary and high schools occurred, with Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet coming as staff in 1883. The school closed in 2005.
When the parish celebrated its 100th anniversary, the German language still could be heard in the shops and street-corner conversations in the area. Today, according to the latest Census figures, the parish of some 450 households has more than 2,500 foreign-born people living in its midst.
George Schmidt, a parishioner since 1954 who is a lector and designated "weed killer" at the parish, noted that a number of African immigrant families have found a home at St. Anthony's. Schmidt has been impressed with their faith, telling of one of the children who, when the priest invites them to come forward for the Children's Liturgy of the Word, runs with enthusiasm.
"I never saw anyone so excited to hear about Jesus," Schmidt said.
Mary Meurer, a parishioner since 1991 who has a number of roles at the parish including chairperson of the family life commission, said the spirit of the Franciscans makes the parish "a holy ground for the neighborhood." She cited the parish's "hard-working people who want to be involved and want to reach out."
The "roots are so deep" at the parish, said George Schmidt's wife, Mary Ann, who is a lector and eucharistic minister among other things. She went to kindergarten and high school at St. Anthony's when she was known by her maiden name, Mary Ann Stachle. Therese (DeGreef) Sartori, whose family has been at the parish since its start in 1863, added that St. Anthony's "fingers" reach everywhere in the St. Louis area, having touched so many St. Louis families.
George Schmidt, who is on the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults team at the parish, noted that he did not go to a Catholic grade school, and when he came to St. Anthony's "it was like a new family to me. I got accepted for who I was and made to feel welcome."
His family hardly ever went to church, he said, and the Franciscans instructed him in the faith. "It was a starting point of my relationship with God," he said, adding that it is where he met his wife of 50 years. At their recent wedding anniversary celebration, he said, he and his wife were touched by fellow parishioners who told the couple they were instrumental helping them through tough times in life. That, he noted, demonstrates why the parish is so important.
Gerry Everding, who returned as a parishioner about 10 years ago after having moved away, added that he was "raised by the Franciscan friars, Sisters of St. Joseph and Brothers of Mary at St. Mary's. They meant a lot to our family." A highlight, then and now, is the Corpus Christi procession through the neighborhood, he pointed out.
Sartori noted that she was honored to help carry the canopy in the procession, joining a Hispanic and an African man — a sign of how the parish welcomes all.
Julie Dwyer, who has been a parishioner for only a few years, is helping to lead planning of the anniversary events. She noted that the anniversary is a way to celebrate the past while looking at the parish's present and future promise. When she first came to the parish, she was surprised to see that St. Anthony's has many young families and children, she noted. "And the friars are the root of it all. They are inspirational men. Here, it's always like being at home."
The involvement of parishioners is a key, Father Fowler, noted. "They really have bought into the Gospel imperative of bringing the Gospel to others."
The committee that has planned anniversary events also is looking to the next 150 years, he said. "They're looking to continue outreach to a neighborhood that has a lot of Catholics but also many unchurched folks."
Franciscan Brother Thom Smith, pastoral associate at St. Anthony's, cited increased evangelization, including a Vacation Bible School that reaches out to people in the neighborhood.
The parish's Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference, its food pantry and the Franciscan Connection help needy people and families. The pantry has deep freezers and areas for clothing, personal care items, personal interviews and a classroom for presentations on nutrition, budgeting and similar topics. A lawyer visits to provide legal help to clients and a doctor and nurse are scheduled to visit as well. Outside is a greenhouse.
150th anniversary celebration
The 150th anniversary celebration of St. Anthony of Padua Parish begins with 9 a.m. Mass on Corpus Christi Sunday, June 10. The 134th annual Corpus Christi procession through the Dutchtown neighborhood will follow.
Other events include:
• Feast of St. Anthony of Padua at 11 a.m. Mass Wednesday, June 13, in Italian. Blessed lilies and bread will be distributed after that Mass and a 7 p.m. Mass followed by a reception.
• Picnic in the Park from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26, in Carondelet Park.
• Bus trip to Teutopolis, Ill., 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9 ($25 to cover costs, including lunch and dinner), to visit the former monastery and novitiate of the Franciscans who established St. Anthony's.
• Liederkranz and Damenchor German Choir concert at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16.
• Sons and Dughters of the Parish Mass at 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 23, honoring those from the parish who have been called to serve as sisters, brothers or priests.
• Transitus at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3, a Franciscan devotion that celebrates the passing of St. Francis.
• German Festival from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, with dancing to the music of the St. Louis Czech Express and German food and drink.
• Young Catholic Musicians Mass at 10 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 28.
• Mass of Remembrance at 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3.
• St. Louis Metro Singers Concert at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2.
In 2013 more events are scheduled, including Rosati-Kain High School's singing group providing liturgical music at a Mass celebrating Epiphany, a St. Louis Symphony musicians brass concert, a wedding anniversary Mass and reception for all couples married at the church, St. Louis Chamber Chorus concert, St. Louis Metro Singers concert, St. Elizabeth Academy concert, Alumni Mass, school tour and reception and more.
Anniversary events will conclude at 4 p.m. Saturday, June 15, with a Mass. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson is expected to celebrate the Mass.
For more information on the events or the parish see stanthonyofpaduastl.com or call Brother Thom at (314) 655-0550.
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