‘WHERE IT ALL BEGAN’ | Mass at the Old Cathedral highlights contributions of religious orders in St. Louis

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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Down by the riverfront, the faithful gathered for a Mass at the site of the Old Cathedral, in an area to become known as the Gateway to the West.

They worshipped in a one-room log cabin, then they left on foot, on horseback or in horse-drawn buggies.

The year was 1764; the Mass was the first in newly formed Laclede Village, founded by Pierre Laclede and August Chouteau and later renamed St. Louis — for King Louis IX of France.

That first Mass, the founding of St. Louis and the contribution of religious communities in 250 years since, were commemorated in a Mass for the area's religious on Aug. 24. Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Rice and Archbishop Thierry Jordan from Reims, France, concelebrated the Mass with Archbishop Robert J. Carlson at the Old Cathedral, officially named in St. Louis' honor — the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France. Cardinal Justin Rigali attended the Mass, which was the only one at the downtown landmark held in conjunction with CatholicSTL250 to celebrate the feast day of St. Louis.

In his homily, Bishop Rice called the Old Cathedral and the land on which it stands "sacred space," describing it as the "cradle of the Archdiocese of St. Louis."

"In 1764, Laclede and Chouteau ... set aside this particular plot of land for the worship of Almighty God," Bishop Rice said. "The first Mass was offered on this spot in 1764 and, with the arrival of the first religious down through the years to this very moment ... all of us have tried to fulfill the command of the Gospel: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself."

Bishop Joseph Rosati, the first bishop of St. Louis, built the Old Cathedral, which replaced a series of log structures and opened in 1834.

"It all started here," Bishop Rice said. "This is where it all began."

The sisters of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, including St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, became the first religious order to arrive in St. Louis, in 1818, and founded Sacred Heart Academy in St. Charles. The school has a shrine for St. Philippine Duchesne, who as Bishop Rice noted in his homily, "attended the dedication of this cathedral. She sat in those pews. It's important that we highlight this location."

Bishop Rice cited the religious communities that have come to St. Louis since then — to establish missions and hospitals, teach in schools, work with the deaf, care for the elderly and poor, and just to pray. He joked about one woman religious who worried about driving to the Mass through construction related to the revitalization of the Arch grounds.

"I said, 'Sister, the first members of your order came over on a boat,'" Bishop Rice said, with a laugh, adding that he told her that they came from New Orleans "on paddle boats and ended up in canoes and on horses. I think you can navigate a construction zone."

But seriously, he expressed thanks for the valuable work done by religious in St. Louis' history.

"Often times facing great odds, disappointments and hardships, the early religious of this diocese did it all in the name of the Lord Jesus," he said. "How can we not gather here at the Old Cathedral?"

A renovation of the Old Cathedral is nearing completion. Scaffolding has been removed from the exterior and interior, and the wood floors, pews and communion rail have been stained. It's a simple church, not at all ornate as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis — the New Cathedral — but beautiful in its own right.

"This edifice does not compare to the Cathedral Basilica; there are no mosaics, no stained-glass windows, no statues of marble and stone," Bishop Rice said. "Still, the remains of Bishop Rosati are buried under the altar, and from here countless religious gave their lives for the westward expansion of Church.

He then paraphrased Genesis to end the homily.

"How awesome is this place?" he said. "This is nothing else but the house of God. This is the gate of heaven. ... It is good for us to be here."

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