Restoring a St. Louis Catholic treasure

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Just as the U.S. Constitution was coming into force and George Washington was sworn in as president on the steps of Federal Hall in New York City in 1789, a log mission church was being constructed more than 950 miles away in the small town of Florissant.

It was called St. Ferdinand, and it served French fur trappers, farmers and pathfinders who came here for their worship. By the turn of the 19th century, a new church and convent were built to house the Religious of the Sacred Heart, including St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who came from France to establish a school for Native American children.

Now, almost 200 years later, Old St. Ferdinand Shrine, the oldest Catholic church building from the Louisiana Purchase Territory to remain standing, is in dire need of repairs. The list is a mile long and would give any private homeowner a major headache: ceiling repair; moisture control and sealing and tuckpointing to the bricks; repairs and painting of the rectory porch; major window work, including windows that still have the original wavy glass; replacement of the accessible ramp; and repair of church doors.

Just a few months ago, the Friends of Old St. Ferdinand Inc. established a $400,000 fund raising campaign to support the renovation efforts. Some of the funding that has trickled in already has been put to good use, said Geri Debo, secretary/treasurer of the nonprofit friends' group, which owns and operates the shrine.

"We've already taken care of third-floor windows, and we have a new ramp in front of the church," said Debo, who volunteers daily at the shrine. "We will get church door fixed and porch painted soon."

Moisture issues are an almost constant battle, evidenced by the crumbling and water-stained interior plaster walls. "The tuckpointing and water moisture are some of our major costs," Debo said. Compounding the problem are two creeks — Coldwater and Fountain — that sit dangerously close to the buildings. The last time the buildings were flooded was 2009, but there have been plenty of close calls, including one about a month ago.

"I got an emergency call at 5 o'clock in the morning that Florissant's going to flood," Debo said. She and her husband Tony hopped in the car and drove from their home in Cottleville. Thankfully, the water never made it to the top of the creek beds. Volunteers are working with the city to establish a sandbagging plan.

A house of history

An open space between the church and rectory buildings that laid dormant was enclosed in the 20th century. For a time it was used as a meeting room, but was since converted into a museum for historical artifacts. Among them is a black funeral cope, which St. Rose Philippine Duchesne made for Father Pierre de Smet, a Jesuit missionary who was ordained at the shrine in 1927. The cope stands protected behind a wall of climate-controlled glass cases, which were installed about two years ago as part of the preservation efforts.

"You can see she used basting stitches," Debo said as the pointed to the cope. "It's amazing to me. Where did she get that fabric? Where did she get that thread?"

The cases also display the tabernacle from the original 1789 log church, and two subsequent tabernacles from 1821 and 1832. Original pews from the 1821 church are lined up in the museum, giving visitors a place to sit as they take in a tour.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the shrine is the convent where St. Rose Philippine Duchesne lived not long after she arrived in St. Louis. The Religious of the Sacred Heart lived in the Florissant convent, on the grounds of the shrine, from 1819 to 1827 and again from 1834 to 1840.

A closet under the stairs in the convent hallway is one of the highlights. It's believed the saint slept on a straw mattress in that closet to be as close as she could to the Eucharist in the chapel.

Standing in the third floor of the convent, where St. Rose Philippine and the other sisters taught their students, Debo surveyed the room. She pointed out the wooden window frames that have rotted out, leaving large gaps that expose the room to the outside elements.

"I just can't imagine sitting up here in the summer in their habits," Geri Debo said. "The kids will always ask you on a tour it's a little dark if you don't turn the lights on ... well, they didn't have lights then."

Making strides

Msgr. Jack Schuler's connection to the shrine runs generations deep. His maternal grandparents, the Laramies, were parishioners. When his father returned from the war, they lived with his grandparents down the street from the shrine.

"I was baptized from the same font from when St. Rose Philippine Duchesne was there," said Msgr. Schuler, who is a member of the shrine friends' board. "When they were forming North American Martyrs Parish, the school wasn't finished, so I got to go to the school at Old St. Ferdinand, the same school that my mother went to."

Decades later, he returned to his roots, as pastor of St. Ferdinand, where he served from 2008-2014. During his time there, it became a passion to teach others about St. Rose Philippine Duchesne's life. A portrait of the saint was commissioned for the school. The portrait includes several sunflowers, which turned out to be a history lesson for the priest.

"There was one year that St. Rose Philippine was with the Potawatomi Indians in Kansas, and the state flower of Kansas is the sunflower," he said. "I've used (sunflowers) to get across the message of Philippine Duchesne." The Potawatomi called her "Kwah-kah-kum-ad" — the "Woman Who Prays Always."

Much work has been done at the shrine over the years, but the restoration needs seem to outpace what has been accomplished. Several years ago, Archbishop Robert Carlson gave permission for the shrine to host weddings, funerals and baptisms, which serve as a source of income. The shrine also hosts regular events and school groups and organizations. But the bulk of the support comes from individual donors and volunteers.

"We have made great strides, but there's a lot to do" in an almost 200-year-old structure, Msgr. Schuler said.

"This is a marvelous place and unbelievable to think most every place we walked today was where a saint walked," Geri Debo said. "It's a very religious, very special place." 

Significant dates at Old St. Ferdinand Shrine

1789 Church presbytery (original log church) and cemetery built

1819 Convent school built to house the Religious of the Sacred Heart

1821 Church built next to the convent, to replace the original log church

1825 St. Rose Philippine Duchesne opens a school for Native American girls

1827 Fathers Pierre De Smet, Judocus Van Assche, Felix Verrydt and John Ellet are ordained in the 1821 church

1840 Rectory wing added

1846 Religious of the Sacred Heart leave

1847 Sisters of Loretto arrive

1880 Church addition and renovations take place, which include a bell tower, new altar, stained glass windows and pews

1888 Four-room schoolhouse built

1955-57 Active parish status ends and a new church building was constructed on Charbonier Road

1966 Church suffers major roof damage from a fire caused by lightning strike

1978 The Friends of Old St. Ferdinand Inc. was founded to help preserve the grounds

1979 Building and property were deeded to the Friends of Old St. Ferdinand Inc. by Cardinal John J. Carberry

1988 St. Rose Philippine Duchesne was canonized a saint; Old St. Ferdinand is designated as a shrine 

>> Help the shrine

A GoFundMe account has been established to raise $400,000 for the needs of the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine.

Major resoration needs and estimated costs:

Ceiling of Church: $150,000+

Tuckpointing: $125,000

Painting: $50,000

Moisture Control: $50,000

Professional Cleaning: $25,000

Window Sashes: $6,500

>> Benefit dinner

The Friends of Old St. Ferdinand will host its annual benefit dinner on Sunday, Jan. 29, at Kemoll's. Charlie Brennan of KMOX will be the speaker. An update of the shrine will be given. Tickets are $125 a person. For more information, call Geri Debo at (314) 837-2110.

Facebook: Old St. Ferdinand Shrine: Official Site


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