Czech church, called oldest in New World, to host next Mass Mob

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Sue Redfearn has known St. John Nepomuk most of her life. Her parents' parents were from the Old World, and Redfearn carried on the family's Czech heritage as she attended school and received the sacraments at the parish.

The annual crowning of the Infant Jesus of Prague statue, the Goulash Festival, the 40-hour and First Friday devotions — all of them are fond memories for Redfearn, who has served as business manager for 27 years.

"I remember we used to do plays in the (church) hall, at Christmas and Mother's Day," she said. "Once I got stage fright and could not stop laughing."

St. John Nepomuk calls itself the oldest Czech church in the New World. Founded in 1854, it has served Catholics around the historic area of Soulard — at one time, part of a neighborhood called Bohemian Hill — for generations.

St. John Nepomuk will host the next St. Louis Mass Mob at the 9:30 a.m. Mass Sunday, Jan. 8. Father Paul Rothschild, whose grandfather was baptized at the church, will celebrate the Mass. A reception will follow afterward in the parish hall.

Since spring of 2015, St. Louis Mass Mobs have brought people together for worship and to raise awareness and appreciation for some of the city's most historic churches. Churches draw an average of 400-500 people at the Masses.

The church is named after St. John of Nepomuk, who was martyred in 1393 because he would not divulge the details of the Bohemian queen's confession to King Wenceslaus. He is considered the patron of the seal of the confessional.

St. John's statue sits in a prominent place on the wooden high altar in the sanctuary. Just below is the Infant of Prague statue, which the parish acquired in 1897. Statues of other prominent Slavic saints, including Sts. Wenceslaus, Elizabeth of Hungary and Cyril and Methodius, line the interior of the Gothic-style church.

Around 1848, the first immigrants from Bohemia to the United States came up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, and expanded beyond to communities in Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan. At the time, the Czechs' Bohemia was part of Austria. The upheaval in central Europe led to their first major settlement of the New World in St. Louis — the area around Soulard Street, then known as "French Town." That part of the community became known as "Bohemian Hill."

The parish was established under Archbishop Peter Kenrick in 1854, and a wooden church and school building were dedicated the following year, with Father Henry Lipowski as the first pastor. An interesting tidbit — the first Mass in the new church was celebrated by famed missionary priest, Jesuit Father Peter De Smet.

The golden age of the parish began around 1865, when Father Joseph Hessoun was named pastor. An explosion in growth — despite the church being destroyed by a tornado in 1896 — led to the establishment of seven new parishes for Slavic ethnic groups. They included St. Wenceslaus, Holy Trinity Slovak, St. Joseph Croatian, St. Mary's of the Assumption Ukranian, Our Lady of Czestochowa Polish, St. Joseph Lithuanian, and St. Stephen Hungarian.

Today, the number of Czech families has dwindled, and there are about 50 registered families, some of whom live in the neighborhood. The parish, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was designated as chapel by the archdiocese in 2005. Deacon Mike Buckley currently serves as the director; with the help of several priests, Masses are celebrated at 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and 9:30 a.m. Sundays. The church also is available for weddings. 

>> Mass Mob X

WHEN: 9:30 a.m., Sunday, Jan. 8

WHERE: St. John Nepomuk Chapel, 1625 S. 11th St., St. Louis

MORE INFO: St. Louis Mass Mob on Facebook, or www.sjnstl.org 

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