Have you ever driven by a building for years and never given a moment of thought to what history might have transpired there? My family and I had driven by such a place between Interstate 55 and the Mississippi River for years, never knowing the colorful personalities and rich history associated with this church. It sits very close to the freeway, and is surrounded by empty fields on the north and south, and abandoned warehouses to the east. It’s a quiet place that proudly flies the American, Hungarian, and Papal flags, and has a tranquil tree-lined walled garden next to the church. It stands solidly and proudly unmoved despite the indignities of the nearby interstate highway and abandoned warehouses. It’s easy to overlook when one is flying by on the freeway. Make no mistake though: its humble exterior does not give the slightest hint to the breathtaking spiritual jewels and historical treasures enshrined on the inside, nor does it give any clue to the long and colorful history of this sacred church here in St. Louis,”the Rome of the West.” As we have come to learn in the past 18 months, St. Mary of Victories Church is a place like no other: easily overlooked, dripping with rich history and holiness, impossible not to love, and sadly in a silent battle for its life.
Let’s start at the beginning.
America and the World in 1843
In 1843, Missouri had been a state for only 22 years. It was an eventful year. Charles Dickens first published “A Christmas Carol.” Ulysses S. Grant graduated from the military academy. The telegraph system was not yet widely used in the United States. The diocese of St. Louis at that time was 400 miles wide and 1,200 miles long, stretching north and west from the lower Mississippi to Canada and included Missouri, Arkansas, the western half of Illinois and a vast territory between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains It would eventually generate 45 new dioceses from its territory, but that had not yet happened in 1843. Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick had been in St. Louis for only two years.
Immigration in St. Louis
By 1843, St. Louis had seen massive population growth, doubling from 8,000 to just over 16,000 people starting in 1835. It was on track to reach nearly 80,000 by 1850. The original inhabitants of St. Louis had been French, but St. Louis by this time had become a destination for many Germans. German Catholics found freedom, land, and other Catholics in the area, and many had moved from other areas of the country where they had been mistreated. Half of the population in St. Louis was Catholic, and many German-speaking Catholics were in need of German-speaking priests. It was in this environment that Bishop Kenrick had arrived in St. Louis, and he set out to help organize immigrant congregations where people could worship with others who spoke their language.
A Cornerstone Laid
It was on June 25, 1843 that, at the direction of Archbishop Kenrick, the cornerstone for St. Mary of Victories Church was laid on land near the Mississippi River in what is known as “Chouteau’s Landing.” The land had been previously used as a Catholic church for African American citizens, and was now to become a home for German Catholics and the second Catholic church in the city.
St. Mary’s was distinct from the beginning. One of the architects of St. Mary of Victories, George I. Barnett, would later go on to design the Old Courthouse, where the infamous Dred Scott case would be heard, the Henry Shaw mausoleum, the New Cathedral Basilica on Lindell (where Pope John Paul visited in 1999), and the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City. Professor Max Schneiderhahn, the city’s first professional church artist, designed the interior of St. Mary of Victories, including the statues and oil paintings which remain there today.
German Catholic Immigrants and their Priests
In addition to many German-speaking priests, the second pastor, Fr. Joseph Melcher, first brought the Ursuline nuns from Germany to teach at the school at St. Mary of Victories. He built a new brick school there in 1856 and put it under the direction of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and then under the School Sisters of Notre Dame six years later. The school building is still used today as the parish hall and rectory.
Fr. Ambrose J. Heim, a French-speaking priest, was stationed at St. Mary of Victories. Fr. Heim was a key figure in organizing for St. Louis the first conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in North America, and would be their first spiritual adviser.
In October 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, a young Bavarian Redemptorist priest, Fr. Francis Xavier Seelos, came from New Orleans to preach at a parish Mission at St. Mary of Victories. Fr. Seelos was an itinerant preacher who served many in the German and English-speaking Catholic communities. Today, St. Mary of Victories has a mini-shrine to his honor, including a first-class relic and one of the five known “death masks” of the remarkable priest. Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos is a candidate for canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church.
A Consecrated Church and Indulgenced Altars
Three years later, in 1866, Pope Pius IX, who had several years earlier declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, ordered that St. Mary of Victories be consecrated. Archbishop Kenrick personally performed the consecration ritual later that year.
On December 8, 1872, Dr. Edward Preuss, who had once been a Lutheran theologian who had attacked the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, donated a small altar with an icon of Our Lady
of Perpetual Help, which still stands to the left of the sanctuary. Dr. Preuss, who had a miraculous conversion experience, inscribed the monument in Latin: “TO THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY OF VICTORY. He placed this monument of the victory gained over himself, who once was not ashamed to detract from her, but now serves her with a most grateful and most faithful heart as THE MOST MERCIFUL MOTHER CONCEIVED WITHOUT ORIGINAL SIN, In St. Louis, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A.D. 1872.” Preuss became the father of three priests, and another layman who was a noted defender of the faith.
The side altar of St. Therese of Lisieux of the Child Jesus is a reminder of her dedication to Our Lady of Victories. As is written in her book, The Story of a Soul, in 1883 she was very sick and her father had 9 Masses said at the church of Our Lady of Victories in Paris for the recovery of her health. On the Sunday during the novena, the statue of Our Lady in her room smiled at her and she was miraculously cured.
The Turmoil of the 1880s
Fr. William Faerber, the pastor at St. Mary of Victories from 1870 to 1905 was a prominent figure in German Catholic history in St. Louis. Because of his efforts, in 1896, foreign-speaking parishes were granted equal status to English-speaking parishes. During his pastorate, the Sisters of St. Mary (who took their name from the parish) came from Germany to establish a convent and care for the poor and sick. The second balcony in the rear of the church where they attended Mass to avoid infecting the congregation with smallpox still exists. They would later go on to create the SSM Health System, still based in St. Louis, which calls St. Mary of Victories their “one true home.”
The archdiocesan newspaper, The St. Louis Review, which was then called The Register, was later founded in the old convent by Monsignor Harry Stitz.
Decline and Rebirth
After the turn of the century, the strength of the parish had begun to erode with the decrease in immigration and the moving of later generations of Germans out of the old neighborhoods. In 1939, the decline accelerated when the National Park Service began demolishing buildings within the parish boundaries for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. In the 1950s, insult was combined with injury when Interstate 55 ruthlessly cut within a few yards of the front door.
Again, St. Mary of Victories had survived near destruction and again found new life when the church became the new home for Hungarian Catholics in the Archdiocese in 1957. The combined loss of nearby St. Stephen of Hungary Church, and the influx of immigrants after the 1956 Uprising in Hungary presented a great need which was answered by the Archdiocese with the gift of this parish. In 1974, the famed Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty, who had been imprisoned and tortured by the Communists in Hungary, visited St. Mary of Victories. This made national news at the time. Following the visit, the Hungarians lovingly named the hall Mindszenty Hall.
In July 2005, then-Archbishop Raymond Leo Burke set up the Oblates of Wisdom Study Center in the upper floor of the rectory at St. Mary of Victories, and reduced the Parish to the Status of a chapel because of declining attendance. The director of the association, Monsignor John McCarthy, a well-known theologian, would become the chaplain of St. Mary of Victories in 2010. In 2012, he was succeeded as chaplain by prominent moral theologian Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S. who introduced a Latin Ordinary Form Mass facing the high altar. Fr. Harrison, a native of Australia, is a prolific writer on religious issues, and an emeritus professor of theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico (1989–2007).
Hope for the Future
Today Fr. Harrison and Monsignor McCarthy still serve at St. Mary of Victories, in addition to their many other duties. The congregation is diverse and fervent, but the congregation has dwindled to around 60 people, and accordingly finances are a challenge. Now after each Mass, Fr. Harrison kneels at the altar rail in front of the tabernacle and the statue of Mary and Jesus that has been in watch over the sanctuary since 1843, and leads the people on their knees in prayer for the survival of this precious community.
The windows engraved with German family names, the portraits of Hungarian patriots and saints, the hundreds of relics of the saints, the second balcony where the sisters once stood, all witness to the abiding faith of the past. The fervor of the Gregorian Chant schola and the Hungarian choir, the reverent liturgies and fragrant incense, the shining altar and crisp altar cloths embroidered with colorful traditional Hungarian needlework, the fellowship, the smiles and laughter, the voice of the bell in the tower inscribed with Psalm 19:4, the promise of Our Lady who still stands watch, and the golden sanctuary with its Divine occupant ever present, all witness to the life and hope that is still there.
We are so blessed to have been called to this spiritual home by Our Lady, and glad to have looked past the humble exterior and surroundings to discover the beautiful beating heart of this community. As Our Lady has enriched our faith through this wonderful place named in her honor, and as she originally led the Christian fleet to victory at Lepanto, may she always lead you through her Immaculate Heart to victory over sin and to her Divine Son Jesus. By God’s holy will, St. Mary of Victories will rise victorious yet again to help generations of future Catholics on the spiritual journey home to the Father through Jesus.
Saint Mary of Victories, pray for us.