"All the incredible beauty, all the ornate detail, all the richness, is like a thousand little arrows that constantly direct my attention to the transcendent."
St. Francis de Sales is currently a flourishing oratory dedicated to Mass in the Extraordinary Form that is administered by the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. The building was built by German immigrants and dedicated in 1908 and has long been known as the Cathedral of South St. Louis, a city that itself in known as The Rome of the West.
The church’s website says that it “symbolized the hopes and dreams of the immigrants, deeply rooted in the traditions and heritage of their forefathers. It was a brick-and-mortar symbol of American values of the time: faith of the immigrants, beauty and grandeur in the midst of hard work and sacrifice, venerable traditions in a new land, and stalwart hope for the future.”
The Rev. Canon David Silvey, one of the priests who cares for the community, says, “When you enter St. Francis de Sales Oratory, you immediately have a sense of the sacred. The artistic beauty of the stained glass windows, murals, ceiling, and intricate woodwork of the altars all point to the Real Presence of Christ in the tabernacle, and create a worthy atmosphere for the devout celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”
I happen to live right around the corner from this stunning Church, so I went over for a tour and my wife took a few photographs to share the beauty of this house of worship. It truly is beautiful.
A neo-Gothic masterpiece
Two priests in quiet conversation show the large scale of the space. You can see by the pointed arches and vaulted ceilings that it is designed in a Gothic style. Bill, who worships here regularly, says it is “so amazing that I actually teared up (just a tiny little bit) at the beauty of it all.”
The baptistery is decorated with an exquisite mosaic, the only part of the church in this style. Canon Silvey, who gave me a tour, says he believes these mosaics were created by artists who were practicing for the decoration of the nearby Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, which is a beautiful church in its own right and has one of the largest collections of mosaics in the world.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Altar
This gorgeous altar is actually a side altar dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. There is a Mass and devotions here every Tuesday.
St John Nepomuk and Mary Magdalene windows
The Oratory is in the process of restoring all of the stained glass windows. You can see in this side-by-side comparison how much brighter the St. Mary Magdalene window is compared to St. John Nepomuk.
The organ, which is a work of art, was installed in 1924 by the Wicks Organ Company. It is currently in the process of restoration — the technicians found an ancient rat skeleton inside one of the pipes! My 7-year-old son who was along for the church tour asked, “Did they throw it away or keep it?”
The elevated ambo allows the homilist to be visible to the entire congregation. It is reminiscent of how the Beatitudes were proclaimed by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount or how Moses brought the 10 Commandments down from Mount Sinai. In the days before electronic sound systems, the sounding board above the priest helped his voice carry further.
This confessional caused quite a stir when the door was stolen in 2015. The door is more than 100 years old and the elaborate woodwork is irreplaceable. The Rev. Canon Andrew Todd, one of the priests at the time, told local news, “I kind of just hope someone drops it off out front in the middle of the night.” And that is exactly what happened. The door was later returned anonymously.
No detail is too small. This image of the Holy Trinity on the ceiling may not even be noticed by most visitors, but in its place above the main altar the incense used at Mass, which represents prayer, wafts up and symbolically reaches directly to the ears of God.
A closer look at the sanctuary reveals the stunning detail that surrounds the altar. Bill says that when he worships here, “All the incredible beauty, all the ornate detail, all the richness, is like a thousand little arrows that constantly direct my attention to the transcendent, keeping me focused on what’s actually happening there on the altar.”
Even the staircases in this building are graceful. The lines of this set of steps leading to the choir loft are lovely even though very few people will ever see it from this angle.
St. Francis de Sales is still undergoing expensive restoration. Canon Silvey says, “The Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest has received the care of this historic edifice … Our hope is that a greater awareness of the heritage which this Church represents will lead also to greater support from the entire St. Louis community and beyond.”