The Basilica of St. Louis, King, also known to locals as the “Old Cathedral,” was built in 1831 on land set aside by the city’s founders for its first church. As the oldest building in St. Louis and the first cathedral west of the Mississippi, it’s a great place to explore many aspects of St. Louis's history. It has never changed owners and is still home to an active congregation as old as the city.
St. Louis began in 1764 as a trading post founded by French fur traders Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau. In its early years, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the city belonged to France, Britain, or Spain. Its settlers, however, were primarily from France, which was a monarchy and predominantly Catholic at the time. The founders set aside a central location for a church, and there were four other church buildings on this site before the current one.
Both the Old Cathedral and the city were named for King Louis IX, who ruled France from 1226-1270 AD, the only king of France to be canonized as a saint. He is remembered for important social and legal reforms in France, including introducing the presumption of innocence to criminal procedure. He led two crusade attacks on Tunisia and Egypt and died of dysentery during the second crusade.
In 1800, the city of St. Louis was claimed by the Republic of France. Three years later, it was sold to the US as part of the Louisiana Purchase, and became the first stop for US explorers and settlers heading west. The St. Louis church became a hub for Catholic evangelism in the west and the center of a growing community. By the 1830s, the church offered nine masses each Sunday, with the vernacular portions spoken in French, Spanish, and English. Both William Clark and Sacagawea of the Lewis & Clark expedition had their children baptized here.
By 1914, the community had grown so much that the larger Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis (aka the “New Cathedral”) was built as the new mother church of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The “Old Cathedral” was no longer technically a cathedral because it was not the seat of the bishop. In 1961, the Pope designated it a “basilica,” a special title for a historically significant church.
In the 1930s, the neighborhood around the Basilica was cleared to create the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and the Gateway Arch was built nearby. So in your explorations of the city, you may have noticed this Greek Revival building with gold inscriptions. The Hebrew inscription is a name for God, and the Latin reads "In honor of St. Louis. Dedicated to the one and triune God. A.D. 1834."
The Basilica’s stunning interior was restored in 2015. The sanctuary features a reproduction of a 1632 Baroque painting of the Crucifixion by Spanish artist Diego Velázquez above the marble altar. As you might expect, this is just one of many interesting pieces of art and artifacts you’ll find if you explore inside (check the Basilica website in the link below to see when it is open to the public). The Basilica also houses a small museum of artifacts from the early days of St. Louis, which is only open during limited hours.
Cover photo: JesseG, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.