In St. Louis, old churches rival Europe’s great cathedrals

Insert caption: The Basilica of St. Louis, King of France in St. Louis. | Dennis Lennox

Forget going to Europe this summer to see old churches. Instead, stay much closer to home with a trip to St. Louis.

Missouri’s biggest city and the first American city west of the Mississippi River, the local history dates back to the mid-18th century when the continent was divided among the British, French and Spanish colonial powers. 

As a result of this rich history, there are several historic churches in St. Louis. The most notable are Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal), the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis (Roman Catholic) and the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France (also Roman Catholic).

The seat of the Episcopal bishop of Missouri, Christ Church Cathedral features Gothic revival architecture fairly typical to when the core of the present-day edifice was built between 1859 and 1867.

The tower at the northwest corner of the exterior — erected in the early 20th century — is perhaps the most striking element of the design, if only because the Indiana limestone contrasts with the cathedral’s original Illinois sandstone. Inside is a spectacular reredos or altar screen. Rising 35 feet above the high altar at the east end, the reredos was inspired by a similar screen at St. Alban’s Cathedral in England and sculpted by noted period ecclesiastical artist Harry Hems.

The Episcopal cathedral pales in comparison to the two Roman Catholic churches. Somewhat confusingly, both are dedicated to the city’s namesake, Louis IX, king and saint.

The Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, almost universally called the Old Cathedral, is just that: The old cathedral. It was also the first cathedral west of the Mississippi River.

The Greek Revival edifice was built in the early 1830s a stone’s throw from the riverfront on land set aside for a church after Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau founded St. Louis in 1764. Today, it is overshadowed by Eero Saarinen’s landmark Gateway Arch (part of the Gateway Arch National Park). The green space was redeveloped in recent years through the construction of a beautiful so-called lid park that blankets a hideous postwar highway to seamlessly connect the riverfront and downtown.

A detail of the mosaics inside the the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis in Missouri. | Dennis Lennox

Last but certainly not least is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, aka the New Cathedral.

Architect George Barnett’s design, inspired by the Cathedral Basilica of St. Mark in Venice and the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum-turned-mosque Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, combined Romanesque and Byzantine styles into an architectural masterpiece unrivaled anywhere in North America. So much so that the cathedral has been called the “Rome of the West.”

The interior feels heavenly, thanks to the 41.5 million pieces of glass used to create the mosaics. The mosaics, which depict various biblical stories and saints, were installed in the decades after then-Archbishop John Glennon initiated construction of the cathedral in 1907.

If you go

For now, public access to Christ Church Cathedral is almost nonexistent, as the cathedral shifted to virtual services during the pandemic. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis and the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France are open daily outside of services with no visitor admission charges. Be sure to also visit the very informative museum in the undercroft of the New Cathedral.

I stayed at the Le Méridien, a Marriott-branded property just outside St. Louis proper in Clayton. The relatively new hotel is located a short drive from the must-visit Forest Park, where the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (also known as the World’s Fair) was held.

Follow @dennislennox onInstagramandTwitter.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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