In spite of what appears to be an overwhelmingly Catholic population, St. Louis is home to a broad cross-section of religious beliefs. There are a variety of places of worship for all denominations—and the nondenominational—as well as facilities celebrating the Hindu, Islamic, Quaker, and Buddhist religions. There are also Chinese, Korean, and Spanish churches throughout the region, and a Church of Scientology in nearby University City.
The Catholic Church was first in the territory and remains the largest. The French government mandated it—somewhat—with its Code Noire. The Code, decreed in 1724, allowed only Catholics to cross the Mississippi River, although after the Spanish took control of the region, it wasn’t stringently enforced. So, when Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau arrived 40 years later, Roman Catholicism was the de facto “official” religion of the region.
Organized religion of any type was somewhat of a rarity during the early decades of St. Louis. It is said that visitors were surprised at the festive social lives of St. Louis’s citizens, as well as the scarcity of churches. These reports compelled Bishop William Duborg to relocate the Diocese of Florida and Louisiana to the city in 1818, and he ordered plans to begin building a church immediately. Bishop Duborg himself held the first mass in the new edifice on Christmas day, 1819.
Running both the Florida and Louisiana territories was a big job, so the bishop divided them and formed the Diocese of St. Louis in 1826. Joseph Rosati was named as the first bishop in 1827, and he soon realized that the burgeoning river town was fast outgrowing its only church. In 1831 Rosati blessed the cornerstone of a new cathedral located at Walnut and Second Streets, and the new cathedral opened in 1834. Now known as the “Old Cathedral,” it became a basilica in 1961 by decree of Pope John XXIII in recognition of its significance in spreading Catholicism into the American West. In 1914 a new cathedral, located on Lindell Boulevard in the Central West End, replaced the original cathedral basilica, and the building is still referred to as the “New Cathedral” by the local citizenry. The stunningly beautiful structure has the world’s largest collection of hand-tiled mosaics, and it is a popular tourist site for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In 1999 Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis and held mass at the basilica, which is located across the street from the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
The Catholic Church provided needed social services as well, constructing a hospital facility in 1845. In 1933 Saint Louis University’s Fermin Desloge Hospital made an additional contribution to the region’s health care needs. The church also created the Guardian Angel Settlement Association in 1911, which ran its Guardian Angel Day Nursery. In post-World War II St. Louis, Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Ritter was an early leader in improving race relations in the city, overseeing the desegregation of both the Archdiocese school system and Saint Louis University in the 1940s.
Despite the Code Noire of the 18th century, a modest Jewish community existed in St. Louis in the early 1800s, and by 1837 there were enough Jews in the area to hold services. Louis Bomeisler, a German from Philadelphia, is thought to have conducted the first service for Rosh Hashanah in that year, and he set about ordering a Torah, prayer books, and Taleisim for the group. In 1841, 12 men met at the Oracle Coffee House located at Second and Locust Streets to write the constitution for Achdut Yisrael, the United Hebrew Congregation, and they were soon joined by two more congregations. B’Nai Brith and Amoona El sprouted quickly, and they eventually merged into B’Nai El. B’Nai El erected its own building in 1855, when Jewish philanthropist Judah Touro of Providence, Rhode Island, donated $5,000 to build the new facility at Sixth and Cerre Streets. Dubbed the “coffee mill” for its eight sides and turret, B’Nai El was the first synagogue west of the Mississippi River, but United Hebrew soon followed suit, dedicating its new building later that year. By 1860 the Jewish population had increased to approximately 5,000 people.
By 1900 all the local Jewish congregations were part of the new American brand of Judaism. The first group in St. Louis met in 1863, forming Shaare Emeth (Gates of Truth) in 1866. Three years later the congregation built a synagogue at 17th and Pine Streets, and it soon became one of the leading Reformed congregations west of the Mississippi. Both United Hebrew and B’Nai El changed to Reformed as well, and there was growing concern about this “Americanized” brand of Judaism. In 1924 local Orthodox Jews organized Vaad Hoeir as a union of all local Orthodox Jewish congregations.
Like the Catholics, the Jewish community was a social force in St. Louis. Charitable assistance started in 1871, with help for refugees from the Chicago fire. As Russian Jews immigrated to America, members of the local Jewish community found themselves facing constant needs to help recent arrivals. In addition to providing food, clothing, and shelter, Jewish relief agencies offered a home for the aged and infirmed, as well as English classes to help immigrants assimilate into their new environment. In 1902 Jewish Hospital opened at Delmar and Union Boulevards, and it moved to its current Central West End location in 1927. In the late 1990s Jewish Hospital merged with Barnes Hospital to form Barnes-Jewish Hospital, which is now considered one of the most respected hospitals in the country.
In 1817 missionary John Mason Peck arrived in St. Louis and established the First Baptist Church, comprised of a mostly African-American congregation. In 1825 Peck ordained former slave John Berry Meachum, and within two years Meachum was the pastor at First Baptist Church, where he soon began running schools for black children as well. The Baptists were active abolitionists, as their demographics prove—of the 46 Baptist churches on the Missouri Association roster, the two largest black churches had more than 1,400 members, while the 13 largest white churches had a little more than 1,000 parishioners.
Other Protestant denominations arrived in town at about the same time. In 1817 the Presbyterians showed up and built their first church building less than seven years later. The Episcopalians followed in 1819, founding Christ Church at Second and Walnut Streets (now known as Christ Church Cathedral), and in 1821 the Methodists arrived. For the most part, these denominational churches were formed by Americans moving to the region from other parts of the country, such as New England and the southeastern seaboard.
During the late 1830s the first Lutherans came from Saxony in order to practice their more conservative Lutheranism. Within 10 years they created Trinity Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and they also moved the Concordia Seminary here.
By the 1840s African-American congregations in St. Louis began to blossom. Second African Baptist (now Central Baptist) started in 1846 with a special emphasis on training young clergy and laymen for local and international mission work. The other large black denomination in St. Louis was the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. The AME movement began when Richard Allen led a group of black parishioners out of a Philadelphia church in 1787 to form their own worship service. Started in 1840, St. Paul’s AME was the first black Methodist church west of the Mississippi, and St. Peter’s, an outgrowth of St. Paul’s, followed seven years later. St. Paul’s constructed its first building in 1866 and finished its new edifice in 1872, making it the first church west of the Mississippi built by and for African Americans. St. James AME, by contrast, worked after 1885 to establish an African-American presence in The Ville.
As with the Catholic and Jewish congregations, black churches have a history of social consciousness. During the post-war civil rights movement, Ministers and Laymen for Equal Educational Opportunity staged marches on the St. Louis Public School Board in the late 1950s over the de facto segregation in public education. Antioch Baptist Church was among the first churches to house Head Start and day-care programs, and St. James AME initiated James House in 1970 on the old Poro College site as the first church-developed housing project in St. Louis. Unlike most other Protestant branches, black churches have a legacy of leadership in relating faith and action.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints facility located in southwest St. Louis was the first church building erected by Mormons in the area. Before occupying their new home, the Mormons in St. Louis had a rather uncertain existence dating from 1831. During the period of their great westward migration to Utah in the mid-19th century, many Mormons stayed in St. Louis, numbering as many as 4,000 in 1850. The modern revival of the Mormons in St. Louis occurred in 1896 when they began holding meetings in a small storefront. However modest their beginnings might have been, today’s Mormon population enjoys worshipping together in the beautiful temple in west St. Louis County that was finished in the mid-1990s.
St. Louis is located at the epicenter of an amazing network of interstate highways, so it is virtually accessible from almost every direction. Downtown St. Louis streets are laid out on a grid pattern with alternating one-way north- and southbound streets. Abundant parking is available in high-rise garages and surface lots throughout downtown. Parking meters on the street generally have two-hour time limits, which are strictly enforced. Right turns are allowed on red lights unless otherwise posted.
Welcome to St. Louis! St. Louis is a city that represents the crossroads of America—everybody who’s anybody had to pass through these parts. Known as the Gateway to the West, St. Louis seems to have a bit more in common with cities of the Northeast than the wild westerners on our left. Our diverse population features a variety of cultures, and most of the citizenry shares a dedication to family, friends, sports, music, and an honest day’s work—although not necessarily in that order.
While St. Louis is known for the sleek and contemporary monument that pays tribute to the awakening of America’s pioneer spirit, if you ask ten people what St. Louis is all about, you’ll likely get nine different answers. Some will say the Gateway Arch, while others won’t be able to focus on anything other than the St. Louis Cardinals’ rich baseball history. Football fans will probably flash back to Super Bowl XXXIV and the triumphant St. Louis Rams, while old-school types will harken back to the days when names like Dan Dierdorf, Jackie Smith, Jim Hart, and Conrad Dobler roamed the Cardinals football turf. Many will point to St. Louis’s hometown brewer, Anheuser-Busch, while others might identify more closely with the red and white checkerboard of the old Ralston Purina camp. But, whatever you think about St. Louis, it’s probably a good idea to withhold judgment until you’ve had a taste of St. Louis in the 21st century. A lot of things have changed in the area during the last few decades, but, true to form, a lot of things have stayed exactly the same. And that’s the way St. Louisans seem to like it: sprinkle in a little new, but serve up a lot of tradition. That’s St. Louis.