ST. LOUIS — From Interstate 44 south of downtown, it’s simple to miss historic St. Mary of Victories Catholic Church, tucked simply ft from the freeway amongst a cluster of graffiti-covered warehouses.
However go contained in the church, established in 1843 and the second oldest within the metropolis of St. Louis, and it’s fairly robust to listen to the roar of the interstate.
Possibly it’s the smooth whir of the ground followers, which oscillate in the summertime to maintain the nonconditioned air transferring.
Possibly it’s the deep baritone of the chaplain, the Rev. Brian Harrison, an Australian who sings his coronary heart out throughout providers that embody Latin and a contact of Hungarian. Although there might solely be 20 individuals in attendance.
Possibly it’s Rose Marie Koerner on the organ, who divides her time taking part in at three parishes, and at age 83 wonders if she ought to retire.
Often, a complete of about 60 individuals attend the church’s three Lots on weekends, leaving most pews empty. And Harrison, 76, want to retire subsequent yr and transfer again to Australia.
“Now we have an previous newspaper clipping that claims we’re the church that refuses to die,” mentioned Harrison. “We’re like a cat with 9 lives. We’re hoping we will preserve it going after I go away, but it surely’s nonetheless a giant query mark right here.”
Harrison thought he would retire final yr, however COVID-19 journey restrictions and his want to maintain St. Mary of Victories working saved him from leaving. He’s a member of a small order of clergymen known as the Oblates of Knowledge, and earlier than coming to St. Louis in 2007 he spent a lot of his profession instructing theology in Puerto Rico. He’d wish to get again to his siblings and household, and extra research and writing in his retirement.
Due to the priest scarcity, it’s robust to justify sending one other live-in priest to serve such a small congregation. Harrison is aware of a priest in Chicago who could be out there. An alternative choice to avoid wasting the church can be if it gained standing as a shrine. Meaning visiting clergymen would come to have fun an occasional Mass and a committee would oversee the constructing, which is on the Nationwide Register of Historic Locations.
“That wouldn’t be our first choice, clearly, however something to maintain this lovely previous church open and working,” Harrison mentioned.
Deep rootsThe church at 744 South Third Avenue is without doubt one of the oldest buildings in St. Louis and the second-oldest church within the metropolis behind the Previous Cathedral; members laid the cornerstone in 1843, and it was accomplished within the 1860s. It was constructed to serve the rising German immigrant inhabitants, who lived and labored within the bustling riverfront neighborhood.
The church tailored to the wants of residents; an early priest, the Rev. Joseph Melcher, based St. Vincent’s German Orphan Society to serve the German youngsters orphaned throughout the 1849 cholera epidemic. In 1872, a bunch of 5 nuns emigrated from Germany to serve the sick right here and lived on the church convent.
The neighborhood knew them because the “smallpox sisters,” who walked the streets ringing bells to warn others to remain away in case they have been contagious. Throughout Mass they sat within the two-tier choir loft to maintain their distance. They took their title from St. Mary of Victories church, and have become often called the Sisters of St. Mary, the founders of SSM Well being, now an unlimited community of hospitals and well being care employees in 4 states.
The parish started to say no by the early twentieth century as immigration slowed and kids and grandchildren of immigrants moved away from the working-class neighborhood. Beginning within the late Nineteen Thirties, the federal government started clearing land on the riverfront — the properties and workplaces of some church members — to construct a monument to progress: the Jefferson Nationwide Growth Memorial, later often called Gateway Arch Nationwide Park.
Development of Interstate 55 within the Fifties minimize the neighborhood in half, simply ft from the church door. Visitors was capable of journey sooner, however extra parishioners additionally moved away. (Final yr, a tire from a passing tractor-trailer fell off and bounced from the freeway, placing the entrance door body. Fortunately, Harrison famous, it didn’t hit one of many historic stained glass home windows.)
The church prides itself on its Hungarian roots, although these didn’t take maintain till the late Fifties, when the church took on immigrants who fled Hungary after World Battle II and the 1956 Hungarian Rebellion.
A 1958 newspaper account particulars a welcome Fourth of July barbecue the parish hosted. German parishioners who had been uprooted by freeway building turned out, in addition to Mexican residents, who appreciated the church’s shrine to Our Woman of Guadalupe.
“The ladies ready the goulash however known as in an skilled barbecuer to deal with the opposite division,” the Rev. Stephen Vrabely, church pastor on the time, informed a reporter. “They know Individuals don’t deal with barbecue methods evenly.”
Of the 60 or so regulars now, solely a handful are Hungarian. On the finish of a latest Mass, earlier than the few who knew the phrases sung the Hungarian nationwide anthem, Harrison blessed Imre “Jim” Jokuti and his spouse, Anna, in honor of his 86th birthday. Jokuti is Hungarian, and as a younger man throughout the rebellion he swam throughout a freezing river to flee Hungary. It’s a harrowing story he can’t inform anymore as a result of he has dementia.
The couple have been married 60 years and have three youngsters, eight grandchildren and a number of other great-grandchildren. Many have been baptized or married right here. Anna Jokuti, 80, got here right here from Germany as a younger lady, and when the couple dated they’d come to St. Mary of Victories for picnics and dance within the courtyard. “I wore holes within the soles of my footwear,” she mentioned.
The couple stay in south St. Louis County, however St. Mary of Victories is residence, she mentioned. She tries to not fear an excessive amount of about its future.
“I all the time say, I go away it in God’s palms,” she mentioned.
Why it’s residenceSome individuals come right here as a result of they just like the Fashionable Latin Mass provided by Harrison at 9 a.m. Sunday. (Veils by Lilly, which sells mantilla-style chapel veils, advertises within the church bulletin.) One other group sits within the choir loft providing Gregorian chants on the 7 p.m. Saturday and the 9 a.m. Sunday Lots. The 11 a.m. Mass is the Fashionable Ceremony in English with a contact of Hungarian.
Jim and Lisa Hooper, 51, of O’Fallon, Illinois, began attending the church about seven years in the past after assembly Harrison at a convention. “We simply fell in love with the place,” Jim Hooper mentioned. “We’re actually making an attempt to put it aside. “
He’s now the parish council president. Daughter Celine, 17, is a part-time organist, and Lisa Hooper works to arrange the church for Mass, arranging flowers and washing linens. Jim Hooper has constructed up the parish web site and Fb web page, partly to draw guests.
The church has organized occasions like a downtown Rosary Run. There’s a brand new climbing group devoted to prayer and fellowship within the wilderness. Congregants even hosted a homicide thriller dinner theater within the church corridor. “Everybody appeared to find it irresistible and gave excessive marks,” mentioned Jim Hooper. “However man, they didn’t come again for Mass.”
Harrison wonders if improvement downtown can breathe new life into the parish. It all the time attracts vacationers who keep downtown and discover St. Mary a handy spot for Mass — the church added the Saturday night service this spring, partly to draw people who find themselves coming to and from downtown occasions.
Tour teams come for the church’s historic and spiritual worth: It holds one of many largest collections of relics within the archdiocese. Among the many greater than 280 objects are reported to be a fraction of the true cross, a bit of the Virgin Mary’s veil and a thorn from Jesus’ crown.
Harrison would love somebody to tear down the encompassing deserted warehouses, if solely so as to add extra enticing inexperienced area or new housing.
“That’s why we wish this church to be saved open, even on a pilot gentle foundation,” he mentioned. “Sooner or later there may very well be lots of people residing right here. This church might take a brand new lease on life.”
However for now, life goes on on the parish, the place they host a month-to-month Hungarian luncheon after the 11:30 a.m. Mass. Parishioners and guests line up in a hallway, the place Klara Schwarcz spoons rooster paprikash, saucy noodles, selfmade pickles and chocolate coconut rolls onto Styrofoam plates.
A gaggle seated on the desk reminisces about what it was like right here years earlier than, when males would collect to play playing cards and there was all the time somebody to speak to.
“It was an actual camaraderie. I by no means noticed something prefer it,” mentioned Ingeberg White, 84, who’s German however says she was adopted by the Hungarians. “That’s why we stayed.”
As they talked, Lisa Hooper carried in two selfmade desserts for Imre Jokuti’s 86th birthday. The group sang, and Anna Jokuti helped him blow out the candles. They cheered.
In a close-by hallway hangs a timeline of the parish historical past. On one finish, the primary entry notes the yr 1839, when Bishop Joseph Rosati purchased the land and began elevating cash for a constructing; he died earlier than he was capable of full the duty.
On the different finish, the final entry marks the yr 2018, when Archbishop Robert Carlson got here to the church to have fun its one hundred and seventy fifth anniversary.
After that, there’s an empty area. And out of doors, the site visitors on the interstate roars on.
Images: Take a peek inside St. Mary of Victories Catholic Church