St. Joseph’s parish was founded in 1843 by a group of Jesuits seeking to serve the residential community of German immigrants who had moved into the area. At this time St. Louis University was located in downtown St. Louis, near the corner of Washington Ave. & 9th St. It was a simple church which consisted of a blessed cornerstone and not much more.
The present location of the Shrine of St. Joseph was donated to the Jesuits by Mrs. Ann Biddle for the specific purpose of building a church. The church was designed by George Purvis, had a 150 foot spire and was completed in 1846.
The year of 1861 was a miraculous year, literally. It is known as the only miracle certified by the Vatican in the Midwest. As the story is told, a man by the name of Ignatius Strecker was seriously injured at his job at the soap factory on the north side where he worked. The injury happened as a result of a severe blunt force trauma to his breastbone with a piece of iron. It caused him pain, but he ignored it along with the burning sensation for about 2 months until his chest began to expand like a tumor. The inflammation continued to grow alarmingly and there was no way to drain off or remove the malignant matter. Their family physician Doctor Joseph Heitzig was called.
A number of external remedies were attempted but failed to cure him. Ignatius’ condition continued to deteriorate so Doctor Heitzig had no choice but to open up the wound. He found the breastbone and some ribs on the left side in a state of incipient decomposition. While no additional attempts to cure the patient worked, the violent coughing persisted along with copious sputum pointed which to tuberculosis. Mr. Strecker began to suffer from a fever while respiration became difficult, and he food could not take any food. With such a condition Mr. Strecker had to give up his employment and spend weeks at a time in bed.
For nine long months this continued with no improvement in sight, Doctor Heitzig asked the family to call in Dr. William Schoenemann, who considered one of the best specialist doctors in America. After a thorough examination and some futile attempts at healing, Dr. Schoenemann had reluctantly pronounced Mr. Strecker incurable and gave him two weeks to live. Despite the bad news, Mr. Strecker did not die, but instead lingered on for many months. He finally had given up on ever being cured and so began to make his peace with the Lord.
About that time a well known missionary by the name of Father Francis Xavier Weninger, S. J. had traveled to St. Joseph’s to preach. Mrs. Strecker had heard that Father Weninger would be blessing the sick with the relic of Peter Claver after a special sermon. So Mrs. Stecker struggled to get Ignatius to St. Joseph’s Church for the message and blessing. After Father Weninger’s sermon on Peter Claver, Father Weninger blessed him and allowed him to kiss the relic.
What happened after that, Ignatius always found hard to capture into words. He described the sensation as an immediate strengthening of his courage and faith and the assurance that he would recover from his dire health problems. Miraculously, the sore on his chest began to disappear, and his breastbone and ribs began to heal very quickly, eliminating any sign of tuberculosis in his lungs. Amazingly, Ignatius was back to work the very next day, and he had completely recovered from his illness within a week or two. Dr. Schoenemann was astonished to say the least, and though not a Catholic, he recognized that Ignatius was completely cured.
Ignatius’ cure had come to be known as a miracle from God, for he never had another occurrence of the illness he had earlier faced. Years later Ignatius had died on June 4, 1880 in St. Nicholas parish, joining St. Joseph’s. The cause of his death was certified by the City Board of Health as being from typhoid fever and not his previous illness. Ignatius was then buried in the old St. Peter & St. Paul Cemetery.
About two years after Ignatius received his cure, the Most Reverend Michael O’Connor conducted a thorough canonical investigation. Rev. O’Connor was for many years Bishop of Pittsburgh but now a member of the Society of Jesus. In 1887 the miracle was formally declared authentic in Rome by Cardinal Bianchi. This miracle was chosen as one of the two required for the canonization process of Peter Claver as well. As a result he was canonized the following year and now on Sept. 9th his feast is celebrated in the universal church.
The City of St. Louis has many historic struggles in its history, and one of the most significant is its struggle with cholera epidemics through the years of 1833-34, 1848-49, 1854, 1856 and 1866. Asiatic cholera is caused by contaminated drinking water and it is contagious. These were mainly due to St. Louis’ inadequate sewer system at the time, but it was also made worse by unhealthy spots like Chouteau’s Pond. Much of it was also blamed on the increase flow of immigrants to America by way of New Orleans and then up the Mississippi River by steamboat.
This aggressive disease usually manifests itself in the form of severe diarrhea and stomach cramps coming on fast. If not treated quickly a sufferer can die within twenty-four hours. Though most modern sanitation systems have almost completely stopped the spread of this disease, there are still occasional outbreaks in different parts of the world.
In 1866 a particularly virulent cholera was spreading through St. Louis like a storm. The death toll had skyrocketed up to and average of 280 deaths…daily. The newspapers had tried to play down the deaths in hopes of avoiding a panic throughout the city, but the city’s health was very dire. Many in the city were doing what they could to help the sick and dying, including the Jesuit Fathers and Brothers of St. Joseph’s Parish. St. Joseph’s was hit especially hard with sometimes as many as 25 funerals a day brought on by cholera. The deaths were coming so fast that not all parishioners could be buried in blessed ground. The smell of death was truly in the air.
With the guidance of Father Joseph Weber who served as pastor of the parish and superior of the Jesuit community, one Sunday morning members of the parish gathered together and made a very solemn vow to God. They vow that if God through the intercession of St. Joseph would spare their parish of any further deaths from cholera, they would build a special monument to St. Joseph in a gesture of Thanksgiving. They solidified this vow with a signed petition. They parishioners also set aside $4,000 for the monument, which was a hefty amount for 1866.
In amazement to the pastor and the parishioners, not one member of the families of those who signed the petition and made the vow lost another family member to cholera. As vowed the members of the parish built their monument to St. Joseph and made him the patron saint of the parish. Whether it is considered a miracle or not, it was truly an ‘answered prayer.’ The promise was kept with the help of the Bueschers of Chicago who were famous religious artists of the day. They had built a replica of the Altar of St. Ignatius in the Jesuit Gesu Church in Rome. Instead of the position where St. Ignatius stands in Rome, they placed St. Joseph beneath the words: “Ite ad Joseph” which means “Go to Joseph.” It serves as the Main Altar and was installed early in 1867, at a total cost of $6,131.00. Noted missionary to the Indians, Father Pierre Jean De Smet, officiated at the dedication services on December 30, 1866.
In the early 1870’s the Jesuits had ordered a statue of the Blessed Mother Mary for St. Joseph’s Parish from a company in Spain. Also happening around this time in Europe was the Franco-Prussian War. At the same time the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris had ordered a statue of the Blessed Mother Mary as well, but a much more expensive one constructed of higher quality. Fortunately, for St. Joseph’s Parish, the company in Spain was unable to deliver the statue intended for the Notre Dome in Paris due to the war, so the company in Spain shipped that statue of Mary to St. Joseph’s Parish for the same price. All this time that statue has remained behind glass, preserving it for over 100 years.
From 1870 to 1910 St. Joseph’s Parish was the largest German immigrant parish in North America. What made this so was their full printing press so they could publish in German, their land office so immigrants to learn of lands available for purchase, and the parish membership of about 4,000 with 5 masses every Sunday at its height in 1910.
After this period members of the parish began to leave the area and settling further west, outside of the dirty, coal-burning city. In 1950 a nearby large school had closed, and by 1965 the Jesuits left the church and gave it to the Archdiocese. These truly became rough times for the church again, and by early the 1970’s it had fallen into deep disrepair. Many of the windows were broken along with massive holes in the roof and bell tower that, as some sadly said ‘there were more pigeons worshiping in St. Joseph’s than there were people.’
Saving St. Joseph:
The Archdiocese then began exploring ways in which they could close down the church and sell the land. This discussion went on for several years between the Archdiocese and the members of the parish. Then in 1979 a group of lay people asked the Archdiocese if they could seek assistance from the community since the Archdiocese was not going to assist in any repairs of the church.
It was around this time when Father Edward Filipiak served as the parish pastor of St. Joseph’s very small congregation. As it was Father Filipiak lived upstairs alone in this now very run down church. Two weeks after his birthday on Sept. 29, 1979, Father Filipiak was sleeping upstairs when burglars broke into the church to steal some wine and whatever else he could find. Just before Sunday Mass on the next morning Father Filipiak was found dead. The entire community was devastated.
Father Filipiak’s death hit the Archdiocese and the community so hard that Arch Bishop John May agreed to lease the church to the Friends of St. Joseph for $1 per year to see if they could raise the money to save the church. To St. Joseph’s joy labor unions and local businesses donated enormous amounts of time and resources to saving the church. When word got around of all the support for St. Joseph’s Parish, a housing development company poured $50 million into restoring the housing around the church. Sad as it is, it is believed that Father Filipiak’s death became a catalyst for saving St. Joseph’s Parish and in turn making him a martyr. Shortly after, in 1982, St. Joseph’s Parish became the Shrine of St. Joseph.
The “Friends of the Shrine” began a grassroots effort to raise money for the restoration projects for the Shrine of St. Joseph as tasks could be afforded. Their hard work has resulted in raising over $5 million to restore this historic church. Many believe that the restoration of the Shrine of St. Joseph helped spark the restoration of other parts of downtown St. Louis like that of Washington Ave.
Some of the incredible restoration stages that have continued since 1982:
- Removed 100,000 pounds of pigeon droppings from the bell towers.
- The three altars, the fourteen Stations of the Cross, and the old pulpit had been painted over with a thick battleship gray paint, thereby hiding the beauty of their original colors. The painstaking process to removed 7 layers of paint to find the original colors below was done, and great pains were also done to record the colors within 30 minutes before it would begin changing after being exposed to the air. This glorious work was done by artist Ed Benson and his company.
- Used same faux painting artists over several years/generations to restore the marble look, despite almost all interior work being constructed of wood. Same artist also have done work on the Governor’s mansion
- Restored the pipe organ in 2000 for a cost of $200,000
- Recorded a documentary in 2001 and won a Telie Award for ‘Superior Documentary Presentation’ which is run on EWTN, the Worldwide Catholic Television Network
- From 2006-2008 the stone work in the twin towers was restored.
- In 2012 the slate roof was replaced.
Many of the article’s sources are linked throughout the text, the following are sources outside of the internet.
- Striritz, Mary M., St. Louis Historic Churches & Synagogues (St. Louis Public Library and Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Inc., 1995);
Special Thanks to: