By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
INDEPENDENCE — There’s something about a Catholic church that has stood, steadfast and sturdy, on the same corner for more than 150 years, calling parishioners and visitors to worship, and imprinting its history and its love on the hearts of its people. That’s St. Mary’s.
Founded by Father Bernard Donnelly in 1845 as Holy Cross Parish, it was renamed St. Mary’s sometime in the mid-1850s. The wagon shop Father Donnelly purchased in 1848 with the help of both Catholic and non-Catholic business friends, became the first Catholic Church in the territory.
Father Matthew Bartulica, St. Mary’s pastor, told The Catholic Key, “Construction of the older part of St. Mary’s Church was begun in 1860, but due to the Civil War it was not completed until the end of 1865. The cornerstone was laid in 1864. There is no documentation on the date Archbishop Peter R. Kenrick of the Archdiocese of St. Louis visited to consecrate the church.”
While the exterior of the church looks much as it did in the 1860s, the interior has undergone several renovations in that century and a half. In the past couple of years, Father Bartulica, has directed Phase I of a major project on the steeple, roof and interior of the historic church.
The steeple and roof were first repaired and reinforced. The steeple was re-shingled and supports added.
A new altar, ambo, railing and artwork were then completed, and on Jan. 20 the altar was blessed and dedicated at an evening Mass celebrated by Bishop James Johnston, Jr., Fathers Bartulica and Andrew Mattingly. It was standing room only as parishioners filled their beloved church.
In his homily, Bishop Johnston said that in the sacred liturgy of the Catholic Church, the altar has a central place of importance. “The altar is at one and the same time, a place of sacrifice and a banquet table.
“As a place for sacrifice, it is foreshadowed by the altars in the Old Testament worship … It was the place where offerings were made to God and the covenant with God was renewed.
“The difference, with our altar,” he continued, “is that the sacrifice offered on it is the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our salvation. It is made present, on the altar, in an un-bloody way under the appearance of bread and wine. We do this to fulfill the Lord’s command at the Last Supper to, ‘Do this in memory of me.’…The sacrifice we offer on the altar is also the offering of our own lives and work, joined to the sacrifice of Christ. …We offer up ourselves, in love, praise and reverence to the Father, through, with and in Christ. In doing so we fulfill our most important purpose as creatures.
“The altar is also the banquet table of the Lamb. … where we are fed the bread of life on this … earthly pilgrimage to heaven, where we will be totally satisfied by God.”
Bishop Johnston spoke of the special ritual he was about to perform, the blessing and anointing of the altar. “It will be consecrated with sacred chrism, the same oil used in Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders. The altar in some ways represents Christ himself, who is the cornerstone of our faith. Because of this, and its consecration, we bow when passing in front of the altar.”
A detailed parish history compiled by Mary Fitzgerald Green for the church’s centennial celebration in 1964, states that during his pastorate, 1875-1910, Father Thomas Fitzgerald designed and made in his carpenter shop behind the rectory, the pews, the prie dieu, walnut frames for the hand-painted stations of the cross and the altar rail. In 1893, he designed and constructed the 110-foot steeple, and the addition at the rear of the church. Around this time, Father Fitzgerald and the parish leaders saw the need for repair and beautification to the church inside and out. The hand carved rosewood altars were imported from Germany, donated to the parish by several parishioners and installed during that renovation.
Father Bartulica said, “At that time a small altar stone was oftentimes sent to be inserted in a wood altar top. This was most likely the case here at St. Mary’s as, according to the historical books we have, the wood altars were installed in a renovation in the 1890s.”
During that renovation, Father Bartulica continued, the tabernacle still in use was given to the parish. “There is an inscription on the tabernacle of the family that donated it,” he said, “but no date. I think it was given in the 1890s renovation.”
The 1,600 lb. bell in the steeple was cast in St. Louis in 1894, a gift to the parish by the Preston Roberts Family in memory of deceased family members.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, St. Mary’s pastors oversaw the organization of parish clubs including the Altar Society and the Holy Name Society, and the growth and expansion of St. Mary’s High School. It wasn’t until Msgr. Martin Froeschl’s pastorate, 1960 -71, that renovations and remodeling of the church began again.
In 1960, Edith Antoine recalled in her 1989 parish history, Father Froeschl became pastor of St. Mary’s. “Under his direction, the old hand carved rosewood altars were remodeled and they are still in use here today,” she wrote. Father Froeschl became Msgr. Froeschl in 1961.
Father Bartulica said, “There was a renovation in 1964 as an expansion of the church, which added seating.” This was also under the direction of Msgr. Froeschl. “In the past 50 years the parish size decreased, so in doing this current renovation we realized that we didn’t need all the extra seating capacity, but could repurpose those spaces and still have plenty of room for overflow.”
Early in the project, wanting something unique and beautiful in keeping with the parish’s long history that would last for years to come, Father Bartulica recalled his days in Rome and the Basilica’s dedicated to the Blessed Mother. Mosaics came to mind.
“I was searching for an artist to work with and I remembered my friend Carl Fougerousse had gone to the New York Academy of Art after college. We hadn’t spoken in well over 10 years so in January 2014, I did a search online and found that he had started Red Fern Art Studio in Savannah, Ga. I reached him and my first words were something like ‘you probably won’t recognize my voice …’ Right away he answered, ‘Matt, what are you up to?’ Guess my voice is recognizable! I told him about this project and we started discussing ideas for the renovations, and I shared with him that I especially loved the basilicas in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He loved the idea and soon presented a few renderings of what it would look like. In doing the project then other things like altar, ambo, and altar rail, had to be addressed as well, for everything in the sanctuary to match.”
For the wall above the altar Fougerousse designed a large mural of saints watching as Jesus Christ crowns his mother Queen of Heaven and Earth. To their right, are St. Augustine, St. Monica, Saints Francis of Assisi and Clare, Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. Philomena, while to their left are St. Agnes, St. John Vianney, Saints Scholastica and Benedict, St. Teresa of Calcutta and Pope St. John Paul II.
On the baldacchino below the mural is a mosaic of the Lamb.
Much of the painting itself was done by parish volunteers under the direction of Fougerousse and his artists. Other parishioners donated their talents and time working on the renovations and beautification of the church.
In preparing the church for the project, the staff and workers discovered that “significant portions of the old main and side wooden altars had been lost, so we decided to designate the remnants that we have to the devotional side chapel, which still needs to be completed.” That meant a new altar was needed. Father Bartulica consulted with Bishop Johnston about having a proper altar built since the former altar only had the small altar stone insert.
The altar, the communion railings, the ambo, celebrant and side chairs and the baldacchino were all brought to the church by Carl Fougerousse with his artists. The parish purchased the marble altar top which contains the space for the relics placed there during the blessing.
The renovation work isn’t finished yet, Father Bartulica said. “A lot more work needs to be done, like the floors throughout the church, all of the pews need to be refurbished, and we hope to build a choir loft in the near future. The side chapel also needs more work. We will be doing some major fundraising soon in order to move forward with those other projects.”
As parishioners left the church to go to the reception and continue the celebration, the deep blue evening sky above the steeple was filled with stars. A similar sky almost 60 years ago must have inspired Edith Antoine to write:
“St. Mary’s Steeple towers toward heaven’s blue sky
Our arms held high
From earth here below
In all her autumnal beauty.”