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Civil War-era Nativity scene sparks memories of Old Cathedral's French heritage

Civil War-era Nativity scene sparks memories of Old Cathedral's French heritage


ST. LOUIS • On Christmas Eve 1866, the French families of St. Louis wound their way through the city’s dim and frigid streets to attend midnight Mass at “their church” near the riverfront.

The faithful were eager for the first glimpse of the church’s new, life-size Nativity scene, made of cast iron and purchased at great cost to celebrate the end of the Civil War.

The creche figures, manufactured by the firm of N. Serf, in New York City, are still among the proud possessions of that church: the Basilica of St. Louis King of France, better known as the Old Cathedral.

This week, as they have done at Christmastime for the past 147 years, workers wrestled the heavy figures into their familiar places in the church, where they will remain on display through Jan. 6, the Feast of Epiphany.

“They don’t make them like this anymore,” the Rev. Richard Quirk, the assistant pastor, said last week as he examined the statues.

“It’s a job to move them; Joseph weighs 100 pounds,” Quirk noted, patting the statue’s cold, metal shoulder.

The figures have soft, natural-looking features. Joseph is a balding and humble character. He looks every bit like a fatigued father in need of sleep. Mary looks especially modern; she has a Modigliani face.

The statues are showing wear and tear and need some touching up. A few bad cracks have been repaired with welds, but overall they appear in excellent condition.

The pieces are among the church’s numerous historic treasures, including the painting titled “Saint Louis venerating the Crown of Thorns,” a gift from Louis XVIII, King of France; an 18th-century bell, which was enriched by 200 Spanish silver coins in its casting; and a life-size crucifix that was a gift from St. Rose Philippine Duchesne to Bishop Louis Guillaume Valentin DuBourg.

When not on display, the Nativity scene is stored in a narrow room at the back of the church. There, huddled in the dark, the figures wait for their next silent performance.

That’s about to change.

As part of the privately funded, $10 million restoration of the 179-year-old landmark next to the Gateway Arch, the creche figures will get proper conservancy care. Then, baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the three Wise Men, a shepherd, a lamb, an ox and an angelic emissary will join other historic artifacts displayed year-round in the remodeled church museum.

Quirk said the restoration was part of a larger mission to recognize — and publicize — the rich history of the church, completed in 1834.

“That historical aspect of this church is something that we are becoming prouder and prouder of but which we have kind of let slide,” Quirk said last week in an interview in the sacristy. “Our history draws thousands of people to the church. And we want to connect with them.”

When the restoration is completed next summer, the Old Cathedral will have new windows, air-conditioning and lighting, and a new sound system.

Construction crews are replacing damaged exterior stonework. The wooden floors, pews and altar rails will be sanded down to their original finish. Worn-out carpeting has been stripped away to reveal the intricate pattern of English tiles installed in the sanctuary floor in the 1850s.

“Once the restoration is complete, you’ll see a church that would look familiar to the people who attended Mass the night the manger scene was first set up,” Quirk said.

Quirk said the prominent French Catholics who would have attended Christmas Mass at the Cathedral in 1866 included members of the Chouteau, Benoist, Charleville, Soulard, Gratiot and Robidoux clans.

By that period in its history, however, the Cathedral was in decline. It had become an orphan of the Industrial Revolution, hemmed in by the warehouses, factories and commercial buildings that had replaced the “poteaux-en-terre” Creole homes that once filled the residential area known as “the Cathedral Block.”

The diminished status was not lost upon Peter Richard Kenrick, the first Catholic archbishop west of the Mississippi River. In 1860, he adopted the then-new Church of St. John the Apostle, on Chestnut Street west of 15th Street, as his pro-cathedral — a temporary or co-cathedral. (That grand edifice still stands.)

Most of the city’s French Catholics had scattered throughout the region, their numbers increasingly dwarfed by those of the Irish and German immigrants who were flooding into the city.

The traditions and influence of the original pioneers were on the wane.

In 1849, the city’s Weekly Reveille paper published an item headlined “A French Narrative.” It quoted an unnamed doyenne pining for the French holiday traditions “of olden times”: young Frenchmen running door-to-door on New Year’s Eve singing “The Guignolee” in exchange for treats; families partaking of the hearty, post-midnight Mass breakfast called Le Reveillon; the solemn Christmas rites of the past that had given way, she complained, to “the great mass of men celebrating it by drinking egg nog, wines and punches, eating oysters and costly dishes, smoking the choicest cigars and ... ministering, in the most luxurious manner, to the cravings of the stomach.”

In 1865, the Cathedral got a new pastor, the Rev. Louis Dold, who made it his mission to attract lapsed French Catholics back to the church near the riverfront. To sweeten the deal, he promised them sermons en Français.

The sermon at the midnight Mass in 1866 included an appeal for donations to pay for the new Nativity scene.

Parishioners were asked to contribute in gratitude for those who had returned safely from the Civil War; in memory of those who had died in it; and, most of all, in thanks for the end to the conflict that had divided the nation, the city and, as the diary of Louis Phillipe Fusz indicated, the local church itself.

In an 1864 diary entry, Fusz, a French Catholic who supported secession, questioned the piety of Union General William Rosecrans, commander of federal troops in the city, whom Fusz had encountered at Mass: “Can his acts in religion here be sincere or is it policy that moves him ..?” Fusz mused.

The dissension over the Civil War was widespread and pervasive. Kenrick’s pro-cathedral, St. John the Apostle, lost its first pastor, who went south during the Civil War to serve as chaplain to a Confederate regiment.

But whatever their respective opinions about the war, the parishioners responded enthusiastically to the plea for donations. Digging deeply, they contributed $800 — about $12,000 in today’s currency — to cover the cost of the Nativity scene.

Quirk noted that descendants of the old French families remained part of the city’s living history.

Chouteaus from around the region still have their children baptized at the Old Cathedral, he said.

Fusz’s descendants now operate auto dealerships throughout the area.

And on a recent afternoon, just a few blocks from the Old Cathedral, Nicole Benoist was busy preparing Christmas displays at The Collective at MX, the trendy downtown retail space on Washington Avenue.

She is the great-, great-, great-granddaughter of Francois Marie Benoist, a fur trader who settled in St. Louis about 1790.

The Benoist name can be found today on a brass tag nailed to pew No. 4 at the Old Cathedral.

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Paul Hampel is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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