Missouri continually surprised me. It was certainly showing me lots of unexpected things—the most beautiful botanic gardens in the United States, the spectacular Bellefontaine Cemetery, one of the most beautiful train stations in the world, one of the world’s best caverns, the most delicious key lime pie I had ever had until I went to Key West, and the superior World War I Museum. So it should have been no surprise, then, that the state’s churches would be equally impressive. These are my favorites.
#1 Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis (St. Louis)
The outside of the massive Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis impressed me. Seven years of construction, beginning in 1907, resulted in a magnificent basilica, money well spent during St. Louis’ more prosperous era when it was the fourth-largest city in the United States. Occupying a generous corner lot, the basilica’s Romanesque exterior features gray granite walls, twin towers, a rose window, a massive central dome covered in glittering green tiles, and a trio of recessed arches practically commanded me to come inside. And when I did, I was absolutely stunned by a glowing interior that wasn’t completed until 1998. A golden barrel-vaulted ceiling in the narthex greeted me, with a swirling green vine, symbols of the Four Evangelists, and scenes from the life of King Louis IX. I entered the chancel and immediately understood why the inside took an extra nine decades to complete. Twenty artists spent that time creating a mosaic masterpiece: 83,000 square feet of 41.5 million pieces of glass tessarae in more than 7,000 different colors. In the record books, it’s the largest collection of mosaics in the world. With its Byzantine vibe, the basilica felt more like a millennium-old Asia Minor fantasy rather than a Catholic basilica in the heart of a U.S. Midwestern city.
Through the entire structure, religions scenes in dazzling mosaic canvass the Bible, from Jonah emerging from the whale to Lazarus rising from the dead. Moses with his tablets, Noah with his dove, and John the Baptist with his own decapitated head are all represented, as are more contemporary events and people, such as the works of the St. Louis mission in Bolivia and images of American saints Mother Cabrini and Elizabeth Seton. The chilling Final Judgment scenes shows condemned souls passing through frigid, loveless ice. I found Apostles and palms, lilies and lambs, and many other Christian symbols. But it’s not all about these tiny tiles. The tremendous baldacchino topped by a dome that parallels the one I had seen outside is striking, as are the variety of columns and the pure white marble statue of Christ in the sanctuary. Regardless of what religion you may practice, if any at all, this basilica transcends faith and invites you in to appreciate an art form that, most likely, will never be produced again.
#2 St. Francis Xavier Church (St. Louis)
More commonly called “College Church,” thanks to its presence on the campus of Saint Louis University, St. Francis Xavier Church was the first English-speaking parish in St. Louis, serving primarily a burgeoning Irish population. The current church, replacing an older version, was completed in 1898, based on the spectacular Cathedral of St. Colman, one of the most beautiful churches in Ireland. The original intent was to spend no more than $200,000 for a church “elegant in detail and modest in proportions.” Like most plans, this went awry, with the final cost pushing past half a million dollars and the final building being anything but modest.
As a visitor, I was grateful for the budget-busting grandiosity of this Gothic Revival church. Facing the front, the asymmetrical limestone exterior rises sharply from left to right, topping out with the beautiful corner tower with four clock faces and the church bells behind louvers that wasn’t added until 1914. It’s a very pointy church, with sharp lancet arches and gables. A central rose window measures 24’ across. Statues stand on little platforms on every level of the spirelet and the tower.
I climbed one of the three grand staircases and entered “the finest American cathedral excepting St. Patrick’s in New York,” according to The St. Louis Star in 1898. I passed by the holy water stoup and the baptismal pool and looked up to admire the ribbed groin-vault ceiling three stories (85’) above the nave that is supported by a dozen red granite columns with highly sculpted foliated caps, cluster piers, and lancet arches. Gray-yellow and chocolate-brown tiles cover the main floor, and oak confessionals take up the spaces beneath the windows. About 1,500 worshippers can sit on the main floor, in the nave and the side aisles. Sculptures on the altar’s reredos and the Stations of the Cross bring Biblical figures to life. Quatrefoil stained glass in the rose window brightens up the elegant organ loft. The stained glass throughout the church is widely regarded as some of the finest in the United States, and there’s more than Bible stories to see in them. Inspired by the windows in Chartres Cathedral, the famed German-American company Emil Frei and Associates designed, made, and installed the windows from 1929 to 1938. Stressing a vibrant blue, the windows become both a lesson in how exactly to read them—there’s a definite order—and a scavenger hunt, where you’ll find a map of North America, commerce and transportation laborers, the eagle of the Great Seal of the United States, and the university’s DuBourg Hall, which, not so coincidentally, was designed by the church’s original architect.
#3 Christ Church Cathedral (St. Louis)
Right before I headed to dinner at the excellent Lucas Park Grille, about a block away, I popped into Christ Church Cathedral, lured by the church’s series of bright red doors. Home to the oldest Episcopal congregation west of the Mississippi and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994, this cathedral shows its age with contrasting materials. Completed in 1867 (after a lengthy pause during the Civil War), the main body of the church employs sandstone, but the tower (now housing the largest bell in Missouri, tipping the scales at 5,732 pounds) and front porch, from 1912, are of a much lighter limestone. Inside this Gothic Revival cathedral, I was impressed by the stained-glass windows, the Gustavino tiles added in 1929, the strong piers supporting Gothic arches, and chandeliers that look like a crown King Arthur might have worn. The cathedral’s most arresting feature is its glorious reredos, which immediately grabbed my attention as soon as I walked in. Rising behind the main altar, the 35’-tall reredos was carved over the course of nearly two years, from 1909 to 1911, from cream-colored stone excavated near Exeter, England. Comprising 52 religious figures and Biblical scenes, with a crucified Christ front and center, the monochromatic reredos was shipped in sections in 230 cases to the cathedral. It’s such a masterpiece of carving, with rich details in locks of hair, angel wings, tiny trefoils, grape vines, and so much more, that you’ll end up spending a good deal of time just searching for treat after treat.
#4 Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Kansas City)
Even on a cloudy day, the gold dome, cupola, and cross of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception beckoned me from blocks away. Up close, it glistened even brighter, thanks to a major renovation effort in the early 1960s that replaced the deteriorating original copper dome with 23-carat gold leaf. The cornerstone of this lovely brick church was laid in 1882—an event that attracted more than 10,000 people. Built on the highest ground in Kansas City and reaching up 150’, the cathedral was the tallest structure in the city at the time. The first Mass was celebrated in 1883, when the cathedral was still incomplete. The 11 bells (all named after saints, including, of course, St. Cecilia, patroness of music and musicians), for instance, weren’t added behind louvers in the tower until 1895.
Alas, the Catholic cathedral was closed when I arrived. I didn’t let that deter me. I employed my skills of persuasion at the rectory with the friendly staff, who happily opened it up just for me, and I was so glad they did.
The bright and airy interior is filled with treasures to explore. Fluted columns support arches and the bold blue barrel ceiling over the nave. Similar columns separate the tall stained-glass windows, installed in 1912, that depict various Biblical scenes and the life of Christ—His early life in chronological order on the east side, and his public ministry on the west. A full-immersion baptismal pool rests under the window in which John baptizes Jesus; the flowers in the sandstone backdrop of the pool parallel those in the window. The Stations of the Cross, installed in 2007, are early 20th-century survivors from a now-demolished church in Pennsylvania, returned to life with a fine restoration job that brought back the 14 brilliantly painted scenes as well as the frames, including a little gilding in gold leaf of the heart-shaped medallions indicating which number Station you’re looking at. A curious icon that looks more Russian Orthodox than Roman Catholic depicts Jesus standing on the cracked doors of hell, raising from their tombs such Bible superstars as Moses, Solomon, David, John the Baptist, and a virtually unrecognizable Adam and Eve (clad in full robes and not fig leaves). Below Him, a smattering of broken locks and hinges and worthless keys indicate Christ’s conquest of Satan’s netherworld. One of the cathedral’s curiosities is the position of the raised altar—smack in the middle of the church, like a table around which a family gathers. With curved stairs and rounded corners, it’s decked out with two tables holding sacramental oils, Tabernacle, Cathedra, lectern, and altar table featuring shocks of wheat tied together with grapevines, all carved from a golden stone. Another curiosity is what the church is missing: There are no chandeliers. Natural light streams through the stained-glass windows (thanks to the church having no adjacent neighbors), supplemented by recessed lighting in the ceiling. Although the staff had welcomed me inside, I wasn’t able to finagle a climb to the top of the tower, like residents used to be able to with the purchase of a ticket.
#5 First United Methodist Church (Jefferson City)
Just a few blocks from Missouri’s impressive state capitol, First United Methodist Church almost looks more like a fortress than a church. Completed in 1901 to the designs of a Jefferson City architect, and expanded in 1950 and again in 1984, the inside is surprisingly plain, save for a couple of circular stained-glass windows, composed of five smaller circular panels in the shape of a cross. But it’s the exterior that’s the real star. This Romanesque Revival church is constructed of locally quarried rusticated limestone. With numerous arches (some blind) and a formidable corner tower with turrets, you could almost imagine it ready for battle and surrounded by a defensive moat. Narrow windows and even narrower louvers in the tower conjure images of sharpshooting archers rather than religious images in stained glass and church bells. This sturdy monolith makes a formidable statement on its corner lot, one that you’ll be happy to witness.
- Lafayette Park United Methodist Church (St. Louis; 1900)
- St. Peter Catholic Church (Jefferson City; 1883)
- Basilica of St. Louis, King of France (St. Louis; 1834)
- St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (Kansas City; 1887)
- Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist (Kansas City; 1942)
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