July 16, 2021

St. Louis and Belleville, Ill., offer pilgrimage sites close to home

The sanctuary of St. Joseph Shrine in St. Louis boasts a three-tier “Altar of Answered Prayers,” the effort of parishioners in thanksgiving after a St. Joseph novena during a cholera epidemic in 1866. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

The sanctuary of St. Joseph Shrine in St. Louis boasts a three-tier “Altar of Answered Prayers,” the effort of parishioners in thanksgiving after a St. Joseph novena during a cholera epidemic in 1866. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

ST. LOUIS—As the world cautiously begins to open its doors again after the COVID-19 pandemic, some might long to strap on their sandals as pilgrims in search of spiritual growth.

But if the thought of cross-continent or overseas travel is still too anxiety-inducing, fear not, pilgrim. Right here in the Midwest is a pilgrimage that offers two basilicas, two shrines, the site of a miracle, several grottos, an outdoor Stations of the Cross trail with recorded reflections and more.

The pilgrimage destination? St. Louis and Belleville, Ill., to visit: the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France; the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis; the Shrine of St. Joseph; and the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville.

The pilgrimage can start by sleeping in for an extra hour—St. Louis is on Central Time, so you’ll gain an hour as you head west.

First cathedral west of the Mississippi

With its cornerstone laid in 1831 and its dedication taking place in 1834, the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France (or Old Cathedral) was the first cathedral built west of the Mississippi River.

It was dedicated just days before Bishop Simon Bruté was ordained there to serve as the founding bishop of the Diocese of Vincennes, Ind., now the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

The cathedral basilica stands today as a testament to the importance of both the Church and the church building—located just several hundred yards from the St. Louis Arch, it is the only structure not demolished when the grounds were cleared for the Gateway Arch National Park.

The humble simplicity of the church interior is striking, speaking to the popular architecture and materials available in the time and place during which the structure was built.

The eye is immediately drawn to the large painted crucifix behind the altar, towering as if from the tabernacle itself. It was commissioned by New Albany native and then-St. Louis archbishop Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter in 1959.

Just as eye-catching above it is a large oval window. It had been covered then rediscovered during renovations in 1959.

During that renovation, the marble altar was installed. It is a replica of the original altar placed in the sanctuary in 1834, which had been removed during renovations in the late 1800s.

Facing the sanctuary, a side altar dedicated to St. Louis IX, King of France, honors the namesake of the basilica and the city itself, which was established on French-claimed soil in 1764. Adorning the space are the umbraculum (large umbrella) and tintinnabulum (little bell) identifying the church as a basilica.

The church was designated a basilica in in 1961 by Pope—now saint—John XXIII. The designation is a papal honor marking a church’s historical value and spiritual significance.

Those worshiping during Mass at the Old Cathedral can enjoy the 1839 organ’s 1,700 pipes while imagining Catholics nearly two centuries prior worshiping in the cathedral and praying for safe passage on their way to the frontier west.

Site of St. Peter Claver miracle and relic

The Shrine of St. Joseph is the location of a miracle that led to the canonization of St. Peter Claver. A traveling relic of the Jesuit missionary priest who died in 1654 was present in the church for revering. A sickly man believed by doctors to be close to death was blessed by the relic. He felt a “surge of power,” according to the shrine’s website. Within weeks, he was again working and able to support his family.

The relic can now be revered in a reliquary built into a statue of St. Peter Claver standing just inside the shrine’s entrance.

It is easy to miss, though, for the soaring “Altar of Answered Prayers” in the shrine’s sanctuary. The three-tiered altar was constructed by the parishioners in thanksgiving for prayers answered in 1866 to spare them and their families from a deadly cholera outbreak. It was causing 10-25 funerals a day within the parish, according to the website.

The priest of the time created a pledge for parishioners to sign: If, through their prayers for the intercession of St. Joseph, the lives of those who signed the pledge and their families would be spared from death by cholera, the parishioners would erect a glorious altar of thanksgiving for answered prayers.

From the day the parishioners signed the petition and began prayers of intercession to St. Joseph, not one life in the parish was lost to cholera.

The beauty and symbolism adorning the altar speak to the deep gratitude of the parishioners.

Flanking the awe-inspiring altar are two additional altars—one dedicated to Mary on the right, and one dedicated to the Jesuits on the left. It was priests of the Jesuit order who led the parish for more than a century, from its founding in 1843 until 1954.

If at all possible, visit the shrine on Sunday after the regularly scheduled 11 a.m. Mass for a detailed, interesting guided tour.

Cardinal Ritter’s remains lie in stunning ‘new’ cathedral

The first word that comes to mind in describing the current cathedral basilica of the Archdiocese of St. Louis is “stunning.” No, “breathtaking.” No, “majestic”—I can’t decide.

Construction on the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, or “new” cathedral, began in 1907.

According to a visitor’s guide, its size alone is impressive—83,000 square feet, including three large domes and a massive baldachino (a stone canopy help up by columns) framing the altar.

Now take that size and add 41.5 million mosaic pieces of glass in more than 7,000 colors and telling stories from the Bible and of local Catholic history, and the eye is defied to take it all in.

To better appreciate the artistry of the mosaics, be sure to visit the Mosaic Museum beneath the cathedral.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis holds a special tie to the cathedral: It is here where the remains of Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter lie. He was bishop of the then-Diocese of Indianapolis from 1934-1944, and first archbishop of the newly designated Archdiocese of Indianapolis from 1944-1946, when he was appointed to the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

He and two other St. Louis cardinals are buried under a side altar known as All Souls Chapel. The cardinals’ hats, known as galleros, hang from the ceiling above the chapel.

The cathedral was designated a basilica by St. John Paul II in 1997. The tell-tale umbraculum and tintinnabulum are present on the right side of the sanctuary.

In addition to All Souls Chapel, the cathedral boasts three other chapels: the Blessed Sacrament Chapel—with blood red mosaic tiles arching over the space, the Blessed Virgin’s Chapel and the All Saints Chapel, where a copy of the colorful, artistic St. John’s Bible resides.

There is much for the eye and soul to contemplate in the basilica, which is open from 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Whether you want to walk through on your own with the help of a printed visitors guide or join a guided tour between

10 a.m.-3 p.m., it’s recommended to call ahead to be sure the cathedral will be open; it is quite the wedding hot spot. Tours are also held each Sunday after the noon Mass.

A pilgrim’s respite

Whether you take in all of the pilgrimage sites in one day or two, before heading home you’ll want to spend the night at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows just across the Mississippi River in Belleville, Ill.

Owned and operated by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the shrine sprawls on 200 tranquil wooded acres with 10 outdoor areas for devotion.

They range from a Lourdes grotto to a Fathers Memorial Wall honoring St. Joseph and all fathers; a Mothers Prayer walk to an 85-foot Millennium Spire with candelarium of votive candles; Our Lady of Guadalupe Hill to a Way of the Cross walk with recorded meditations, and more.

A night drive around the grounds to enjoy the lighted shrines or light a votive candle makes for a calming end to the day.

Most importantly for your night’s stay, the shrine has a guest house for overnight visitors. The rooms are less expensive than hotels in St. Louis, and the accompanying peace and serenity of the place are unparalleled.

If your agenda doesn’t allow for Mass in one of the three prior listed pilgrimage sites, daily and weekend Masses are celebrated at the Church of Our Lady of the Snows.

While a continental breakfast is included, be advised that it is a very small continent: coffee, juice, packaged muffins, granola bars and fruit. (Those familiar with the guest house should note that the former restaurant is no longer in operation.)

Holy sites are closer to home than across the sea. This pilgrimage to St. Louis and Belleville makes for a doable weekend tour of shrines, cathedrals, basilicas, grottos and more for the mind, eye and heart to contemplate.

Pilgrimages help the soul grow in grace, and what simpler way to do so than—relatively speaking—in one’s own backyard. †

More information on these pilgrimage sites is available as follows:

• Old Cathedral: 314-231-3250 or oldcathedralstl.org.

• Shrine of St. Joseph: 314-231-9407 or www.shrineofstjoseph.org.

• Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis: 314-373-8200 or cathedralstl.org.

• National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows: 618-397-6700 or snows.org.

Local site Links: