St. Charles, an area fertile in the quality of its land, also has produced over two centuries rich in faith. On the banks of the Missouri in 1769, Louis Blanchette and his band of French Canadians built a settlement which soon included a rough log cabin used for Mass and church gatherings by visiting order and secular priests.
On October 13, 1789, the Spanish Lieutenant Governor of Upper Louisiana, Don Manuel Perezs, gave permission to build a permanent church in an area that was titled Les Petites Cotes (village of the Little Hills). A typical French log church with vertical post was built at Jackson and South Main Streets and was dedicated together with the town on November 7, 1791, under the patronage of the saintly Cardinal of Milan, Charles Borromeo, the patron of the Spanish King, Charles.
The first acting pastor, Benedictine friar Dom Pierre Didier, entered the first recorded baptism on July 21, 1792, at the original St. Charles Borromeo church. To the east of this structure on Jackson Street still survives a building originally used as a rectory by resident priests. One 19th century priest gave us insight into the casual frontier Sunday practice of the day, as he write, “the women were practical and pious. The men possessed the faith, although with a few honorable exceptions, the practices of it consisted largely in congregating on Sundays outside the church during Mass to “swap” ponies or river tales, sell their pelts, hear the news and shake hands all around.”
Certainly not to be overlooked in the story of the growth of faith in this area was the arrival of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. St. Rose Philippine Duchesne and three companion Sisters arrived in 1818 from New Orleans in their first attempt to begin an educational system amidst hardships and severe frontier privations with 22 students for the free school and 3 for the boarding school.
With the slow disintegration of the French log church, a second structure was built on North Second and Decatur Streets. The church was constructed of white Burlington stone and adorned in the front with a cornice and four pilasters. It was the only church in the diocese at that time to be plastered. The graveyard from Main and Jackson Streets was moved to the block of Decatur between Fourth and Fifth Streets. The site on Second Street was to become a residence for the Jesuits and the first school for boys. The homes of the priests would, over a period of years, move to a number of different locations. After the residence near the river was sold to the St. Charles Car Company, a residence was on 723 North Third near Franklin. Years later, the rectory was a well-remembered large dwelling on the site of the present rectory at 601 North Fourth Street, and for a time in the house at 709 North Fourth.
In the second stone church, faith was well served by many great figures. Father P.J. Verhaegen, S.J. served three separate pastorates. A great priest, Verhaegen was the president of St. Louis University, a Vicar General of the Order, and a Professor of Moral Theology. It was Verhaegen who buried Mother Philippine Duchesne out of the stately rock church overlooking the Missouri River in 1852. Her remains are now at rest in the Shrine at the Academy of the Sacred Heart.
By 1869 the stone church was simply too small for its congregation, due to the great waves of foreign immigrants settling in the St. Charles area. Most parishioners were of German, French, English, or Irish ancestry. The cornerstone for a new brick church was laid in May of that year, and due to a slow progression of funds, the still incomplete building was consecrated in the fall of 1872. It closely resembled the other Catholic Church in town –St. Peter’s. When the steeple was at last added, the building towered over others in the vicinity.
In 1893 the Sisters of Loretto began to staff the parish school and remained for almost 40 years. On August 30, 1932, the School Sisters of Notre Dame began over 80 years of service to the school.
Certainly the most photographed and talked about occurrence in the history of St. Charles Borromeo happened July 7, 1915, as a wind storm destroyed the main body of the brick church. Damage was extensive, and the current church was rebuilt with strong community support. In a well-attended ceremony on April 16, 1916, Archbishop John Glennon laid the cornerstone of the fourth and existing church.
On the evening of May 6, 1957, the St. Charles parishioners and townspeople held a farewell party for the Jesuit staff composed of the pastor, Fat5her James Fallon, S.J. and his five associates. The Jesuit order had dedicated some of its proudest names to the development of the parish, and certainly many families were sad to see them depart. However, the purpose of their departure from this and other parishes was to release the order to service more in line with their educational and missionary philosophy. A few days later, a diocesan staff, directed by Father Michael P. Owens, began to administer the parish. Father Owens came to Borromeo with a strong chaplaincy background in the military, and an even stronger Irish Catholic faith. With his direction and the generosity of the growing parish, a new institution took shape. First a large new school was constructed in 1958, followed by the transfer of the rectory and construction of a new convent. A new parish center on Fifth Street was built in 1978 and remains a focal point for many activities in the parish. St. Charles County was no longer a quiet Missouri River town with old family names but the largest growing area in the State of Missouri.
In 1989 the parish began the renovation and restoration of the church and on November 7, 1991 Archbishop John L. May, in a solemn and impressive ceremony, re-sanctified the beautifully restored church on the 200th anniversary of the dedication of this historic parish.
Over 200 years ago, St. Charles Borromeo Parish began as a humble log cabin, over time it eventually grew into the parish we now have today. Our parish is more than just a log cabin or the beautiful structure you see today – it is the people who are the life of our church.
We come together as a diverse community to worship. We rejoice together at celebrations and find comfort in our times of grief with our fellow parishioners. Many people give thousands of hours each year in various ministries to bring the Body of Christ to us as a living parish.
The First St. Charles Borromeo Church
As a parish, we take pride in the fact that we are the oldest parish in St. Charles, the third Catholic Church west of the Mississippi after Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis. The original log church was dedicated on November 7, 1791.
To celebrate this bicentennial, members of the community, with the financial assistance of our own parishioners, constructed this replica of the original structure. The work was done completely by hand with period tools and in the manner of the 18th century. The construction began in the spring of 2004 and was completed in the fall of 2008.
We encourage everyone to visit this little piece of our history which is located at 401 South Main, the site of the original log church.
A Self-Guided Tour of St. Charles Borromeo Church
The building you see today – of Romanesque architecture – was dedicated in 1917. It is of Bedford Stone construction. Note the initials over the entrance doors: S C B, for St. Charles Borromeo. The clock faces, made of crushed glass, were rescued from the red brick church destroyed by a tornado in 1916. The bells in the tower were “baptized” with the names of Charles, the largest and deepest tone, Joseph, the middle size and tone, and Mary, the smallest and highest pitched. The outside structure has changed slightly from the original with the addition of a handicapped ramp on the west side and an expanded lower level entrance on the east side, leading to the café.
As you enter the church you see before you the beveled glass wall, separating the gathering space from the worship space, allowing for fellowship and a “cry room” area. It was crafted by one of our parishioners during the 1992 renovation. Please note the plaques on the back wall, one commemorating the pastors who have served our parish, and another in honor of Msgr. Michael P. Owens, who served the parish from 1957 until his death in 1988. It was under his guidance that the school building, the gym, and the rectory were built, as well as converting the church basement into the school cafeteria, and installing air conditioning in the church. To your left is the restroom and vesting sacristy, to the right the stairs leading to the choir loft, our Pieta, and the handicapped-accessible entrance/exit.
Of the notable features in the nave of the church are the blue clerestory windows, depicting the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries. The three front windows in the dome all have a Eucharistic significance, drawing one’s attention to the sacrifice of the altar at Mass. The side windows in the dome depict St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s vision of Jesus’ Sacred Heart on the east side, and on the west the Blessed Virgin’s appearance to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, France. We are reminded that our first priests to the village of “Les Petites Cotes” or “the little hills” were French missionaries.
The interior has undergone several renovations, the most recent having been completed in 1991 in anticipation of the parish’s bicentennial celebration. Several items in the church were refurbished and found new life in the newly remodeled church:
The Altar and Tabernacle: Part of the original altar in the third brick church of 1869. After the storm of 1917, the altar piece was restored and placed in the present church. At the outset of the 1967 renovation, the altar was gratefully placed in the home of one of our parishioners, and was subsequently returned to the church building during the 1991 renovation.
The Tabernacle Light: After the 1967 renovation, it found its way into a private home in the Chicago area until the owners generously returned the light after they heard of the bicentennial church renovation.
The Baptismal Font: Prior to the 1991 renovation, the baptismal area was located in the vesting sacristy, to the left as you enter the church. The font now has its place of prominence in the front of church, expressing the obvious connection between Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.
The painting of St. Charles Borromeo: This life-size copy of an original oil painting in Milan was commissioned in 1869 for the third brick church. Over the years it fell into disrepair, was restored in the 1960’s by private interests and hung in St. Charles City Hall for 30 years. It now has its place of prominence in the restored church.
Stations of the Cross: Present in the church since the re-building of 1917, they were given a facelift with the muted tones now softly enhancing each piece.
The candlesticks were donated to the church by the Archdiocese of Chicago. The angels now on display in the sanctuary were given to the parish by St. Ann’s Shrine in St. Louis when that parish closed, as was The Last Supper scene, placed near the baptismal font.
The pillars: As part of the 1991 renovation, many layers of paint were removed from the supporting pillars, uncovering this lovely finish called “scagliola,” a process done to plaster to imitate marble. The colors of the pillars set the tone for the pallet of color used in the church interior you see today.
During the 1991 renovation, several new items found their way into our beautiful worship space as well:
The San Damiano Cross: Modeled after a 12th century iconographic cross now hanging in Assisi, Italy, ours is an original, hand-carved work of art with the Corpus in three dimension to add depth to the figure of Jesus. He is depicted not as a corpse, but of God Himself, radiating the hope of the Resurrection. Above his head is a portrayal of the Ascension: Jesus emerging from a red circle, holding a golden cross. A host of angels welcome Him into heaven, while at the very top is the right hand of God the Father extended in benediction. Angels also appear on both sides of the crossbar.
On Jesus’s left stands the Blessed Mother and St. John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” To the right stands Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas, and the Centurion whose son was healed by Jesus. The smaller figures in the lower right- and left-hand corners are the Roman soldier Longinus, holding the lance that pierced the Savior’s side, and the Jewish temple guard Stephaton, holding a stick with vinegar-soaked sponge. They invite us to stand with Jesus and in His suffering, dying and rising.
Near the border of the Cross on the right, just below the level of Jesus’s knees, you will see a small rooster, recalling the words of Jesus to Peter, “before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”
The statue of St. Philippine Duchesne: It honors the saintly French nun who humbly came to serve the people of St. Charles in the early 1800’s. Her remains now rest in the Shrine directly across Fourth Street from our parish grounds.
Statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe: Rich in symbolism, this hand-carved piece was installed in the church in May 2006 as a reminder that our Blessed Mother, under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is the Patroness of the Americas, as well as the Patroness of the Pro-Life cause. She holds a place of honor as well for our Latino members. The golden light surrounding the Lady is reminiscent of the “woman clothed with the sun” of Rev. 12:1, who has the “moon under her feet.” The angel supporting the Lady testifies to her royalty. The blue-green color of her mantle also represents royalty, while the stars tell us that she comes from heaven. The brooch under her neck is a symbol of sanctity. The bow around her waist indicated not only her virginity, but it’s placement high above her slightly swollen abdomen show that the Lady is “with child,” further identifying her with the woman of Rev. 12 who is about to gift birth.
The Pipe Organ in our choir loft had served many years, having been installed after the completion of the 1917 rebuild. Over the years, various mechanisms began failing, as did the leather moving parts. In the late 1990’s the organ had a major renovation, including new chest work, digital pipes, and a micro-processing system.. To celebrate our renovated organ, the parish had a Rededication Concert in September 1998, filling the church with its magnificent new voice.