Cathedral Basilica, St Louis, MO (Exterior)

Cathedral Basilica of St Louis, St Louis, Missouri, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Cathedral Basilica of St Louis
Location: St Louis, Missouri, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 February 2015, 10:00am

The building

A stunning cruciform design; one of the most striking churches in North America. Known as the New Cathedral, it replaced the Old Cathedral built near the banks of the Mississippi River in the early 20th century. Planning for the New Cathedral began in the 1870s; there was a ground-breaking in 1907, and a dedication in 1914. The actual consecration did not take place until 1926, and the mosaics, which are the most striking feature of the building, were not completed until 1988. The mosaics constitute one of the largest collections in the world; over forty-one million glass pieces (tesserae) were used in their construction, in over seven thousand colors. In the narthex, the mosaics depict aspects of the life of King Louis IX of France, for whom both the city of St Louis and the cathedral are named. Other mosaics are devoted to significant aspects of the life of the city and archdiocese. The baldacchino is especially impressive. In the basement of the cathedral are a gift shop, a mosaic museum, and a crypt where several archbishops of the archdiocese are buried. Guided tours are available each weekday. The cathedral basilica's website has numerous pictures of this building.

The church

This is a large parish, with groups of the Legion of Mary, the St Vincent de Paul Society, a pro-life committee, health and hunger ministries, a young adults group, and the Association of Hebrew Catholics, whose mission is (quoting from their website) "to preserve the identity and heritage of Catholics of Jewish origin." The music program is extensive, including a concert series. There is a parish elementary school (St Louis the King).

The neighborhood

The city of St Louis is located on the banks of the Mississippi River; visitors arriving from the east are greeted by the famous Gateway Arch. The city has several professional sports teams (including their beloved St Louis Cardinals baseball team), as well as internationally-recognized arts organizations (the St Louis Symphony and Opera Theatre of St Louis among them). The Catholic presence in St Louis is strong, with several monasteries and convents, as well as a major Catholic university. The cathedral basilica is located in the city's West End neighborhood, with stately Victorian homes and high end specialty shops. It is near Forest Park, which is home to the St Louis Art Museum, the St Louis Zoo, and the Muny Theater, which presents musical theater productions outdoors during the summer months.

The cast

No names were given in the service leaflet. I assume Horst Buchholz, Mus.D., director of music, was organist and choir director. There was one celebrant who also preached, a deacon, and two lay readers.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

About 40 per cent full, I would guess, in a building that seats perhaps 2000.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher handed me a service leaflet and welcomed me to the cathedral basilica. I mentioned that I had been there once previously, some 20 years ago, and we had a nice conversation.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, quite.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverential, with a few tourists snapping photographs.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The traditional "In the name of the Father," etc.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Ritual Song, a 1996 hardcover hymnal of GIA Publications in Chicago, and the paperback Today's Missal published by Oregon Catholic Press. A service sheet contained all of the music for the service, and texts of the Confiteor and creed, but none of the responses or the readings.

What musical instruments were played?

A large pipe organ. The cathedral's original pipe organ was built in 1915 by George Kilgen & Son of St Louis, whose successor company built hundreds of theatre and church organs throughout the United States, including the gallery organ at St Patrick's Cathedral in New York. The 1915 instrument is now in the basement museum. Kilgen installed a new instrument in 1946, including some ranks from the older instrument. Further refurbishing and restoration was done by the MP Moller firm in 1984 and the Wicks Organ Co. in 1997. Further additions and improvements followed in 2002 and 2010. It is an impressive instrument, quite capable of filling this large space.

Did anything distract you?

The beauty of this space seems to nudge the congregation in the direction of good behavior. The biggest distraction was the way in which worshipers continued to enter the service as late as the second reading.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

A very formal celebration. Deacon was vested in dalmatic; incense was used at the first censing, gospel reading, and the preparation of the gifts. Bells were rung at the Institution narrative. The proper introit and communion antiphons were chanted with psalm verses, the former in Latin, the latter in English. Communion was in both kinds.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – A very effective public speaker, though a bit low key.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He began by noting the contrast between the first reading (Job 7:1-4, 6-7 – life is short and full of misery) and the gospel (Mark 1:29-39 – Jesus as healer and itinerant preacher). He noted that Job is a long book that speaks of accepting suffering in keeping with God's wisdom. When we feel pain, we are like Job. But Jesus heals, both in biblical times and still today. Healing is not always physical – one who is without arms and legs will not suddenly grow limbs after bathing in the fountains at Lourdes – but even such a one will experience healing of spirit and soul.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The space, which is simply overwhelming. And the wonderfully fragrant incense that was used.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

First place here goes to the woman seated behind me. At the sharing of the peace, as there was no one else seated in my pew, I turned back and offered to share the peace. I was greeted with quite a scowl! And the acoustics of this space, alas, make mush of choral singing. The echo delay must be some seven or eight seconds. It tends to inhibit congregational singing, as well, as it becomes difficult to perceive the pulse of a hymn.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

No one spoke to me. But in a congregation of this size, where so many of the worshipers are visitors, this is not surprising.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee and doughnuts were on offer in another building, but as I had a rental car to return and an early afternoon flight to catch, I had to move on.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 – This was a beautiful service, in a beautiful space. Liturgy, music, and preaching were prepared with care. But Materfamilias and I would, I think, find it a bit rarefied for worship on a weekly basis, and seek out a smaller parish church if we moved to St Louis.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Driving from the cathedral basilica to the car rental return - the homilist's mention of Lourdes triggered a memory of Leonard Cohen's hauntingly beautiful "Song of Bernadette," which I sang to myself driving along I-70 (as best I could remember the words). Cohen's composition was the perfect end to a short weekend get-away.

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