The Unique History of St. Louis’ First Church

When you visit Gateway Arch National Park, you may not expect to see a Catholic Church perched on the edge of the Arch grounds.  Nor is just any church – it’s the first cathedral west of the Mississippi River.

Depiction of the original log church c. 1770

This handsome stone building is formally known as the Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, but St. Louisans refer to it as simply the Old Cathedral.  In 1764, St. Louis was established as a French fur trading post. Since then, the city has fallen under the control of three different countries (France, Spain, and the United States) and the church served a wide variety of purposes. One thing, however, has remained the same since 1770: the ownership of the land where the Old Cathedral sits. Although the building has been changed several times, for the last 253 years the property has been home to a Catholic church.

Old Cathedral c. 1834. Credit: Missouri Historical Society

Beginning as a simple log building, the Catholic church was the only house of worship in the area of any denomination until the early 1800s. Over the years, it was renovated and expanded, until construction of the “new” cathedral began in 1831. As the social hub of the region, the church played host to many significant people and stood witness to a number of historic events. Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea, was baptized at the church, as were explorer William Clark’s children. The church survived war, cholera, fire, influenza, tornados, and many other tragedies that befell the St. Louis region.

Old Cathedral c. 1965. Credit: Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France

Because of its historical significance, Pope John XXIII designated the Old Cathedral as “The Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France” in 1961. However, at that time, the building was in disrepair, and much of the riverfront had been cleared to make room for the future Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (now Gateway Arch National Park). The cathedral was one of only two buildings on the future park grounds that was spared from demolition (the other being the Old Courthouse). The archbishop of St. Louis, Cardinal Joseph Ritter, decided to keep the designation a secret when he launched a restoration project of the Old Cathedral. The news of its elevated title was not announced until the project was completed in 1963, right before the St. Louis Bicentennial in 1964 and the completion of the Arch in 1965.

Credit: Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France

Now, the Old Cathedral stands next to the Gateway Arch as a testament to the beginnings of the Village of St. Louis and how far our city has come.  It invites visitors to attend Mass and offers free tours on the first Sunday of each month following the noon Mass.