An in-depth and well done article on St. Francis de Sales Oratory, the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest apostolate in St. Louis. The photo at right was taken by Mark Kempf. The full story from the Review is below:
St. Francis Oratory goals: Save souls, straighten tower
by Barbara Watkins, Review Staff Writer
Since its beginning in 1867, St. Francis de Sales Parish has provided a spiritual home for thousands of St. Louis Catholics who attended its schools and prayed in the striking Gothic church known as the “Cathedral of South St. Louis.”
Now that almost-100-year-old church — a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places and highlight of this year’s St. Louis Landmarks Association Preservation Week — is badly in need of repairs that will exceed $1 million.
“We have to repair the steeple. It has structural problems and must be fixed,” said Father Karl W. Lenhardt, rector of St. Francis de Sales Oratory, since 2005 the center for celebration of the Tridentine Latin Mass. The oratory is administered by the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, the society of apostolic life to which Father Lenhardt belongs.
To stabilize the steeple — which is pulling away from the church building because of inadequate foundation support — will cost between $1 million and $1.5 million. Help is being sought from the entire Catholic community, especially the many people with ties — past and present — to St. Francis de Sales.
“Our first goal is saving souls, but we must repair the building,” said Father Lenhardt.
About 800 people a week attend the Latin Masses at St. Francis de Sales, Father Lenhardt said. “St. Francis de Sales has not just a past, but a future,” he said. But first the building must be repaired.
“We call the steeple the ‘Leaning Tower of St. Louis,’” Father Lenhardt said.
He explained that St. Francis de Sales Parish built its second church despite many difficulties, including the 1896 tornado that killed more than 300 people.
“That tornado destroyed the original church. They had already started the new church when the tornado hit, and they used the new basement as a church for 12 years, until the new church was ready,” Father Lenhardt said.
“They didn’t have enough money for the 350-foot steeple originally planned, so they built the 300-foot steeple. The foundation of the steeple is not deeper than the foundation of the church. It’s not connected to bedrock. And that’s the problem. That’s why the tower is twisting now.”
There is no immediate danger that the tower will collapse, Father Lenhardt said.
“But it affects the rest of the building. It allows water to get inside. The longer we wait, the worse the damage gets. The worse water damage, the worse every kind of damage.”
He called his parishioners very generous to St. Francis de Sales. “We get very good weekly collections. But we must meet the ordinary expenses. The utilities are very high, heating the church is very expense. We have insurance costs for the whole property,” which includes the rectory, convent, high school, elementary school and the gym.
Some of the buildings are currently being used by other groups. “We have to heat the buildings anyway, so we’re happy to have people in them,” Father Lenhardt said.
The oratory has already spent more than $100,000 on preliminary studies by architects and engineers under the supervision of the archdiocesan Office of Building and Real Estate.
“We were able to fund that by donations,” Father Lenhardt said.
In addition to the steeple repairs, which could cost as much as $1.5 million, the oratory needs many other, less immediate repairs, Father Lenhardt said. “It will cost $60,000 to restore the four bells and the clock in the bell tower.”
The many stained-glass windows — the work of the renowned Emil Frei — have not been cleaned in 40 years. Some windows also need repairs on their terra cotta frames. The organ has not been restored since 1964 and is being used at about “half its potential.”
This month repairs are being made from storm damage done last summer to the roof tiles.
The ornate style of the church includes statues and frescoes, arches and stained glass, intricate patterns and gold-leaf accents — virtually all in need of at least a cleaning. The rector pointed to the walls of the historic church, painted gray in the 1960s, that he would like some day to see restored to their original bright colors.
The floor needs repair, the electric system needs upgrading and, he added, “that’s not even talking about heating and cooling.”
But the structural repairs to the steeple remain the most urgent need. “We are trying to get the word out about the oratory,” Father Lenhardt said.
The oratory is conducting a fund-raising initiative called “Save the Cathedral of South St. Louis.” Father Lenhardt said he hopes former parishioners and alumni of St. Francis de Sales respond to help restore the historic church building.
The oratory’s parishioners have been raising money for the repairs. The Knights of Columbus raised $6,000 (before expenses) through a recent barbecue. And the parish children have been busy as well. The Restoration Children’s Theater, a group of primarily home-school children belonging to St. Francis de Sales families, put on two performances of “The Hobbit” last month, raising more than $2,000 for the building restoration fund.
In his May 11 talk at the St. Louis Landmarks Association Preservation Week opening event at St. Francis de Sales, Father Lenhardt said, “It is evident that for this most urgent project we need all the help we can get.”
The Gothic beauty of St. Francis de Sales Church was created to house the celebration of the traditional Tridentine Latin Mass, Father Lenhardt told the Review.
“We are here to keep something alive that is an integral part of our Catholic heritage, the Latin Liturgy. The idea of the oratory is that it has no geographic boundaries. We are not in competition with parishes.
We are here to provide something additional and help strengthen the diocese,” he said.
St. Francis de Sales, as the setting for the “precious gem” that is the Latin Liturgy, should reflect its beauty and holiness, Father Lenhardt said.
To donate to the “Save the Cathedral of South St. Louis” initiative or for more information on St. Francis de Sales Oratory, call (314) 771-3100 or access http://www.institute-christ-king.org/stlouis2. Contributions can be mailed to St. Francis de Sales Oratory, 2653 Ohio Ave., St. Louis, MO 63118.