BY GREG JONSSON
Sister Marie of the Love of God inherited a fixer-upper.
The young nun was sent from Italy to St. Louis in September to turn an old convent building at St. Francis de Sales into the American home of her small order, the Adorers of the Royal Heart of Jesus Christ Sovereign Priest.
She found herself in a sprawling old building with a warren of rooms on each of three floors, most of it not fit for human habitation. The challenges it presented would be familiar to anyone who’s rehabbed a historic home in the city: an outdated electrical system, ancient pipes, clanking old radiators, linoleum glued down over beautiful wood floors.
“People ask me if I need help,” said Sister Marie, 31, originally from Paris. “I tell them yes, for 20 years.”
There may be things to do for years to come, but with lots of work by Sister Marie and many volunteers, the convent now has a parlor to welcome guests, a sanitary kitchen, and rooms for nuns and postulants, the candidates thinking about joining the order. Nothing fancy, just clean, simple accommodations. And plenty of room to grow, “if it’s God’s will,” Sister Marie said.
The rest of the cluster of buildings at St. Francis de Sales Oratory have been similarly revived in recent years, bringing a vibrant spiritual and community life back to the former parish church once slated for demolition.
“St. Francis de Sales is the anchor of this neighborhood, and when we revitalize, the whole neighborhood revitalizes,” said Canon Michael K. Wiener, rector of the oratory in Fox Park.
The St. Francis de Sales parish was formed in 1867 to serve a burgeoning German Catholic community. As the parish expanded, plans were put in place for the current church building, begun in the 1890s. Sometimes called the “cathedral of south St. Louis,” the church with its landmark 300-foot tower and Gothic Revival style was based on German examples.
The church, with room for about 1,200 worshippers, was finished in 1908. Various other buildings at St. Francis de Sales — the rectory, Sister Marie’s convent, a gymnasium, several school buildings — date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the local Catholic community was still bustling.
Then, demographics changed.
Like several other Catholic parishes in the city, St. Francis de Sales saw numbers dwindle late in the 20th century, as parishioners moved to the suburbs and were replaced by non-Catholics. By 2004, not quite 100 years after the church was built, the Archdiocese considered closing it.
Economics also played a role: the 300-foot tower that makes St. Francis de Sales a landmark is pulling away from the rest of the building due to an inadequate foundation. The cost to keep the cathedral of south St. Louis from becoming the leaning tower of south St. Louis was estimated at nearly $1 million.
LATIN MASS RETURNS
Instead of tearing down the building, then-Archbishop Raymond Burke decided to turn St. Francis de Sales over to the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, an order dedicated to the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass.
Instead of a neighborhood parish, St. Francis de Sales became an oratory, the place where Catholics could come for celebration of the 1,600-year-old Latin liturgy.
The traditional Mass, thick with pageantry, was largely set aside by the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. It’s longer and more formal than the modern Mass and in a dead language, but some area Catholics want the option. That gave St. Francis de Sales a new lease on life.
Churchgoers still don’t quite pack the pews at St. Francis de Sales. About 1,000 people attend each Sunday, split between two Masses. That means the large church is less than half full many times, but that still represents more people and vibrancy than in its waning years as a parish church.
“What they’ve done by offering the Latin liturgy in the extraordinary form, the way the church celebrated it when I was a little boy, they’ve attracted a fairly significant congregation,” said Archbishop Robert Carlson, who succeeded Burke last year.
That congregation includes Mary Hayworth. She came to the area about five years ago, when her husband, then in the Air Force, was transferred to Scott Air Force Base. Hayworth, of Belleville, read online about the traditional Latin Mass and decided to give it a try.
“Even though we didn’t understand too much, just the beauty of it brought us back,” Hayworth said. “We just kept going back every week. It just seemed like it brought our Catholic faith alive.”
The Hayworths are joined by others who make the drive from even further, sometimes hours away. Some only make it once a month, but still the oratory binds them together.
Hayworth was among volunteers who helped clean up the rectory, a building in such disarray that shovels were used to clear the pigeon droppings from the top floor. In time the wood floors were sanded and restored, bringing a remarkable transformation.
That transformation has extended to other buildings.
A charter school, KIPP Inspire Academy, invested about $1 million in St. Francis de Sales’ former high school building. About 70 students attend the school, which opened last summer. The charter school, not affiliated with the Catholic Church, rents from St. Francis de Sales and plans to add a grade each year until it is a full-sized middle school of about 300 students.
“We have a wonderful partnership with the church, and we’re going to be there long term,” said Jeremy Esposito, school leader and founder of the KIPP charter school here.
Students at the charter school use a church gymnasium building. A day care has gone into another building, which also has room for sewing and catechism classes, choir practice and gatherings for home-schooled students.
“It’s not just a Sunday community,” Wiener said. “People come for many different reasons. Really it’s a very busy place.”
The oratory plans to install new lighting soon, spotlighting the church spire and making it a landmark at night as it is during the day.
‘A GREAT TREASURE’
Wiener said all the work and activity has helped improve the neighborhood. The church doesn’t deserve all the credit, he said, but played an important role simply by choosing to keep St. Francis de Sales open five years ago.
“If there is nobody who takes a risk to stand there without going away, without it making immediate economic sense, if everyone runs away, the neighborhood would fall into decay,” he said.
Still there is much work to be done at St. Francis de Sales. Wiener said repairing the tower may now cost $1.5 million. A nonprofit group has been set up to raise funds for the work, but it has a tough task, especially in a difficult economy.
“It’s a slow go,” Wiener said.
The staff and volunteers are constantly trying to work on short- and long-range plans for the buildings, along with handling the little things that come up with old buildings.
“It’s a little miracle really that we are able to operate here,” he said. “It’s never easy.”
But many, including Carlson, say it is well worth the effort.
“They’re preserving what had begun to fall apart,” the archbishop said. “They’re preserving a great treasure.”
Sister Marie has added a new front as she makes way for more sisters in the future. At first she focused on getting rooms ready for more nuns, but because her order, founded in 2004, is still so small, sisters are in short supply. She expects to take in the first postulants this spring. They’ll get a taste of the life of a Sister Adorer, perhaps study French and Latin, and decide whether to go to Italy to seek their vocation. Four simple rooms, with built-in wardrobes of now-gleaming wood, await them.
In the meantime, Sister Marie is cleaning and polishing and painting.
“There is a lot of possibility,” Sister Marie says of the big building in which she currently lives …. “It can grow with reality. If God wants more, we will find a good solution to welcome more.”