Supporters of the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in Florissant are trying to raise $400,000 to repair the nearly 200-year-old complex, which includes some of the oldest Roman Catholic buildings in the Louisiana Purchase Territory.
Age and weather have taken a heavy toll on the shrine's church, convent, rectory and school building, according to Geri Debo, secretary/treasurer of the Friends of Old St. Ferdinand Shrine. The nonprofit formed in 1959 to care for the historic brick structures after the Archdiocese of St. Louis replaced them with new parish buildings.
New windows and tuck-pointing top the list of critical repairs needed to stop moisture that is damaging the walls of the buildings.
The group raises funds for daily operations through membership dues, tours and renting the facilities for special events, including weddings and funerals. But because the cost of repairs far exceeds the shrine’s budget, the group has started a gofundme campaign to spread the word.
“It is terribly expensive,’’ Debo said. “We didn’t know what to do anymore.’’
The group has also sent information to longtime supporters of the shrine.
“So far, the response has been very good,’’ she added.
The complex, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a local historical treasure, Debo noted.
Old St. Ferdinand played an important role in the development of the area, serving as a parish for early French and Spanish settlers who farmed in the Valley of Florissant.
“As the community grew, the parish grew,’’ Debo said.
The church is believed to be the oldest Catholic Church west of the Mississippi in the upper Louisiana Purchase Territory. The oldest part of the structure was built in 1821, just 17 years after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off to explore the western frontier. The church pre-dates the Old Cathedral on the St. Louis riverfront by 10 years. The brick structure replaced a log church on the site; the bell tower and steeple were added in 1883.
The oldest of the shrine structures is the convent, which was built in 1819 for Rose Philippine Duchesne, the French nun who was canonized as a saint in 1988. She moved to the Florissant settlement a year after her
arrival in St. Charles, where she started the first free school for girls, west of the Mississippi. She lived in the convent at Old St. Ferdinand from 1819 to 1827 and again from 1834 to 1840.
The convent, built two years before Missouri became a state, still has many of its original furnishings, a fact that Debo likes to point out to visitors.
“A saint lived here,’’ Debo said. “That is really very special. She walked the floors and slept here and did all of those things. Besides its historical value, it has a real religious significance.”
The group has raised enough money to begin window repair.
"We have so many issues that need to be addressed," Debo said. "Our windows are falling out. And they're rotted. Well, after 200 years, it's amazing that they have been here since then.''
The fundraising campaign would also pay for tuck-pointing and sealing of the brick exteriors, rebuilding wooden porches on the rectory and convent, and fixing ongoing moisture problems associated with a sump pump, Debo said.
The group will then focus on repairing the wooden ceiling of the church, which will be a massive undertaking.
Debo, a retired high school history teacher, volunteers her time, as do all of the members of the nonprofit.
“It gets in your blood,’’ she said. “It’s a tremendous commitment. I don’t like to use the word love — it’s just a part of your being. And you are complete because you are here.’’