St. Louis on the Air
6:41 pm
Tue April 22, 2014

Why Is St. Louis Named After A French King Who Was Born 800 Years Ago?

Saint Louis, King of France by el Greco
Saint Louis, King of France by el Greco
Credit via Wikimedia Commons

How did a French king born in 1214 become the namesake of a city founded in the heart of the Americas 550 years later? The answer is woven into the fabric of St. Louis’ identity even now, as we celebrate the 250th anniversary of the city’s founding.

Friday marks the 800th anniversary of the birth of the city’s namesake: Louis IX, the only French king to become a saint.

“He became a saint … largely because he led an extremely pious, very humble life, which is not the kind of thing you usually associate with a king, particularly the kings of France during the Middle Ages, who tended to be either warlords or very powerful men,” said Thomas Madden, professor of medieval history at Saint Louis University.

Louis’ life and death were bookended by the Crusades. He was crowned king in 1226 at the age 12 after his father died in the wars. And in 1270 he himself died while on his second crusade to Jerusalem.

“In the Middle Ages, the state of the Holy Land, and also of Jerusalem, really weighed on everyone’s minds, kings and peasants alike, because for them the state of Jerusalem spoke directly to what God thought of his people,” explained Madden.

Louis’ mother, Blanche of Castile, was herself a devout Catholic and raised Louis to follow her example. According to Madden, she was famous for saying she’d rather see Louis dead than in mortal sin. She served as his regent until he reached adulthood and protected his life from attempts to overtake the throne.

Elizabeth Westhoff, director of marketing and mission awareness for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, also credited Blanche of Castile with instilling Louis IX with a strong faith.

“We have it to owe to his mother, really [that Louis became a saint],” said Westhoff. “She really was an incredible woman for her time and the resulting product was Louis.”

“Even at the end of his life, his last words to his son are beautiful,” she said. “He reminds him in his letters to surround himself with good pious men and to pray every night.”

From French Saint To American Fur Trading Post

No one really knows what motivated Pierre Laclede to name his new settlement St. Louis, but it is important to bear in mind that all of the first settlers were French, said Madden.

“The French would have known St. Louis as well as we know George Washington or Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “This was still before the French Revolution, so they were all subjects of the French Crown.”

While the 18th century is hundreds of years after Madden’s research focus, his personal theory is that Laclede was trying to attract settlers from Fort de Chartres by associating his settlement with an unequivocally French name. Fort de Chartres had recently come under English ownership.

St. Louis And The Catholic Church

Building on its French Catholic origins, St. Louis became a beacon for Catholic immigrants and a center for growth of the Catholic Church in the Midwest, said Westhoff, adding that many of the city’s social institutions, from hospitals to orphanages, were also founded by Catholics.

“It had such a huge Catholic population that as it was developing … the area of St. Louis was referred to as the Rome of the West, and still is today because of the fact that we produced so many bishops — we produced so many other dioceses — 44 in fact, were born out of the diocese of St. Louis,” she said.  

For more on Louis IX, see the post about his artistic legacy and the post listing 10 things about him.

Related Event
Mass for the 800th Anniversary of St. Louis the King’s birth
Friday, April 25, 2014
12:00 p.m.
Mass with Bishop Edward Rice
Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, 4431 Lindell Blvd.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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