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Meet the interns: Dale Hart and the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 2, 2013 - After being told to write a piece on "something of interest in St. Louis not previously covered by the Beacon,"I was initially stumped. What to write about? All the primary candidates had been taken: St. Louis Zoo, Forest Park, Cherokee Street. So what next?

Living on the corner of West Pine and Newstead, I'm introduced for a few seconds each morning before work to a magnificent-looking building, tucked away among a huddle of trees directly across the road.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Being a history major, I had the usual barrage of questions; When was it built? Who built it? Why there?

So on this note, I suggested it to the editor who agreed to set me up with ecclesiastical knowledge pot and red-headed firecracker Patricia Rice, a veteran religion reporter who worked at the Post-Dispatch for more than 30 years.

Meeting up at the basilica, I was immediately blown away by both her enthusiasm and the sheer magnificence of the structure before me.

It’s rare to find such an artistic expression of faith, perhaps that's why more than a quarter of a million people visit it every year.

The basilica is home to one of the world’s largest mosaic installations; a stunningly intricate depiction of St. Louis history viewed through a sacramental lens. The approximately 83,000 square feet of art is delicately pieced together with more 41,500,000 individual tesserae in more than 8,000 shades of color.

The idea for the basilica began with Irish-American Cardinal John J. Glennon, head of the St. Louis diocese from 1903 until his death in 1946. Upon the rapid deterioration of industrial and commercial downtown St. Louis, the once proud Cathedral near the river was lost among a crowd of old buildings. It prompted Glennon to announce a promise to “build a temple to the name of the Lord My God.”

Aiming to have a cathedral with the largest seating in the country, Glennon excluded popular Classic, Gothic and Renaissance styles in favor of a combination of Romanesque and Byzantine features.

Construction began in 1907 and more than 40,000 men marched from the east to Lindell and Newstead to witness the laying of the cornerstone, along with a blessing from an apostolic delegate on behalf of Pope Pius X; construction was completed in 1914.

One features of a Byzantine style church is its intricate art or mosaic designs. Sticking to his word, Glennon transfused this idea to the basilica.

The installation of the mosaics began in 1912 and was eventually finished in 1988 by the Ravenna Mosaic Co.

Upon entering the narthex, you're presented with a series of scenes portraying the life of King Louis IX, the patron saint of St. Louis, woven together with the flailing green vines symbolic of Christ.

Three sets of giant oak doors lead the way from the narthex to the historic bay where eyes are immediately drawn to the color and splendor of the mosaics littering the dome’s ceiling. Tesseraed stepping stones pave the way through the history of the St. Louis diocese on each of the four soffits: north, south, east and west.

The mosaics home in on significant figures such as Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, the Belgian born priest who is an important early figure in St. Louis and who became infamous for his role in persuading Sioux Chief Sitting Bull to negotiate with the U.S. government at the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Glennon’s successor, Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter can also be seen, an influential man responsible for breaking down racial barriers within the Catholic Church, involved with the Racial Justice Decree in 1947 and the Religious Liberty Decree of 1965.

Continuing on to the central dome, the craftsmanship of the talented Hueduck family can be appreciated. Paul Hueduck and his son, Arno, are responsible for the creation of the majority of the mosaics in the cathedral; mosaicists translate the artist’s final, watercolor design into the mosaic medium.

The mosaicist traces the artist’s design onto the reverse side of brown paper, which is then cut up into workable sections that will fit on the studio bench. Next, the artist selects the appropriate shades of glass and gold leaf tesserae that will mirror the contours and shades of the artist’s design, chiseling them down until the appropriate sizes are achieved. They are then pasted onto the brown paper sections and applied to wet plaster, where, upon drying, the paper is removed to reveal the mosaic.

The 143 foot-high ceiling, a symbol of the power of God’s love, pictures Ezekiel the Prophet receiving the word of God, the Woman of the Apocalypse and Elias being taken to heaven in his fiery chariot.

The rear of the basilica features the Sanctuary Dome, centered by a remarkable 72 ton baldacchino, flanked on either side by the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and Blessed Virgin’s Chapel.

The Blessed Virgin’s Chapel, alongside its western compatriot the All Saints Chapel, were created by Tiffany Co. of New York, which hired in Italian designers. As a result, mosaics on this half of the basilica were made of colored marble tesserae as opposed to the glass, giving it a duller, less reflective feel.

It was in the Blessed Virgin’s Chapel where Pope John Paul II prayed on his visit to St. Louis in Jan. 25-26, 1999; the pope designated it a basilica in 1997, making it one of around 40 in the whole country.

Downstairs, the basilica features a Mosaic Museum, dedicated to the process and people involved with its artistic construction. The museum also contains other religious artifacts, including a 20th-century Spanish choir book and a crypt containing former leaders of the Archdiocese: Cardinals John J. Glennon, Joseph E. Ritter, and John J. Carberry, as well as Archbishop John L. May.

If you ever find yourself in the Central West End this summer, take the time to appreciate one of the city's finest examples architecture, art and history all for free; you won't be disappointed.

For more information about cathedral tours and mass schedule visit http://cathedralstl.org/

Dale Hart is a Beacon intern. He comes from Kings Lynn, England, via Lindenwood University. He graduated in May. Rather late in college, he discovered journalism because he loves "to put people's stories to ink, and journalism is the perfect career for that."

This is the first July 4th that he has been here, so "I'm hoping I won't be getting strung up and lynched..."

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