Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 27, 2003
St. Charles laboured in reform
Medieval clergyman defied Milan officials to feed the poor
St. Charles Borromeo -- Feast Day -- November 4
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
St. Charles, Mo.
Applause erupted from the crowd on a Thursday morning last month as religious and civil dignitaries presided at the unveiling of a larger-than-life statue of a medieval clergyman on the grounds of the St. Charles County Courthouse. This effigy of St. Charles Borromeo was an addition to the many monuments that celebrate the heritage of St. Charles, Mo., the historic gateway to the West.
Who was this 16th century bishop and why is he honoured here? The answer is found in the annals of early settlement and introduction of the Catholic faith into the Mississippi Valley. One of the pioneers, trapper and hunter Louis Blanchette, left his home at Lauzon near Quebec City to find a new place in what was then French Louisiana.
Impressed by what he saw, he founded the tiny settlement of Les Petites Cotes (the little hills) near the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. His inheritance took the form of numerous descendants and his image in statuary in several St. Charles city parks.
By the year 1791 the area, now under Spanish control, saw the population of the town outgrow the tiny log church built 22 years earlier by Louis and his neighbours. The solution was a larger house of God dedicated by Lt. Gov. Don Manuel De Perez to San Carlos Borromeo, namesake of Spain's reigning monarch, Charles IV.
Charles Borromeo was born into wealth and privilege and enjoyed close connections with the Vatican where he was deeply involved in the Council of Trent. But despite his background, this humble and prayerful man spent his life in Church reform and the promotion of catechism. In later years, in addition to organizing many seminars and councils, he was active in aiding the poor and especially working to feed people during a serious plague and famine in Milan, often in conflict with the aims of officials.
The last of a succession of churches here, the present St. Charles Borromeo, dedicated in 1917, replaced the church destroyed by a tornado two years earlier. It's at the corner of the French Town historic district a few blocks from the Missouri River. The two-towered brick and stone Romanesque edifice is the centre of an active faith community. Masses are said twice daily with six celebrated on weekends. Popular is the Sunday evening Spanish-language Mass, an indication of demographic shifts in the city.
Visitors might be fortunate enough to gain access to the church between Mass times with historian Father Urban Knoll. And he'll point out that there's a lot to be absorbed in the cavernous, round-vaulted interior of this monument to the faith and perseverance of St. Charlesons. Remarkable clerestory stained glass windows by famed artist Emil Frei compete for attention with a rare, much-prized original painting of the saint, a gift to the parish from King Charles IV himself.
The new statue in downtown St. Charles is the work of Utah artist Blair Buswell, noted for his life-like, accurate and detailed portrayals of the grace and power of the human form. This statue is no exception and the saint seems almost ready to engage in conversation with passersby.
Visitors to St. Charles Borromeo Church are immediately made aware of other nearby religious sites, the shrine and tomb of much beloved St. Phillipine Duchesne for example, often filled with smartly-uniformed students from adjacent prestigious Sacred Heart Academy.
And this city of 60,000 is rife with memorabilia relating to the development of the great interior lands of the upper Missouri River, from early indigenous populations to the excursion of discovery of Lewis and Clark.