Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 1, 2003
St. Ambrose still rules
Little Italy turns to its heritage in this terra cotta church.
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
St. Louis, Mo.
Street banners stating simply "The Hill," Italian flags, pasta restaurants and even bocce courts might cause visitors to wonder if they've been transported overseas. But as all St. Louisans know, these all reinforce the districts claim to the sub-title of Little Italy. It's a mixed residential/commercial area, much like city neighbourhoods once were, where many still work close to home.
And planted prominently in the centre is the people's beloved parish church, St. Ambrose. For generations, people of Italian ancestry have come from other districts to attend weekend Masses here, but now, only one a month is said in the old tongue. Another indicator of changing times finds the elegant church open only during Mass times.
As early as 1903, people of Italian origin built a frame church on The Hill, dedicating it to Milanese bishop and doctor of the Church, St. Ambrose. Within four years it had its own resident pastor and an adjacent parochial school. Disaster that befell the parish in 1921 when fire destroyed their church served as the impetus to begin rebuilding just four years later. The result, an impressive red brick and terra cotta edifice of Lombard Romanesque style was patterned after Sant' Ambrogio Church in Milan.
And the parish patron? Books have been written on the life of this pre-eminent early bishop and his complex life in the fading, often war-torn Roman Empire. A lawyer and governor of the area around Milan, he underwent a dramatic change when he was forced to accept the bishopric of the city in 374. He was then baptized, studied Christian doctrine, was ordained and re-consecrated as a bishop.
Assuming a regimen of simplicity and fasting, always accessible to his flock, Ambrose wrote extensively on religious topics between intrigues involving the imperial leaders of the times. One of his noteworthy achievements was the baptizing of St. Augustine in 387.
A life-size sculpture of a couple with a baby greets visitors to the St. Louis Church. Entitled The Italian Immigrants, it's a poignant reminder of the origins of the parish.
Touring St. Ambrose can be a problem since other than Mass, the church is locked. But it's sometimes possible to make a hurried weekday visit between funerals. Sometimes three per day, their frequency is a commentary on the parish's aging population.
The huge central nave dwarfs a few early arrivals for a funeral. It, and two flanking subsidiary naves, separated by Roman arches, are topped by high, barrel-vault ceilings. Focal point of the church, the main altar fronts a simple, pillared baldachino that contains a large crucifix. The sanctuary is flanked by side-nave altars dedicated to Our Lady and St. Joseph.
Beloved Sant'Ambrogio doesn't occupy a place of honour here, his statue being the farthest back from the altar of two rows of six saints each that line outer side-nave walls. But even in the dim light of the church, he's resplendent in his red bishop's robes.
His church fosters an active Christian community and is the traditional cultural hub of The Hill. A parish festa in October and other annual events are well attended, as are the two daily Masses and four Eucharistic celebrations on weekends. And after Mass there are multitudes of eating places nearby - Amighettis, almost next door for example, all with their own pasta specialties (check the parish bulletin for "On the Hill" advertisements!). Bystanders are welcome at bocce courts near the church.
St. Ambrose Church is in south-central St. Louis, close to the famed Missouri Botanical Garden, just off Interstate highway 44.