Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 4, 2004
Church honours Francis Borgia
Death of his wife turned his heart to lead a spiritual life
St. Francis Borgia - - October 10
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
High on a hill overlooking the great Missouri River, St. Francis Borgia Church dominates the skyline in historic Washington, Mo., and provides a strikingly visible symbol of the faith of the communities pioneers.
The impressive church honours a 16th century superior general of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), a scion of the infamous Borgia family. Francis, Spanish duke of Gandia and great grandson of Pope Alexander VI, lived a life of luxury and ease on his estate near Valencia.
At 40, he is said to have experienced a change of heart after viewing the decayed corpse of once beautiful Queen Isabella. Shortly after losing his wife, the father of eight decided to forego earthly things, disposed of his estate and in 1550 was welcomed into the Jesuit order by founder Ignatius of Loyola himself.
Within 20 years Francis was leading the society. Devoting himself to preaching in Spain and Portugal, he also established missions in Poland and the New World. His popularity sometimes caused him to be called the second founder of the order. Canonized in 1671, he is a patron of Portugal and is invoked for protection from earthquakes.
The site of Washington, west of St. Louis on the south bank of the Missouri River in Franklin County, was noted by the Lewis and Clark expedition, whose members camped across the river in May 1804 en route to the Pacific Ocean.
They reported the existence nearby of a "poor" French (that is, Canadian) village of seven houses. Twenty nine years later, 12 Catholic families newly arrived from Germany, travelled up the great western river in search of a place to begin their life afresh in the new world.
Fifty miles into their voyage, they inadvertently landed on the river shore at a small 13 year-old settlement that would eventually become the city of Washington. Within a year, the new arrivals had established a parish and for a while were visited by Jesuit and secular priests from St. Louis who celebrated Mass in a small log chapel.
The present church opened in 1869 and replaced another brick structure that had been dedicated to St. Francis Borgia on his feast day in 1846.
After 1894, devoted Jesuit pastors were succeeded by similarly dedicated Franciscans. Since 1990, the parish has been administered by secular clergy, most recently by dynamic Father Jack Costello.
Spired bell tower
St. Francis Church, with its colourful brick walls, Romanesque round-headed windows and soaring spired bell tower, was renovated in 1987.
Today, the Angelus is rung by three large bells, connected to the tower clock and operated electronically.
A visit to the busy parish office behind the church might result in a guided tour of the elaborate old wood-panelled rectory and the church itself. In the nave, a dramatic barrel-vault ceiling and round arches fit the church's Roman style.
Redecoration of the buildings interior by many pastors has left little remaining of the original d‚cor, except for a huge painting of God the Father that fills the half dome above the altar.
The original stained glass windows remain unaltered. The church's prize, these 1905 creations of the renowned Emil Frei Art Company of St. Louis feature portrayals of, for example, the Presentation of Mary and the Annunciation.
An important element in the St. Louis Archdiocese, this parish enjoys an all time high of volunteerism.
In addition to five weekend Masses and the usual pastoral activities, it prides itself on a successful food pantry, seniors' meals, home visits and an acclaimed spring fest.