By Bob Baldes
Pope Francis has declared 2021 as the year to honor St. Joseph. Many people may not realize that we have a historically special and beautiful tribute to St. Joseph within a four-hour drive of the Quad Cities. It is the Shrine of St. Joseph at 1220 N. 11th St. in St. Louis, Missouri, which recently celebrated its 175th anniversary. The shrine’s altar became known as “The Altar of Answered Prayers” because of St. Joseph’s intercession during a cholera epidemic in 1866. I would like to share the shrine’s story with you.
In 1844, German immigrants in St. Louis were a growing number and decided to build a modest church to accommodate their congregation. By 1846, they completed their mission and Jesuit priests were serving the parish. The sisters of Notre Dame established a school for the flourishing parish. The number of students in the school was around 1,000.
On March 16, 1864, a spectacular cure took place at the church. Eleven years earlier, in 1853, a German immigrant named Ignatius Strecker and his family found their way to St. Louis. While working in a soap factory, Ignatius injured his chest when it struck a sharp piece of iron. Although the metal did not penetrate his chest, he was in constant pain. Within a few months, his condition worsened and a tumor-like inflammation developed. Following surgery, which proved to be of little benefit, tuberculosis began to develop. At the time, there was no cure for tuberculosis. Leading physicians viewed his condition as hopeless and encouraged the family to prepare for a funeral.
At this time, a Jesuit priest came to the parish to preach a mission about Blessed Peter Claver, who had spent 35 years taking care of slaves. Mrs. Strecker and her children brought Ignatius to the mission. Ignatius was very weak and told his family that he was placing his life in the hands of the Lord.
Part of the mission was to display a relic of Blessed Peter Claver. Ignatius, with the help of his family, made his way to the front of the church and kissed the relic. Immediately he experienced increased strength and returned to his pew unassisted. His chest began to heal and his symptoms disappeared. He returned to his job in the soap factory. His doctors had no explanation for the recovery. They considered the change in his medical condition a miracle. Ignatius lived another 16 years, eventually dying of typhoid fever. His previous medical condition never reappeared.
In 1887, the Vatican, after extensive investigation, declared the healing of Ignatius an authentic miracle and it became one of the two miracles required to declare Blessed Peter Claver a saint. The Vatican formally declared the miracle authentic.
A cholera epidemic broke out in St. Louis in 1866. As many as 25 funerals a day would take place in the parish. The city of St. Louis was experiencing approximately 270 funerals a day. Father Weber, the pastor of St. Joseph’s church, called his parishioners together. He asked them to make a solemn vow to build a fitting monument to St. Joseph if their parish would be spared from more cholera deaths. They were asked to sign a document pledging their agreement. Prayers were answered. It is reported that no one who signed the pledge, or anyone in their immediate family, died from cholera.
The fitting monument they built remains today. The 60-foot high altar was completed in 1866 and accompanying artwork and statuary were gradually added and completed by 1872. The altar became known as “The Altar of Answered Prayers.”
The Shrine of St. Joseph church is located within walking distance of downtown St. Louis. As the neighborhood changed with businesses replacing family homes, the number of people supporting the beautiful church began to decline and the building fell into great disrepair. The church was in danger of being demolished but a small group of families petitioned the archbishop to allow it to continue. He finally agreed to allow the church to stay open but it received no financial support from the archdiocese.
Today, thanks to the work of many people in St. Louis and across the country, the Shrine of St. Joseph has been completely restored. Many weddings are scheduled years in advance because of the church’s beauty. The shrine offers a weekly Mass at 11 a.m. on Sundays, followed by a tour of the church for those interested. Veneration of the St. Peter Claver relic follows the Mass on three of the four Sundays each month. On the second Sunday of each month, the relic of St. Padre Pio is venerated.
To view the Shrine of St. Joseph in St. Louis, visit the website (www.shrineofstjoseph.org) or go to YouTube to search for Shrine of St. Joseph St. Louis. What a great way to celebrate the year of St. Joseph.
(Bob Baldes is a member of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf.)