St. Louis Originals: The Churches of the South Side

Categories: Architecture

Photos by Chris Naffziger
The tower of St. Francis de Sales

After my article about north St. Louis churches, many readers contacted me and asked if I could do a follow up focusing on south St. Louis churches. I realized there are dozens of churches that could fit in this space based on just their sheer beauty, but in the end I decided to focus on churches that for the most part are tucked away on relatively quiet back streets, far from the interstates where commuters fly by every day to and from the city. They are neighborhood anchors, giving names to local businesses and nonprofits, and providing a sense of continuity and tradition in many neighborhoods that have seen rapid upheaval in the last twenty years.

While many north-side churches have struggled and closed over the last 50 years, the picture on the south side remains much more positive. Still, many of these churches have had to fight to remain open -- and relevant. Many parishes once boasted congregations of several thousand each; historically everyone who attended a church lived within walking distance, and attending church meant a five-minute stroll to worship. As attendance dwindled, many of the most famous churches saw the specter of closure and demolition in their future. The churches of the south side embody the spirit of the southern half of the city: gritty, downtrodden, proud and resilient. Instead of outright closure, many churches now serve more specialized congregations of immigrants of religious orders, and their futures look bright.

St Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Oratory

St. Francis de Sales on Gravois in Fox Park.

Long nicknamed the "Cathedral of the South Side," St. Francis de Sales remains one of the truly monumental edifices in St. Louis, over 100 years since its dedication in 1908. While it is hardly off the beaten track on busy Gravois, De Sales seems to miss the attention of passing motorists. Next time you're driving by, stop, get out and just look at this amazing church soaring 300 feet above the street. While no longer a parish, it now functions as an oratory featuring the Latin Mass. That giant tower? It's slowly driving itself into the ground and needs major repairs. Go here to help out.

St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church

St. Anthony of Padua on Meramec Street in Dutchtown.

Sitting high on a hill looking out over Dutchtown and visible for miles, St. Anthony of Padua has long dominated the view and life of its corner of south St. Louis. While the parish is much older, the current church, in what I would describe as a modified Romanesque Revival style, has stood on the site for about a century, opening in 1910. The parish has endured through tough times, just as its namesake church has; a devastating fire in 1994 tested the will of its parishioners. But just a couple of years later, the church reopened, restored to its former glory. The Franciscan order in St. Louis also chose to stay in Dutchtown at the church, helping to support the community's rebirth.

Continue on for more glorious churches of the south side.

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St. Anthony's did not fully recover from the fire of '94; many of the murals and some of the stained glass could not be restored.  As one who grew up a block away and attended grade school at StA, I'd also say the demise of the school belies the notion of the church as an anchor.  I'd like to believe that, but it's simply not accurate.  St. Francis de Sales has a very active conservative traditionalist Roman Catholic congregation, with many home-schooled families who attend mass and come from many miles away.  My sister's family is one of them. The church's designation as an oratory by the papacy is considered a privilege select and -- dare I say " above" -- that of the parish, particularly as parishes decline in the City.

Laura Dee
Laura Dee

I remember when I was young, there was a special holiday where the Catholic churches were open all night long for you to come in and say a prayer. My Mom and I would drive around and visit a lot of different churches around St. Louis. I loved the architecture. The older the church, the better. I don't know if it's still a tradition or not, but it was a great way to see the inside of churches without [enduring] mass. We just went in, sat in a pew for a while (to pray) and then quietly walked around to look at things and left. I think so long as people are respectful, they wouldn't mind.

Laura Dee
Laura Dee

Dude, if you're railing against religion, I'm with ya... but don't take it out on the amazing architecture.


Thanks so much for this great work, Mr. N.  

Keith Mccollum
Keith Mccollum

How is that fitting? Because it's the South Siiiiiiiiide?!

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