Basilica of St. Louis

Posted on December 4, 2011


On this Second Sunday of Advent I thought I’d feature the Basilica of St. Louis and the story of watchful waiting by a western Indian tribe in the first half of the 19th century.

A delegation of four Indians from a tribe west of the Rocky Mountains came to St. Louis in the Fall of 1831 seeking a “Black Robe” to come and teach them the Catholic faith. Two of the four died in St. Louis due to sudden illness, one died on the journey back home. Only one of the braves returned to his people.

Over the course of the next 9 years, a total of four Indian delegations traveled to St. Louis requesting a “Black Robe.” The last group, represented by Iroquois who lived among the Flatheads and Nez Percês, was successful.

In 1840, Peter DeSmet was assigned to be a missionary “Black Robe” to the Flatheads and other Indian tribes in the Northwest. He covered an estimated 180,000 miles in his travels throughout the western United States until his death in 1873. More details about Peter DeSmet’s missionary work are available in this biography.

A wooden structure was constructed on the site of what is today known as the Basilica of Saint Louis on June 24, 1770. The cornerstorne for the present church was placed on August 1, 1831, the same year the Indians arrived from the Rockies. The church was ultimately consecrated on October 26, 1834 and designated as a Basilica by Pope John XXIII on January 25, 1861.

The story about the Indians seeking a Black Robe is paraphrased from this account I found on the wall in the vestibule of the church, with a bit more detail from this biographical entry on Peter DeSmet.

The Sunday Sign is a weekly feature of The Ben Franklin Follies.

Posted in: History, Religion