On the corner of Gravois and Ohio, amid humble four-families, storefronts and biker bars, looms a monstrous structure of soot-stained buff brick: St. Francis de Sales, one of the most glorious churches in St. Louis. A prime example of Gothic Revival architecture, it's a majestic anomaly in its working-class context, a queen among peasants, a dazzling freak embellished with vast expanses of stained glass, colorful mosaics, pointed arches, ornately carved wood and elaborate statuary. Its history is as fascinating as its façade is beautiful. Although some early accounts indicate that the original plans were inspired by St. Paul's Church in Berlin, most evidence suggests that St. Matthias Church, located just outside Berlin, was the actual model. Whatever the source, construction of St. Francis de Sales was a long ordeal, a testament to the vision and tenacity of St. Louis' German immigrants, who dreamed of bringing the splendor of their fatherland to their modest St. Louis neighborhood.
Although the pastor traveled to Berlin to consult an architect in 1894 and the cornerstone was laid in 1895, construction costs -- initially estimated at a staggering half-million dollars -- seemed prohibitive for a parish composed mainly of laborers and their families. Then, in the spring of 1896, the worst tornado in St. Louis history destroyed the parish's original, much smaller church, along with many neighboring homes -- a disaster that made the prospect of raising the necessary funds seem even more unlikely. Undeterred, parishioners moved into the freshly excavated basement of the future church, put up a temporary roof and held services there until 1908, when the current building was completed (another eight years elapsed before the interior artwork was finished). Although you'd never guess by looking at the church today, a few cost-cutting compromises were made: Instead of the cut-stone structure originally planned, brick and terra cotta were used; instead of two 330-foot steeples, a single 300-foot steeple suffices. The present church might be a little less grand than originally intended, but it's no less lovely; in fact, the use of brick in place of stone makes it seem more native to St. Louis, a unique landmark rather than a slavish European copy.
To appreciate the full effect, you're urged to go inside, of course. Climb a steep flight of stairs at the main entrance (there's an elevator on the side), and push open the heavy oak doors, pausing a moment to admire their gorgeous bronze ornamentation. Give your eyes a second to adjust to the darkness, and you'll find yourself inside a vast Fabergé egg, a fantastic cavern of hallucinatory detail and over-the-top extravagance. Consistent with the Gothic Revival tradition, delicately carved wood largely substitutes for marble, lending a warm, mysterious look to an interior that might otherwise seem cold and formal. The gilded and white-enameled wood reredos in the sanctuary soars 52 feet and hosts a trippy array of statues representing angels, saints and members of the holy family, all lovingly painted in lifelike colors. The vaulted ceiling, 70 feet high, is adorned with an opulent fresco reminiscent of wallpaper designs by William Morris: stylized vines, flowers, bees and butterflies painstakingly rendered in rich jewel tones and gold leaf. One of the most exquisite and unusual features of the church is the glittering baptistry apse, inlaid with a Byzantine mosaic of lapis-blue and gold; it's not quite in keeping with the Gothic theme, but it's so outlandishly pretty that only the most uptight architectural purist would object.
But as resplendent as the building is, it's only part of the reason we're deeming St. Francis de Sales the best church in St. Louis. Perhaps its most remarkable characteristic is that it's a city church on the upswing. Over the past four decades, the city's population has dwindled, forcing many parishes to consolidate as increasing numbers of people abandon their neighborhood churches for new ones closer to their homes out in Sprawlsville. Consequently, attendance at St. Francis de Sales has suffered in recent years, despite the redrawing of parish boundaries and the strategic closing of other area churches. These days, however, thanks to a burgeoning Hispanic population, St. Francis de Sales is thriving, holding one English-language Mass on Sunday mornings and two Spanish-language Masses directly thereafter. The little girls in their puffy white communion dresses, the ancient ladies in their lacy black veils, the reverent men playing acoustic guitars in the choir loft -- these welcome additions to the parish have infused the church with new life, continuing a tradition that began with another generation of immigrants, those stubborn, hard-working, big-dreaming Germans who spent 12 years worshiping in a basement to bring us this architectural treasure.
-- René Spencer Saller