[Today my church, Saint John Nepomuk Chapel in Saint Louis, MO celebrates the 160th anniversary of the first mass celebrated here. This is my homily for today. It’s intended for our community, but you may find some of it interesting. Enjoy!]
Let’s pretend for a minute that we’re Bohemian immigrants. The year is 1850. After a very long trip across the Atlantic Ocean we arrive in New Orleans. After another long trip up the Mississippi we arrive in Saint Louis. Remember, we don’t speak English and Saint Louis is a French, Spanish, and English speaking city.
Lucky for us, we’ve found our way to a Bohemian settlement south of the city called Bohemian Hill. We weren’t allowed to settle in Saint Louis proper because the city was having a cholera epidemic and a lot of the locals thought that the immigrants were bringing the disease with them.
But, it could have worse. In 1854, the year our parish was founded, Saint Louis was the site of anti-Irish riots. We may have been immigrants, but at least we weren’t Irish.
Saint Louis was in the midst of an economic boom after the invention of the steamboat. Hundreds of ships docked at our port. A lot of our fellow immigrants found work loading and unloading the ships. Others, including women and children found work in the factories in the area.
In 1850, Blessed Pius IX was pope. Peter Richard Kenrick was Archbishop of Saint Louis, and Millard Fillmore was president of the United States. To put the time frame in a little better perspective, it would be just 15 years before Civil War broke out in the United States, 23 years before Eads Bridge was built. It was 33 years before the first horseless carriage arrived in Saint Louis, and 34 years before the opening of Union Station.
Every Bohemian who settled in Saint Louis was not Catholic. But the ones who were soon got tired of going to mass in a Church where they didn’t speak the language. So, in 1854 they petitioned Archbishop Kenrick, an Irishman by the way, for their own church. The Archbishop agreed and the new parish of Saint John Nepomuk was established.
A year later, in 1855, the new parish built it’s first church and school, a wooden structure that stood on this very spot. It’s worth mentioning that in 19th century Europe, there was no such thing as “separation of church and state.” Churches were not self-funded. They were supported by the government or by rich land owners. There were no collections. When the local parish needed something, all they had to do was ask. The 1st pastor, Father Lipovsky, was born of European aristocracy and the idea of begging for money for his new parish was not to his liking. He resigned in 1856.
The second pastor, Father Francis Trojan lasted a little longer, until 1864. When he left the parishioners of Saint John’s requested a native Bohemian to be their pastor and Father (later Monsignor) Joseph Hessoun was appointed. Unfortunately, he had to travel from the Old Country to Saint Louis and the blockade of the Mississippi River during the Civil War made travel up the river impossible. Father Hessoun didn’t arrive in Saint Louis until 1870. No masses were celebrated here during that time.
A history of Saint John Nepomuk during Monsignor Hessoun’s pastorship would take much more time than I have today. I’ll just say that he built a new brick church in 1870 that was destroyed just 26 years later by the tornado of 1896. He led the parishioners in rebuilding the church bigger and better than it was before in 1897.
Monsignor Hessoun played a huge part in the spread of Bohemian Catholicism throughout the Midwest. He traveled to Czech communities and helped them establish their own churches. He is widely considered the “apostle to American Czechs”. In his spare time he also established and edited the first Czech/American newspaper in the United States. It was called “Hlas” which means “voice” and was published at the corner of 11th and Carroll.
This church has seen 12 popes, 8 bishops, and 31 presidents, pastors, 23 associate pastors, and two deacon directors. We’ve survived the Civil War, two world wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam war, the cold war, two gulf wars and the conflict in Afghanistan. We’ve survived a tornado, two interstate highways, urban flight and a massive closing or parishes in the last decades.
What is it about this place that makes it so durable? Why is it still open? Maybe we should look at today’s readings for the answer. Luke writes in the Acts of the Apostles, “they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” This is an excellent description of those early founders of our church. They built this place because they wanted to worship together, in their own language, according to their own customs. They let nothing stand in their way.
Or maybe we should look at what Saint Peter said in the second reading. “In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable, even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, honor, and the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Tested by fire. Imagine how the parishioners of Saint John Nepomuk must have felt when they came down here the morning after that terrible tornado and saw what had happened to the beautiful church that they had built with their own hands, at a such a great sacrifice of time, talent, and treasure, just 26 years before. They must have been devastated. But there were plenty of Catholic churches nearby, they could have just moved on. But, they didn’t. Their response was to rebuild their beautiful church, bigger and better than ever.
Finally, look at the Gospel, the story of “doubting Thomas”. He refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he put his finger in the nail marks of His hands and put his hand into His side. Thomas, the doubter. What did Jesus say? “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” For 160 years, in spite of so many challenges, the members of this community have believed.
Today is Divine Mercy Sunday. That’s what it’s all about. God’s Divine Mercy. Just imagine if God was strictly fair. What if He was just with no mercy. You and I would be out of luck. None of us deserves to go to heaven. There’s nothing that you and I could do that would get us into paradise. We’re sinners! That’s what we are. There would be no hope for us without God’s Divine Mercy. He loves us. He wants us to be with Him. But we constantly disappoint Him. We just can’t measure up. But our God is a merciful God. That’s our faith. That’s our hope. That’s our salvation. Thanks be to God! He has shown His Divine Mercy to the members of Saint John’s in spite of all the challenges we’ve faced.
One reason I believe we’ve been so blessed and have been on the receiving end of God’s mercy is our devotion to the Infant of Prague. After every single mass we pray to the Infant, promising Him the fruits of our labors. We pray, “OH DEIGN IN THY MERCY THIS FAVOR IMPART!” That’s what we pray for. His mercy. Especially on this Divine Mercy Sunday.
I can’t sit down without mentioning that today is a very special day in the life of the Universal Church. Today Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II will be canonized in Rome. What a blessing it is to have witnessed the lives of these two great saints firsthand. John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council which changed the Church forever and John Paul II was such a good and holy man that he’s set a modern record for the time it took him to be recognized as a saint.
Many of us had the chance to see John Paul in person when he was in Saint Louis. It was a life changing experience. We’re known as a church that venerates our saints. Now we have two more.
So, as we continue with mass today, let us give thanks to the thousands of people who have gone before us from this holy place. Let us emulate them in our faith and perseverance as we move into our second 160 years. And, let us continue to ask God for His Divine Mercy, especially in our devotion to the Holy Infant.
Finally, Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, pray for us. Amen.
Filed under: Current Events, faith, Life, Prayer, Sacraments, Saints | Tagged: Bohemioan Immigrants, Czech Immigrants, Monsignor Joseph Hessoun, Peter Richard Kenrick, saint john nepomuk, Saint John Paul II, Saint John XXIII | Leave a comment »