St. Louis - Celtic Cross Monument

Proposed Celtic cross to honor St. Louis' Irish

By Barbara E. Stefáno
Originally published in the West End Word

Descendents of the people whose heritage is moset indelibly stamped upon the River City are seeking to honor the contributions of the Irish in St. Louis and in the Catholic community with a monument at one of the oldest Irish-Catholic parishes in the city, St. John the Apostle and Evangelist Catholic Church.

The monument — a nearly 18-foot-tall, solid granite Celtic cross — will stand just to the west of the downtown church, surrounded by a 14-by-18-foot reflecting pool and a granite wall carved with the names of families and organizations who with to memorialize loved ones or themselves at the monument site.

"I've always dreamt of having some kind of monument in St. Louis to show the contribution of the Irish to the St. Louis region," said attorney Joseph B. McGlynn Jr., Irish general consul of St. Louis, who spearheaded efforts to erect a Celtic cross somewhere in the downtown area. "It was finding the right place and the right time and the right edifice and the whole nine yards."

"St. Louis was the best place for Catholic people — Germans, Irish, Italian, Poles, w hatever they were," explained Rev. William Barnaby Haherty, SJ, author and Irish historian, who provided McGlynn with the historical background needed to choose a location for the monument. "This was as established Catholic city."

It was that heavy Catholic base that drew so many Irishmen to the city, and it was the welcoming embrace of this Midwestern burg that fostered the potential of these newcomers to shape their adopted home. And shape it, they did.

No other nationality — with the possible exception of the Germans — has transformed St. Louis more definitively than the Irish. From Father Timothy Dempsey, who aided the indigent through his charitable endeavors at the long-gone St. Patrick's Church downtown, to St. Louis Globe-Democrat pioneer Joseph McCullagh, to legendary theologian Peter Richard Kenrick, the Irishman known as "the Lion of the West," irish immigrants and their families had immeasurable impact on St. Louis, a city that welcomed these hearty Europeans from the first influxes in the early 19th century.

According to McGlynn and Faherty, both of whom are of Irish descent, St. John the Apostle and Evangelist was the clear choice for the proposed monument's location. The parish was established in 1847; the present church has stood at 15 Plaza Square, at North 16th and Chestnut streets downtown, since its dedication in 1860. In [its] earliest days, the parish was made up almost entirely of Irish immigrants and their descendents.

"There were a few prominent French families, but I'd say the bulk of them were Irish, upper-middle class people who ran businesses and so forth," Faherty said. The makeup of the congregation, as well as the location of the parish, made St. John significant for the committee planning the monument.

"I think that was a natural thing," Faherty said. "Once they decided they were going to have one, they figured it would be nice to have it at a downtown site, and of the downtown churches that were still in existence that have a heavily Irish center, St. John's was the natural choice. ... I suppose you'd say if they were going to choose a place, a downtown church, for it, it would either be St. Patrick's or St. John's, but St. Patrick's is not there any more. St. Michael's is not there, St. Lawrence O'Toole's is gone, St. Francis is not an active parish, even though the building is still there."

St. John also embodies the spirit of westward expansion that drove American settlers in the 1850s and 1860': the parish was the first church west of 11th Street in St. Louis, breaking the tradition of building "fairly close to the river," Faherty said. The significance of crossing 11th Street was that "at last the city was beginning to move west. The city originally tended to move along the river. Previous to that, people were going along the river, north and south. Now, all of a sudden, people began to move west."

Following the lead of the church, developers continued the expansion of the city by building neighborhoods further and further from the Mississippi, and St. Louis grew.

Although several designs were considered for the monument to the St. Louis Irish, the frontrunner from the beginning was the traditional Celtic cross, the distinctively Irish crucifix with the circle at the intersection of the beams.

"The story is that St. Patrick himself had to do with that cross," McGlynn explained. "Before that, the cross was just a cross, but the pagans in Ireland at the time were Druids and they worshipped the sun, so he thought it might be more acceptable to them, to bring them along gradually, to put that circle around her, and that stuck as the official Celtic cross."

McGlynn reviewed countless architects before finally contacting a monument company in Texas that could carve the intricate looping patterns found in traditional Celtic designs, as well as the donors' names that will be etched into numerous 100-pound granite slabs for the 60-foot memorial wall.

When the monument is complete, the cross and reflecting pool and four fountains at its corners will be visible from Market, Chestnut, and Pine streets, serving as a reminder to residents and visitors of the Irish influence.

Those who contribute $350 or more toward the project can have a name carved in the memorial plaques. McGlynn expects 500 donors to come forward to buy a spot on the wall. The entire cost of the wall, pool, Celtic cross and fountains is estimated at $175,000. McGlynn and other committee members are hoping to dedicate the monument by summer.

"The main thing is to get the word out on the street so people can subscribe to this," he said. "People ask things like, 'Well, I have a German name, but my mother was Irish,' but I say put any name you want on [the inscription]. You can put [yourself] on there. I'm putting my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my father, myself, and one of my deceased sisters because I want to memorialize all of them, including myself. People do it different ways. We have priests that are going on there, just saying 'For the ancestors of so-and-so,' I want people to know that their name is there for as long as that wall is there — and that that wall is there as long as the church is there."

Faherty wants people to see the monument and reflect upon "the heritage of the faith. Think about what our ancestors from other countries sacrificed and endured to come over here from their homelands and build a faith, the perseverance of the people who built this place."

"It's going to be impressive, the fact that so many people can remember their parents and grandparents and get the names up," Faherty said. "It'll be something their children can appreciate as time goes on." Rev. John J. Johnson, pastor of St. John church, echoes Faherty's sentiment, adding that "the Irish sewed a lot of seeds for the Christian faith in St. Louis."

For more information about the Celtic cross monument, call Joseph McGlynn at [314] 727-1000 or write him at 222 S. Central Ave., Clayton, MO 63105. Contributions toward the monument can be sent to: Rev. John J. Johnson, St. John the Apostle and Evangelist Catholic Church, 15 Plaza Square, St. Louis, MO 63103.

The Celtic Cross Monument was installed and dedicated on March 13, 2005. Sponsorship opportunities remain; if you would like to have your family name engraved on a granite panel, see the contribution page.