HISTORY OF THE PARISH
St. Charles, an area fertile in the quality of its land, also has produced over two centuries rich in faith. On the banks of the Missouri in 1769, Louis Blanchette and his band of French Canadians built a settlement which soon included a rough log cabin used for Mass and church gatherings by visiting order and secular priests.
On October 13, 1789, the Spanish Lieutenant Governor of Upper Louisiana, Don Manuel Perezs, gave permission to build a permanent church in an area that was titled Les Petites Cotes (village of the Little Hills). A typical French log church with vertical post was built at Jackson and South Main Streets and was dedicated together with the town on November 7, 1791, under the patronage of the saintly Cardinal of Milan, Charles Borromeo, the patron of the Spanish King, Charles.
The first acting pastor, Benedictine friar Dom Pierre Didier, entered the first recorded baptism on July 21, 1792, at the original St. Charles Borromeo church. To the east of this structure on Jackson Street still survives a building originally used as a rectory by resident priests. One 19th century priest gave us insight into the casual frontier Sunday practice of the day, as he write, “the women were practical and pious. The men possessed the faith, although with a few honorable exceptions, the practices of it consisted largely in congregating on Sundays outside the church during Mass to “swap” ponies or river tales, sell their pelts, hear the news and shake hands all around.”
Certainly not to be overlooked in the story of the growth of faith in this area was the arrival of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. St. Rose Philippine Duchesne and three companion Sisters arrived in 1818 from New Orleans in their first attempt to begin an educational system amidst hardships and severe frontier privations with 22 students for the free school and 3 for the boarding school.
With the slow disintegration of the French log church, a second structure was built on North Second and Decatur Streets. The church was constructed of white Burlington stone and adorned in the front with a cornice and four pilasters. It was the only church in the diocese at that time to be plastered. The graveyard from Main and Jackson Streets was moved to the block of Decatur between Fourth and Fifth Streets. The site on Second Street was to become a residence for the Jesuits and the first school for boys. The homes of the priests would, over a period of years, move to a number of different locations. After the residence near the river was sold to the St. Charles Car Company, a residence was on 723 North Third near Franklin. Years later, the rectory was a well-remembered large dwelling on the site of the present rectory at 601 North Fourth Street, and for a time in the house at 709 North Fourth.
In the second stone church, faith was well served by many great figures. Father P.J. Verhaegen, S.J. served three separate pastorates. A great priest, Verhaegen was the president of St. Louis University, a Vicar General of the Order, and a Professor of Moral Theology. It was Verhaegen who buried Mother Philippine Duchesne out of the stately rock church overlooking the Missouri River in 1852. Her remains are now at rest in the Shrine at the Academy of the Sacred Heart.
By 1869 the stone church was simply too small for its congregation, due to the great waves of foreign immigrants settling in the St. Charles area. Most parishioners were of German, French, English, or Irish ancestry. The cornerstone for a new brick church was laid in May of that year, and due to a slow progression of funds, the still incomplete building was consecrated in the fall of 1872. It closely resembled the other Catholic Church in town –St. Peter’s. When the steeple was at last added, the building towered over others in the vicinity.
In 1893 the Sisters of Loretto began to staff the parish school and remained for almost 40 years. On August 30, 1932, the School Sisters of Notre Dame began over 80 years of service to the school.
Certainly the most photographed and talked about occurrence in the history of St. Charles Borromeo happened July 7, 1915, as a wind storm destroyed the main body of the brick church. Damage was extensive, and the current church was rebuilt with strong community support. In a well-attended ceremony on April 16, 1916, Archbishop John Glennon laid the cornerstone of the fourth and existing church.
On the evening of May 6, 1957, the St. Charles parishioners and townspeople held a farewell party for the Jesuit staff composed of the pastor, Fat5her James Fallon, S.J. and his five associates. The Jesuit order had dedicated some of its proudest names to the development of the parish, and certainly many families were sad to see them depart. However, the purpose of their departure from this and other parishes was to release the order to service more in line with their educational and missionary philosophy. A few days later, a diocesan staff, directed by Father Michael P. Owens, began to administer the parish. Father Owens came to Borromeo with a strong chaplaincy background in the military, and an even stronger Irish Catholic faith. With his direction and the generosity of the growing parish, a new institution took shape. First a large new school was constructed in 1958, followed by the transfer of the rectory and construction of a new convent. A new parish center on Fifth Street was built in 1978 and remains a focal point for many activities in the parish. St. Charles County was no longer a quiet Missouri River town with old family names but the largest growing area in the State of Missouri.
In 1989 the parish began the renovation and restoration of the church and on November 7, 1991 Archbishop John L. May, in a solemn and impressive ceremony, re-sanctified the beautifully restored church on the 200th anniversary of the dedication of this historic parish.
Over 200 years ago, St. Charles Borromeo Parish began as a humble log cabin, over time it eventually grew into the parish we now have today. Our parish is more than just a log cabin or the beautiful structure you see today – it is the people who are the life of our church.
We come together as a diverse community to worship. We rejoice together at celebrations and find comfort in our times of grief with our fellow parishioners. Many people give thousands of hours each year in various ministries to bring the Body of Christ to us as a living parish.