Catholics overcame early struggles; missionaries first came to Illinois in 1600s

St. Peter's Cathedal wrecked by 1912 fire.
St. Peter's Cathedal wrecked by 1912 fire.

Beside poverty, hunger, unfriendly natives, foul weather and disease all contributed to early Roman Catholic missionaries' frustration.

The "History of St. Clair County Illinois - 1881" says that the natives were involved with barbarism, polygamy and slavery.

"The fickle savage was easily led astray, the least cause would often induce him to throw away in one moment what the labor of months and years of the priest had been able to build up," the book says.

But the missionaries carried on, organizing churches, riding circuits to Catholics who couldn't come to church and helping build a faith that endures.

Early churches were organized around settlements such as Cahokia in the latter 1600s, and included St. Anne Chapel near Fort des Chartres and Prairie du Rocher in 1721. It later was replaced by St. Joseph in Prairie du Rocher.

The Immaculate Conception Parish, established at Kaskaskia, former capital of Illinois, is still in existence although the original town washed away and Kaskaskia is now an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. It still has the Liberty Bell of the West, rung to celebrate freedom from Great Britain.

From the poor beginnings of a small parish, rose the grandeur of St. Peter's Catholic Cathedral in Belleville. But like many other early churches, St. Peter's had difficulties.

St. Peter's had its beginnings in 1842 with only 13 subscribers to give money. Others contributed labor but still it took a year to get a roof on the new church, which had neither plaster on the walls nor a floor, according to "A History of Belleville - 1881."

The Rev. Joseph Kuenster became St. Peter's first priest but "A Time of Favor" by Betty Burnett says that dissension in the parish caused him to leave. The 1881 book is a little more specific.

"Other troubles began to surround him," it said. "Because he had refused to admit a bad Catholic to stand for godmother at the baptism of an infant, a mob from Centreville waylaid him at a place where now West Belleville is built. They carried him off to Centreville and from there about three miles farther to an old loghouse where they kept him 22 hours without food and water."

A message sent to Belleville brought news of the event and some men from Belleville set out to release him. He was freed but apparently wasn't interested in staying in Belleville much longer.

The history book says that the Rev. G.H. Ostlangenberg came in 1845. He spoke French, German and English so he could pretty much talk to anyone. Though he finished the church, eliminated debt and started a new school in 1847, he didn't last anywhere as long as his achievements.

"Father Ostlangenberg, though beloved by the congregation, remained poor. He was a man of great piety and kindness of heart. Nevertheless he had his enemies. They caused him a great deal of trouble and grief. Broken in heart he left Belleville."

But the parish survived and in 1865 started a grand new building for the church, which would become St. Peter's Cathedral. Unfortunately the brick pillars collapsed and the building had to be started again. It was finished in 1868.

It burned in 1912, leaving only the walls. The cathedral was rebuilt and expanded with an underground crypt. It came in handy when Bishop John Janssen, the first bishop of the new Belleville Diocese, died while the construction was in process.

Belleville once was part of several dioceses in the 1800s, including the Alton Diocese form 1857 to 1887. In that year, Pope Leo XIII created the Belleville Diocese to cover the 28 southernmost counties of Illinois.

The Alton Diocese evenutally became the Springfield Diocese, which still includes Madison County.

There was much growth and many new parishes in the Belleville Diocese, but there also were disagreements. A controversy erupted in 1897 in East St. Louis when Bishop Janssen named a German priest to replace the Irish priest at St. Patrick Church.

In "A Time of Favor," author Betty Burnett wrote, "The people refused to accept him as their pastor. They sent a petition with 3,000 names..." They wanted the current assistant, of Irish descent. Janssen refused.

The congregation showed their displeasure by placing guards around the church and not letting Janssen's men enter. The bishop closed the church, which continued to meet without a pastor.

The bishop issued a letter that excommunicated the people who would not cooperate. The book reports that the next Sunday the church had its largest crowd ever.

The standoff went on for another two years, when the apostolic delegate in Washington, D.C., ordered Janssen to remove the excommunication and give the church a priest of its own nationality.

Later bishops have faced other challenges and have responded to social changes through the years. The church has sponsored many hospitals, schools and an orphanage. Catholic Social Services has become a major contributor to the overall welfare of the region.

The Messenger, the area Catholic newspaper, became a monthly publication in 1908. Today, The Messenger is a bi-weekly publication.

Church leaders had to make adjustments to changes through the years such as movies, automobiles and television.

The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, which opened in 1958 southwest of Belleville, draws more than 1 million visitors a year from nearly every state and more than 20 countries.

Run the the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the shrine offeres visitors an environment where they can step back and take a spiritual breath. In addition, the shrine has a restaurant, a hotel, a gift shp, an assisted living center, an apartment community, playground, gardens, a nature trail, a convention and conference center, and the Guild Center, which houses different exhibits throughout the year.

The church even gained a college when Oliver Parks gave Parks College, an aeronautical college in Cahokia he had founded, to St. Louis University.

The Second Vatican Counsil, a churchwide series of meetings in Rome brought big changes to churches and ceremonies. Masses were said in English rather than the traditional Latin, and altars were moved so priests faced the congregation.

"But to some Catholics, including some priests -- the changes represented an invasion of a scared place," Burnett notes in her book.

Even as Catholics revel in the familiar institutions and rituals of their religion, they remember changes from the past and anticipate changes in the future.

The mid and late 20th century saw the closing of some Catholic high schools and St. Henry's Seminary and the demise of some of the institutions formerly housing nuns, such as the Ursuline Sisters chapter house in Belleville.

Recently Bishop Edward Braxton had to announce changes to Belleville Catholic schools due to declining enrollment.

Some churches now share priests as part of a cluster arrangement, and a couple of new churches were completed last year.

Holy Trinity is the new partish made up of St. Alber the Great and Our Lady of Assumption in Fairview Heights.

St. Clare in O'Fallon also built a new church just south of Interstate 64 in Shiloh.

With the Belleville diocese's 127 parishes spread throughout 28 counties inSsouthern Illinois, there will always be a strong Catholic flavor to the metro-east.