With already more than 120 years of existence in the American frontier, the Catholic Church was a pioneer of westward expansion when Missouri became the 24th state to be admitted to the United States of America.
The Church has had a significant impact upon Missouri from the beginnings of its statehood 200 years ago in 1821. It was a time in which the great westward migration was moving at flood tide, starting around 1820, according to the late Jesuit Father William Barnaby Faherty in his history of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, “Dream by the River.”
The Catholic Church contributed much to this exploration by establishing educational institutions, caring for the sick and poor, and evangelizing as they brought the sacraments and knowledge of the faith to many.
There wasn’t anything easy about their work, and the sacrifices of these individuals — many of them consecrated women religious — were many.
In 1828, Bishop Joseph Rosati asked the Sisters of Charity to open a hospital in St. Louis. They came from Maryland to build the first hospital west of the Mississippi River and the first Catholic hospital in the nation. They cared for the sick — including many affected by the cholera epidemic — and operated several schools, an orphanage and a psychiatric hospital.
When St. Rose Philippine Duchesne ventured from France to the New World to establish schools in 1818, the 70-day voyage across the Atlantic was rife with hardships. She ate rock-hard sea biscuits on the voyage, had little money, and didn’t know the culture. Even though she moved to St. Louis at the invitation of Bishop William DuBourg, she was given notice that her community would be on its own to support themselves.
These early pioneers did their work out of love for Christ. It was a time in which women were not always recognized or valued for their contributions. St. Louis was fortunate to have these religious communities that were so foundational in the building up of this area.
The history of Missouri would be incomplete without an acknowledgment of its status as a slave state, and the relocation of Native Americans who inhabited the area prior to the area becoming Missouri Territory and then a state. The lessons learned from these can help guide the Church through future evangelization.
Today, with four dioceses in the state of Missouri, the Church’s contributions to our state continue to grow, and we have learned much. Ultimately, though, it’s Christ who remains our guiding light through these first 200 years of existence. We look forward to seeing what’s in store for the next 200 years with hearts of joyful hope.