St. Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Church recently underwent a facelift that will uphold its nickname for years to come.
The parish rebuilt a section of its trademark white limestone wall surrounding the church, at the corner of Grand and Cook Avenues in north St. Louis, after part of it crumbled several months ago. A fundraising effort seeks to cover the restoration project, which is expected to cost about $250,000.
The problem began when a six-by-six foot section facing the parking lot caved about four months ago, said pastor Father Steve Benden, CSSR. The parish dates back to 1867; however it’s unclear exactly when the wall was built. Historical photos show a limestone wall surrounding the church as far back as the early 1900s.
The mortar binding the limestone blocks was crumbling, and Father Benden described how he easily pulled handfuls of mortar and crumbled limestone with his bare hands. “The inside of the wall was nothing but powder,” he said. “Nothing was holding this together. The wall needed to come down; it was dangerous.”
Another problem was brewing on the other side of the wall: A section facing the street was bowing outward toward the sidewalk. With an emergency situation at hand, a 175-foot section of the wall along Cook Avenue was safely taken down.
The parish hired Wachter Inc., owned by parishioner Mark Kamp, to oversee construction efforts. Since the parish is designated as a city landmark, the wall needed to be rebuilt in compliance with the architectural integrity of the site. To do that, a stem wall made of steel-reinforced concrete blocks was built, with the original limestone laid up against the block walls with masonry ties.
“Over the years, the regular freeze-thaw cycle broke down the mortar,” said Kamp. The original wall was constructed with larger stones filled in with smaller stones and mortar. “If the wall is not maintained and cracks start to form, the weather gets in there and the cycle breaks those materials down,” he added.
While the church and its trademark wall is of historical significance, the parish is much more than that, said Father Benden. “It’s a place of ministry, and it’s much more than the wall,” said Father Benden. “Our church is so big and well-known in the community, and we want to continue to provide to our people. This is ensuring the legacy of the parish, which has been here for 154 years.”
In addition to ongoing church ministries, the parish also has an extensive outreach to the community, including a regular food pantry; participation in the Catholic Racial Justice Collaborative; host site for Grill to Glory, which is part of an effort by the Urban League to deliver resources to families in neighborhoods surrounding churches; and more recently a regular COVID-19 vaccination clinic.
The Redemptorists were invited to St. Louis in 1866 by Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick, and they purchased three-and-a-half acres at Grand and Cook Avenues in north St. Louis. Construction began the following year and the church was officially named for St. Alphonsus, the founder of the Redemptorist congregation.
The construction workers who built the Gothic stone church and the rock wall that surrounds it gave it the nickname, the “Rock” Church. St. Alphonsus Church was dedicated on Aug. 3, 1872. (The parking lot inside of the limestone wall used to be the site of St. Alphonsus Rock High School, which closed in 1973.)
In 2007, the church suffered extensive damage to its roof and ceiling when the church’s middle tower was struck by lightning. About 140 firefighters prevented the five-alarm fire from spreading to the steeple and much of the interior of the church. No one was injured in the blaze.
>> How to help
Donations are needed to help with reconstruction efforts of the limestone wall at St. Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Church. The project is expected to cost about $250,000.
Visit stalphonsusrock.weshareonline.org to make an online donation.