Restoration efforts at the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in Florissant have been a work in progress since a flood swept through the shrine’s buildings about 15 months ago.
Much of the work at the shrine church and connected buildings are nearing completion, with some public events already scheduled for later this year. Among those are two Masses for the Nov. 18 feast day of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who once called the shrine convent her home. One of those Masses will include the consecration of a new altar for the shrine church.
The shrine was among those hardest hit when heavy rainfall came through the St. Louis area in late July 2022. About three feet of water breached the convent, shrine church and rectory buildings, and about two feet seeped into the school house, according to director Carol Campbell.
Two creeks flank the front and back of the shrine property, and this isn’t the first time the historic property has had damage from flooding, Campbell said. “Even when Mother Duchesne was here, it flooded,” she noted, adding that this was the first time in about 100 years that the buildings had taken on that much water.
The main damage occurred in the shrine church, where a large portion of the wood floors buckled. There also was some damage to the walls, and the HVAC system, which provided climate control in the shrine church, was wiped out.
“The main aisle was the worst,” Campbell said. “We were able to save the majority of the wood. Some of it’s probably 200 years old, and some of it has probably been replaced or restored during other floods.”
How does one restore wood that old? “Slowly and carefully,” Campbell said. The two outside aisles and main aisle were completed first, and then the pews were removed to restore the damaged planks underneath them. Each section had to be taken out, the floor sanded down and then stained.
“It is an art form, because the wood texture itself is going to be very different than wood today,” Campbell said. “It was a very slow and painstaking process.”
While the HVAC system was out of commission, further damage occurred to the wooden high altar, which had cracked at the top. The artwork and statues in the sanctuary and the Stations of the Cross were removed as a precaution, returning to their original places earlier in October, just in time for the shrine’s first wedding since the flood. Several other historic artifacts, including a pew from the 1789 log cabin and pews from the 1821 church, were kept in elevated places and did not sustain damage.
“When you’re looking at a 200-year old building like ours, there’s a lot of saturation and history in those bricks,” Campbell said.
Bob Schumer of Joseph’s Shop, a carpentry, cabinet and remodeling business based in Perryville, built the shrine’s new wooden altar, which was commissioned by Msgr. Mark Ullrich, former shrine rector when he was pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Florissant. The altar will be consecrated at a Rite of Dedication and Mass at 9 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, to be celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Mark S. Rivituso.
The altar measures about five feet wide, three feet deep and three feet tall to accommodate the narrow sanctuary, said Schumer, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Perryville. It will feature gold leaf and marbling, applied by Michele Bowman of Restorations Plus, to complement the details of the existing high altar.
The altar also will contain first-class relics of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne and St. Louis IX, King of France, which Father William Kempf, current Sacred Heart pastor, obtained from the former chapel altar at the St. Rose Philippine Duchesne campus of All Saints Academy after it closed earlier this year.
The act of consecrating an altar is a reminder that it is a sign of Jesus Himself, Bishop Rivituso said. The Rite of Dedication includes a blessing and sprinkling of holy water upon the altar, reminding us of our own consecration to the Lord. Next, it is anointed with sacred chrism oil and incensed as an offering of our prayers to God. Finally, candles are placed at the altar as a sign of Christ’s light to the world.
The rite “shows that this is set apart for what is holy — the sacrifice of Christ on the altar,” Bishop Rivituso said.
>> Feast Day Masses, shrine events
Two Masses for the feast of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne will be celebrated on Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine, 1 Rue St. Francois St. in Florissant. Auxiliary Bishop Rivituso will celebrate a Mass and Rite of Dedication of the new altar at 9 a.m.; and Msgr. Jack Schuler will celebrate a feast day Mass at 7 p.m.
Drawn to a life of religious service, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne led a mission of five nuns to St. Louis in 1818, settling in the frontier town of St. Charles, where she established the Academy of the Sacred Heart, the first free school west of the Mississippi. She later helped open convents, schools and orphanages in Florissant and St. Louis. She lived at the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine from 1819-27 and again from 1834-40.
The shrine will host several other events in the coming months. A Tablescapes fundraiser will be held Nov. 17, 25, 26 and 30 and Dec. 1 and 2. For a $5 admission fee, attendees will view and vote on 15 holiday-inspired decorated tables, and raffle tickets will be available to win holiday decor, gift baskets and more.
The Christian Community Choir also will perform its annual Christmas concert at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3.
For more information on upcoming events or to make a donation toward restoration efforts, visit www.oldstferdinandshrine.org.