Msgr. John Shocklee and the people at St. Bridget Parish left a lasting influence on Ben Phillips, his siblings and so many others who lived at the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis.
“He was a heck of an influence on my life,” said Phillips, now a member of St. Alphonsus Liguori (Rock Church) Parish.
The Civil Rights icon who came to the parish as pastor 60 years ago was a role model, one of the few white people Phillips knew growing up, other than a couple of classmates at St. Bridget School who lived at the complex. “It was hard to grow up around him and not have faith that the races could mesh. You could feel the sincerity and truthfulness in him,” Phillips said.
The site formerly occupied by the Pruitt and Igoe high-rise housing projects is approximately 2 miles northwest of the Gateway Arch in the city of St. Louis. The historic site was bounded by Jefferson Avenue, Cass Avenue, 20th Street and Carr Street. Lack of funding and poor planning eventually proved disastrous for Pruitt-Igoe, which became a haven for vacancy and crime. It was demolished in 1976 and is now adjacent to the development for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s western headquarters.
Msgr. Shocklee was named pastor of St. Bridget in 1961 and served for 16 years. He started a high school equivalency program and employment skills workshops for the neighborhood. He reached out to his former Saint Louis University High School classmates and Catholics in suburban parishes to find jobs and scholarships for the low-income residents in his parish neighborhood. Under the name of the Bicentennial Civic Improvement Corp., the parish ran 21 anti-poverty programs. Included was the purchase and rehab of houses for many of the public housing residents.
“Msgr. Shocklee always advocated for us to be the best that we could, all the kids at the school and parish,” Phillips said. “He instilled in us that spirit that we were rich in heart, mind, intelligence and that sort of thing.”
Phillips’ mom, Mary Jane Phillips, served as parish secretary at the end of Msgr. Shocklee’s tenure, and she served on the archdiocese’s Human Rights Commission, which was headed by Msgr. Shocklee.
Msgr. Shocklee and Father Joseph Kohler, associate pastor, worked through the housing corporation to help families, including through a credit union to finance purchase of the homes, the first most of them ever owned. Phillips volunteered as a teenager to help with the housing effort. “We did it for the love of the community,” he said.
Education was placed at the top of the list for his family, who lived in Pruitt-Igoe from 1955-67 before moving to a nearby home. “And a lot of the kids who came out of St. Bridget did very well in their careers. It was a great school. Father Shocklee was the main driving force.”
Initially, Phillips said, Pruitt-Igoe was “a beautiful experience in my life, an extremely close community. There was not a lot of evil, it was clean, the families were happy to be there. It was well-maintained initially.”
A tornado hit a neighborhood nearby, and people who lost their homes moved there temporarily. They ended up staying, and perhaps because they weren’t screened and due to underfunding of maintenance, “things started going downhill. Then drugs and things like that came into play. It became a part of the lifestyle of Pruitt-Igoe,” Phillips explained, remembering his father, Bennie, saying, “It is not the place we moved into.”
Some of the residents didn’t have a father in their home like Phillips did, and that led them astray, he added.
Phillips attended Providence junior and senior high schools before going to Mercy High School his senior year. He and his siblings all attended college except for his youngest sister who had Down syndrome.
Msgr. Shocklee walked through Pruitt-Igoe regularly, and he calmed people down after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, preventing the riots that occurred in other cities. “People were talking about killing and getting even. I was with him when he talked to these folks,” Phillips said.
He played basketball at the University of Missouri-St. Louis prior to going into the Army, then back to UMSL. He played semi-pro baseball and became a union pipefitter, with the help of Msgr. Shocklee’s connections. He was appointed St. Louis City marshal by Mayor Vince Schoemehl, a former college friend. Phillips worked more than 20 years for the city, including as a lobbyist in Jefferson City, Missouri, with Lynn Hearnes, attaining a lot of success with much hard work. He also had a business career before retiring. He and his wife, Harriette Denise, have a blended family of nine children.
He’s on the parish council, the peace and justice commission and is a church elder at the Rock Church, a board member of the Magdala Foundation and is involved with a group doing research on slavery. “My faith means a lot,” Phillips said. “I’m a cradle Catholic. Mom was very, very influential. My father was Baptist. But he was always at the church (St. Bridget) working.”
>> A parish’s influence
Vivian Fox grew up across the street from the old St. Bridget School on Stoddard Avenue. She lived in a row house and watched similar homes get torn down for the Pruitt and Igoe housing complex.
When Msgr. Shocklee came to St. Bridget Parish, she and others saw him simply as a parish pastor, “the type of person who always had time for everybody, no matter how old or young you were,” Fox said. “It wasn’t until later that we realized how much impact he had on the Civil Rights movement.”
He was instrumental in getting Providence Junior and Senior High School started, she said. Operated by the archdiocese, it offered significantly lower tuition than private Catholic high schools. “In my class — the first graduating class — we all became very successful in our fields,” said Fox, who is a retired project manager for the Internal Revenue Service.
Fox was part of a Junior Catholic Interracial Council that Msgr. Shocklee organized.
Many of her former classmates at St. Bridget School attend Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in St. Louis. Fox is a parishioner of St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist Parish. “The church and the school always seemed to be there for us,” she said.
>> The Phillips siblings
• Ben Phillips attended the University of Missouri-St. Louis and had a career as a city official and in business
• JoAnn attended Saint Louis University and worked for Southwestern Bell
• Lionel attended the University of Notre Dame, worked for IBM and now owns Phillips Concrete Services, LLC
• Gayle attended the University of Missouri-Columbia and works for the food service company serving the St. Louis Blues and St. Louis Cardinals
• Rodney attended the University of Dayton, retired from the military, and now is a project manager
• Jerome attended Jarvis Christian University in Texas and is a retired journeyman pipefitter
• Paulette attended Jarvis Christian University and is a special education teacher for St. Louis Public Schools
• Michelle attended Xavier University and is a community volunteer
• Constance (Connie) is deceased.
• Catherine died shortly after childbirth