On a recent July evening, Andrew Thompson-Briggs and his wife, Gwyneth, and their young children quietly knelt at the foot of the Apotheosis of Saint Louis in Forest Park to pray the Rosary.
The hum of the summer cicadas, the laughter of people congregating on nearby Art Hill and the occasional car driving by were the only sounds that could be heard next to the rhythmic repetition of each decade as it was prayed.
Gifted by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company after the 1904 World’s Fair, the bronze statue that overlooks Art Hill in Forest Park is a representation of St. Louis’ namesake, King Louis IX of France. St. Louis IX, whose renowned charitable work elevated him to sainthood, died at Tunis in 1270. He is the only French king to be canonized by the Church.
Andrew Thompson-Briggs was troubled when he heard about an effort to have the statue removed from Forest Park and to rename the city. The member of St. Francis de Sales Oratory organized a small group of friends to meet at his house to see what they could do in response — their answer was found in prayer.
“We decided the most important thing that we could do as laymen was pray the Rosary, and to invite other people to pray the Rosary with us and to confide the protection of the statue to Our Lady,” said Thompson-Briggs. “We also wanted to pray for peace and unity in our city — in our world right now there’s so much disunity and violence, we feel helpless and we wanted to do something constructive. We knew we couldn’t do anything on our own merits, and we had to allow Our Lady to be in control and just to let her work through us as well as possible.”
Now called the St. Louis Forever Rosary Coalition, a group of about 30 people first met at the statue on June 21 and have returned every evening to pray the Rosary at 6:30 p.m. The group has since grown, now averaging as many as 200 people, as of early July. Thompson-Briggs said he’s been edified by the number of Catholics who have come from parishes across the archdiocese.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis issued a statement June 28 about the Apotheosis of St. Louis, which noted that for Catholics, “St. Louis is an example of an imperfect man who strived to live a life modeled after the life of Jesus Christ. For St. Louisans, he is a model for how we should care for our fellow citizen, and a namesake with whom we should be proud to identify. The sword on his statue is not raised for warfare, but rather is held with the blade down — a symbol of peace.”
The statement continued that the archdiocese is “encouraged by the winds of change that are at hand,” adding that energy should be focused on programs and policies that “will dismantle racism and create a more equal society for all races and religions. As Catholics, we believe that each person — no matter their race, religion, background or belief — is created in the image and likeness of God. As such, all should be treated with love, respect and dignity.
“We should not seek to erase history, but recognize and learn from it, while working to create new opportunities for our brothers and sisters,” according to the statement.
Lisa Harris of Holy Infant Parish in Ballwin attended the Rosary gathering on July 1. She said she wanted to pray for the city. Harris said she admires the saint’s humility and his upbringing in the Catholic faith. His mother, Blanche of Castille, was known for having told her son, “I love you, my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child; but I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.”
Anna Kalinowski of St. Francis de Sales has been coming to the Rosary gathering almost every evening. She said that every city has a number of things that contribute to its culture, and in St. Louis, the Apotheosis of St. Louis is one of those things. “This statue is of a Catholic saint and it’s in a public space — but its not right to say you need to place it in a cathedral or in your own box. We have a right to have our culture (represented) in the public sphere.”
Thompson-Briggs said that St. Louis is an example of how to cultivate virtue even in the midst of temptation.
“It’s so striking when you have someone who is able to resist the allurements of a court and the pride that comes so often with power,” he said. “He was able to nonetheless cultivate an incredible virtue of humility and also proximity to all of his people. What’s most amazing is being king of the most important country in Europe at the time and placing all of the power back from where he received it — in God’s hands.”