Old St. Vincent Church is a great majestic monument to the rich religious tradition and spiritual health of Cape Girardeau, Missouri and the surrounding area. It is located on the Mississippi riverfront in the downtown area of Cape Girardeau. Old St. Vincent Church has been designated a Chapel of Ease (meaning it is a part of a larger parish--the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Annunciation) and a Religious & Cultural Center (meaning that city and community events of a religious/cultural nature may be held in the church). Old St. Vincent Church is supported by approximately 65 households who call the church their religious home. Mass is held at Old St. Vincent Church every Sunday at 10:00 a.m. Visitors are welcome to attend Mass and are commonly seen at Old St. Vincent Church resulting in an average attendance of about 200 worshippers each Sunday.
A tour of Old St. Vincent Church rewards you with architectural beauty that is reminiscent of old European cathedrals, but on a smaller scale. Busloads of people have come from many locations such as Kansas City, St. Louis and other states to bask in its old English elegance. Old St. Vincent Church is open for tours on Saturdays from 12:00-4:00 p.m., primarily April through October. Group tours, regardless of their size or the month of the year, can be arranged. Tours are led by parishioners. A complete tour of the church requires about 45 minutes. If the visitors do not have that much time, the tour guide begins with the most important information they have to present and work their way to the items of lesser importance. Visitors are permitted to take pictures, but are requested to wait until the tour is completed.
Old St. Vincent Church has replaced a smaller church that was completed in 1838 and destroyed by a tornado in 1850. It also destroyed the home of Louis Lorimier, the founding father of Cape Girardeau, and his warehouse where the first public Catholic Masses were held in Cape Girardeau during the late 1820s. Both of these structures sat next to the first church. A new, smaller version of Lorimier’s Red House can be visited across the street from the church.
Old St. Vincent Church was designed in the early 1850s by Thomas Walsh. The church was built in the shape of a cross and according to our religious architect, Mr. Theodore Wofford of St. Louis, Old St. Vincent Church is one of only five or six such English Gothic churches still standing in the United States. Thanks to Mr. Wofford, who oversaw the complete restoration of Old St. Vincent Church during the late 20th century, and the skilled craftsmen he employed, the interior of the church probably looks better now than it ever has. For example, the columns have been made to look like marble columns when in fact they are plaster encasements which surround squared off trees that were cut from the virgin forests of Southeast Missouri. The walls of the church are painted to look like large blocks of rock stacked one upon another, similar to many of the large churches of Europe, when in fact they are plaster walls covered with a canvas like material on which exact lines were painted. The columns tie in to the original large hand-made wooden trusses which are held together by wooden pegs. The wooden trusses support the roof and each is decorated with a clover leaf design on each end symbolizing the Trinity and a quadrafoil in the center symbolizing the four evangelists. Old St. Vincent Church is a beautiful example of a true hammer beam ceiling with a hammer beam, pendant post, hammer brace, collar and collar brace.
One of the most important spiritual things about Old St. Vincent Church are the relics of four saints contained within the large limestone altar stone which is enclosed within a 1990s altar cabinet built according to an old photograph. The altar stone runs the 8’ width of the altar cabinet and is supported by its own foundation of three columns of bricks which pass through the floor to the earth below. How or why Old St. Vincent Church was so fortunate to obtain such cherished relics of the Apostles Peter, Paul, and Andrew and St. Vincent, from Rome is very difficult to figure. Maybe Vatican leaders simply felt sorry for the Catholics of Cape Girardeau because their 12 year old church was destroyed. Both the altar stone and the foundation columns may be viewed in the back of the altar cabinet by visitors as well as the place where the relics have been secure since 1853 in the front of the altar.
One of the most structurally unique things about Old St. Vincent Church are the small plaster faces that grace both the interior and exterior walls of the church. The faces represent characters from the Mystery and/or Morality Plays of the middle ages which were used to educate people about the bible and morals. Even though there are approximately 140 faces positioned on the walls at the ends of arches, there are only four different characters represented at Old St. Vincent Church: "good and evil" and "youth and old age."
One of the smaller items in Old St. Vincent Church that may go unnoticed are the 12 gold crosses displayed on the interior walls. These crosses represent the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles and the fact that Old St. Vincent Church is a consecrated church.” In 1853 when Old St. Vincent Church was consecrated, Archbishop Peter Kenrick of St. Louis performed the extensive two day ceremony which required, among other things, making three trips around the outside of the church and three trips around the inside walls of the church. The first time around the church the Archbishop sprinkled holy water on the upper part of the walls, the second time around he sprinkled holy water on the lower part of the walls, and the third time around he sprinkled holy water on the walls at eye level. Each time the Archbishop circled the church, he knocked on the church door and asked permission for the King of Glory to enter. The custom of consecration dates back to Moses, who consecrated his Jewish flock as the people of God. A consecrated church can be defined as "a most holy place" and would require special handling should the need, such as a population shift which would leave few parishioners, ever arise that it would have to be closed. Most newly constructed Catholic churches are blessed and not consecrated.
Visitors should take notice of the beautiful and ornate sanctuary light which hangs to the left of the back altar. Since Old St. Vincent Church is a Chapel of Ease and a Religious & Cultural Center, the sanctuary light is only lit during Sunday Mass. The Body of Christ is not kept in the tabernacle during the week and thus visitors can walk around more carefree and less reverent than one would in a fully functioning Catholic Church.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is enclosed in the front altar. The plastered scene was removed from the back altar, stripped, repaired, repainted and placed in the front altar during the 1990s when both altar cabinets were built. The front altar is a result of Vatican II (1962-1965). Prior to Vatican II, the priest said Mass facing God in the tabernacle and with his back to the people the majority of time. He now stands behind the front altar facing the people. The big letters, DEUS, which grace the front of the back altar is Latin for God.
There are two dark panels in the sanctuary facing the nave, one on each side of the front altar. Originally these panels were fully functioning doors (presently they are plastered shut) which enabled priests to move to the Mary and the Joseph side altars from a sacristy and say Mass, without disturbing Mass at the main altar. This easy access was especially useful when St. Vincent College & Seminary’s (incorporated by the state of Missouri in 1843) primary teachers were priests who taught but wanted to say Mass at least once a day. The ability of priests to concelebrate Masses in recent years has eliminated the need for side altars in most new Catholic churches.
Prior to leaving the sanctuary, visitors should take notice of the ornate baptismal font to the left side of the front altar. The font is graced with the statue of St. John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. Hanging on the wall next to the font is an impressive 10’ crucifix. It should be observed that Jesus is secured to the cross by four nails with his feet positioned side by side, rather than the usual three nails where the feet are positioned one on top of the other. A second feature to notice about the crucifix is the cut and blood on Jesus’ side portraying Jesus as being dead. Some crucifixes do not show any cut or blood and thus portray Jesus as being alive on the cross and still suffering. The small sign at the top of the cross is common to most large crucifixes. The INRI written on the sign is Latin for “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.” Other statues located in the sanctuary are: Mary (south side altar), St. Vincent de Paul (right of the baptismal font), Sacred Heart of Jesus (right of the front altar) and Joseph (north side altar). Three more statues can be viewed in the back of the church: St. Therese of Lisieux (north side), St. Anthony of Padua (south side) and The Agony in the Garden (south corner).
All the pews, except for the last six on each side next to the walls, are original. The pews were made of 4 or 5 different kinds of wood which is the reason they were painted with a solid color stain rather than a translucent stain that would have permitted the wood grain to show. The pews are numbered because Old St. Vincent Church rented their pews to families who attended Mass until about 1920. The pews also had a wooden middle divider in order to create more rental spaces and to give greater identity to a family’s seating area. All the pews in the past had doors/gates on them to help people attending Mass in the cold winter months stay warmer. The second pews from the back on each side of the center aisle have been left in their original form with a door/gate on, a center divider and an unpadded seat.
Old St. Vincent Church probably was not heated during its early years. Evidence in the form of a purchase order, indicated that six pot-bellied stoves were used in the late 1800s to heat the church. A chimney was constructed on each side of the church next to a buttress so it was not too noticeable when glancing at the outside of the church. There is one chimney still visible on the roof of the north side, but the flue has been removed from next to the buttress--the repair work clearly visible to the inquiring eye. Around 1900, a partial basement was dug under the church in order to install a coal fired furnace—metal grates were cut into the church floor, probably two in each aisle, which permitted hot air to rise and heat the church. The church was cooled by tilting the side windows outwardly at their lower end. In the early 1950s, air conditioning was added to Old St. Vincent Church with vents on each side of the sanctuary. During the late 20th century restoration, both air conditioning and heating were redirected out of the enclosed vents built under each of the side windows. And what a great retro system it is--a person never feels air blowing on them, regardless of where they are seated.
During the early years of Old St. Vincent Church, most events were probably scheduled during the day. When light was needed, it was derived from candles and lamps. Pictorial evidence exists that a big chandelier hung above the center aisle near the front of church. This chandelier was on a pulley system and could be lowered, its lamps lit and then pulled up high to provide the greatest illumination. Electricity was added to the church around 1910. The present chandeliers, with 16 candle and three small flood lights pointed up and one large flood light pointed down, were added in the 1990s. The chandeliers were designed by architect Theodore Wofford and constructed by a man working out of his basement in St. Louis.
The Stations of the Cross that hang on the side walls of Old St. Vincent Church are over 100 years old and depict the Passion of Jesus. The stations were probably ordered from a catalog. During the 1990s, they were stripped, repaired and repainted. The hand painted lettering on the stations is truly amazing. The Celtic crosses which accompany 12 of the 14 stations identify nicely with the church's Irish heritage. Old St. Vincent Church, after all, was designed by a 24 year old Irishman named Thomas Walsh and during its early years, it was frequently referred to as the “Irish church.”
The side windows are original to the church, except for 27 small diamond or triangular shaped panes that had to be replaced because of cracks and small projectile holes. Some of these replacement panes can easily be identified since they do not match the original glass perfectly. The three stained glass windows behind the altar at the west end are not original to Old St. Vincent Church—they were added in 1908. Because these windows had deteriorated so much, they were covered both inside and outside during the early 1950s remodeling. When St. Vincent de Paul Parish decided to abandon Old St. Vincent Church and move to the west side of Cape Girardeau in the 1970s, these stained glass windows were uncovered and removed in an attempt to use them in their new church. The windows were found, once again, to be in such poor condition that they could not be used. The stained glass was then packed in boxes and stored for about three years before the people of Old St. Vincent Church obtained them, took them to St. Louis and had them duplicated. The new duplicated stained glass windows were installed in Old St. Vincent Church in 1986.
Located in the choir loft at the back of the church is a 21 rank Schantz organ made in Orrville, Ohio. The installation of this $270,000 organ in 2002 is generally considered as the final event in the restoration of Old St. Vincent Church. Although not visible to the eye when inside the church, it is worthy of mention that the organ cabinet and pipes hide a large ornate window on the east end of the church. Because of the window’s beauty, a wall was built inside the church about a 12” from the window so that it could back-lit and made visible to people passing by the front of the church at night. Also near the organ are the numerous (N= 9) arches in the choir loft which leads one to believe the church was built to support a large steeple.
Visitors are encouraged to walk up and down the side aisles, and observe how each of the side windows is framed precisely in the middle of each arch. At the back of the south side aisle, visitors are encouraged to view the framed pictures of the steeples that have graced Old St. Vincent Church, including an early 1850s architectural sketch. The sketch shows Old St. Vincent Church with an extremely tall steeple (taller than the church is in length). Although the illustrated steeple was never built, a much smaller steeple was constructed for the Golden Anniversary of Old St. Vincent Church in 1903. This pyramid looking steeple was, however, struck by lightning in 1905, was quickly rebuilt the same year, and was struck again by lightning in 1912. Visitors always get a little chuckle when they are informed that we got the message that God did not want a tall steeple on the church and that is the reason for the small cupola presently on the church. A small museum is located in the back northeast corner of the church. The museum contains items related to the history of Old St. Vincent Church and of Catholicism in general.
When leaving Old St. Vincent Church visitors should take notice of the large 4" thick oak doors and the beautiful wood carving above the exterior side of the doors. The doors and the carving were given to Old St. Vincent Church in 1926 by Mr. & Mrs. Charles Luce Harrison in honor of their daughter Mary Harrison. Mary was only three years old when she died in May 1923 after contacting measles and later pneumonia. The plaque within the wood craving was written in "old English" and is difficult to discern. It reads "To the Glory of God, In Loving Memory of Mary Rozier Harrison."
Tour Old St. Vincent Church or attend a 10:00 a.m. Sunday Mass to learn about and appreciate the architectural details and history of this totally restored church. The people of Old St. Vincent Church take great pride in the restoration, and will be happy to show you or your group around the church.