Saint Mary's of the Barrens was founded in 1818 with the arrival of a small band of Vincentians from Italy who came to Perryville, MO to form a seminary. This seminary became the first institution of higher education west of the Mississippi River. On January 6, 1827, the foundation stone for the present church was laid, and contributions from Europe helped local efforts to complete and consecrate the structure in October 1837. The consecration was the second such ceremony west of the Mississippi. The Shrine was built in 1929 to honor our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.
Since the building of the Shrine Chapel in 1929, the church of St. Mary’s of the Barrens has served as the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, replacing an older Shrine of our Lady which had been in the church from the beginning. The Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal gives devotion to our Blessed Mother.
The architecture and decorations of the church reflect its long and interesting history. Over the main altar of the church is a large painting of the Assumption of our Lady, indicating the original dedication of the edifice. There are many other paintings in the church depicting the history of the Vincentian community and various devotions.
Our stained glass windows add to the beauty of the church. In the Miraculous Medal chapel are two windows depicting the Apparitions of our Blessed Mother to St. Catherine Laboure. In the face of the church, the Rose Window, Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair, was added in the 1913-1920 renovation. The six stained glass windows on the north side of the church contain the symbols of the virtues of Saint Vincent de Paul. The six stained glass windows on the south side of the church contain the Marian hymns with their traditional Latin language on traditional Gregorian Chant notation.
In 1980, to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Manifestation of the Miraculous Medal, a seven-story Angelus Tower was built next to Saint Mary’s of the Barrens Church. At the top of the tower are housed three perfectly matched bells that were cast between 1868 and 1882. The bells were removed from St. Bonifice, an old local church built by some of the first Catholic families in Perryville. The bells rang for 100 years. When the St. Bonifice was torn down, the bells were carefully preserved here at the Shrine with the understanding that they later be built into some type of memorial or monument. In the concrete foundation is buried one of the stained glass windows from the old church. In the walls are embedded not only the names of all who contributed to its construction, but the names of pastors, every parishioner baptized, married, or buried from the old church in the 100 years of its existence.
Our Shrine Visitor Center and Gift Shop is located next to the church. We welcome visitors from the United States and from other areas of the world. We offer a regular schedule for guided tours of the church and grounds or pamphlets are available for visitors to take self-guided tours.
There are other historical and devotional points of interest. The outdoor campus landscape contains treasures of its own. Bishop Rosati’s cabin, one of the original structures at the Barrens, and the Vincentian Community Cemetery, a small plot located near the western edge of the historic district behind Rosati’s Cabin. Records show the first burial in the cemetery was Brother Angelo Oliva, C.M. (architect of the Saint Mary’s of the Barrens Church) in the 1830’s. The path continues around the seminary grounds and along a densely shaded walk lined with maple trees. The path is lead to a grotto in honor of our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.
The Grotto of our Lady of the Miraculous Medal was built by the seminarians during World War 1. It has become a special center of devotion to our Blessed Mother since then. Construction began in 1917 and was completed in November 1920. The first stone was put into place on June 25, 1917. A small chapel recessed in the center of the grotto wall has a small altar made of fieldstone. In a small niche at the top of the grotto wall, directly above the small chapel, is a statue of our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, which arrived August 5, 1920. The grotto stands at the site of the old quarry, behind the Mound of our Lady of Victory. Rock used to build historic Saint Mary’s of the Barrens Church came from this site.
Today, St. Mary’s of the Barrens Church still holds a strong devotion to our Blessed Mother. Although the seminary is no longer on this campus, senior and active members of the Vincentian Community reside at the Apostle of Charity Residence, dedicated in July, 2006. The message of St. Vincent de Paul continues with the celebration of daily Mass at this church.