In a few weeks, hundreds of Vincentians from across the country will arrive in St. Louis for the National Assembly under the theme of “Where It All Began.” Thanks to the pandemic, our original 175th anniversary celebration will be two years later than scheduled. Let’s take a look not only at where it all began, but also when it all began back in 1845 St. Louis.
St. Louis was a major city in 1845 thanks to its location on the banks of the Mississippi River and its uses for commerce, fur trading, and both military and civilian exploration of all points West. From its 1840 population of 16,469 the city would grow to 77,860 by 1850, becoming the eighth largest American city. The St. Louis Diocese covered a third of the country but with only 75 priests and 33 churches. By 1849, St. Louis would become the second archdiocese, after Baltimore, within the organized states of the Union. It was the only major Catholic presence west of the Mississippi.
St. Louis was considered the gateway to the West from the time of its 1804 launching of the Lewis and Clark expedition until at least the great railroad expansion after the U.S. Civil War. Steamboats and wagon trains regularly started from St. Louis, and much wealth was generated from fitting these expeditions from St. Louis merchants and wagon builders. The city would continue to grow, especially around the time of the 1904 World’s Fair and later decades. For Vincentian purposes, the “Old Cathedral” (the only cathedral in the city at that time) was completed in 1834 in a bustling mixed-use downtown of commerce, shipping, and residences. Today the Old Cathedral sits in a national park at the base of the famous Arch, built in the late 1950’s-early 1960’s. The entire five blocks from the cathedral to the river was razed of old warehouses for the arch’s construction, but the Old Cathedral was gracefully spared.
When the Society of St. Vincent de Paul held its first meeting on November 20, 1845 at the Old Cathedral, life was quite different than we might realize from today’s city and United States.
Nationally, John Tyler’s Presidency gave way to the election of James K. Polk. There were only 26 states in the Union; Florida was added in March of 1845, followed by the former Republic of Texas in December. The Texas addition sparked the Mexican-American War that year, over some disputed territory. The U.S. Naval Academy began in Annapolis in 1845. Newspapers in 1845 included the first usage of the term “Manifest Destiny” and the first accounts of a new game called baseball.
Published pieces that year included the autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” and the first printing of “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe.
When our first members met, they met by candlelight or perhaps gas, as light bulbs would not be invented until 1880. They arrived by horseback or carriage, since the earliest cars didn’t come around until 1871. They may have had just a short meeting, since there were no indoor bathrooms back then (late 1840’s)!
In considering our Society’s beginnings, let’s remember that we are older than Goodwill Industries (1902), The American Red Cross (1881), and the Smithsonian Institution (1846). We pre-date basketball (1891) and tennis (1859), the Transcontinental Railroad (1869), the California Gold Rush (1848), and the women’s suffrage movement (1848). The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was not only established before the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), but during the war we even held our first National Assembly! (September 1864 in New York City).
We are only the 7th country to have a Society presence since our Paris founding in 1833. Irish Catholics had been welcomed years prior to the rich Missouri farmlands, and a gracious reputation preceded more Irish migration in the 1840’s. The great Irish Potato Famine occurred in our formative year, so there was intercontinental travel, by steamship, of clergy and laypersons who would help form the initial St. Louis Conference. The Ireland SVdP’s copy of The Rule was brought to St. Louis and guided our beginnings. To be established in 10 countries in just 12 years (Germany, Mexico and Scotland were also formed in 1845) from Emmanual Bailly’s and Blessed Frederic’s first meeting is surely an act of God.
As you consider joining us for National Assembly in a few weeks, or if you are coming at another time to St. Louis, please visit the Old Cathedral. Imagine what it was like, where and when, our St. Louis founders decided to use a Rule from abroad and get organized using their funds and Catholic faith to serve the city’s poor. If you need further inspiration, a statue of St. Vincent de Paul stands at the front of the cathedral. He is, after all, a patron saint of the city.
Yours in Christ,