Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
During the midst of the Great Depression in May of 1934, 150 families attended two meetings to organize the new Parish of St. Gabriel the Archangel. On Friday, November 23, 1934, the parish broke ground for a combination church and school. The one-story Romanesque-style, orange brick and terra cotta building faced Tamm Avenue. This project began a relationship between the parish and the architectural firm of A.F. and Arthur Stauder that would eventually result in a stunningly unique parish complex with a dominating presence.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis installed Reverend Francis H. Skaer as its first pastor. The Willmore Real Estate office at Nottingham and Donovan held initial services until the completion of a church-school building in June 1935. The basement auditorium in the school became the worship site at that time. The parish school opened in September 1935 with thirty-eight students taught by three School Sisters of Notre Dame. Each morning, one of the men of the parish drove to the SSND Mother House in Lemay to bring these wonderful teachers to the School; each afternoon, someone had to drive them back to the Mother House. In 1939, a second floor was added to the structure to accommodate 245 students.
At first, Fr. Skaer lived at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish. During the summer of 1935, he moved into quarters in the new combination school-church building. As the growing school population and increasing parish activities required more space, the parish purchased the house at 4712 Tamm Avenue for the rectory.
After World War II ended and war-time restrictions on construction eased, St. Gabriel parishioners committed themselves to creating a parish complex with an impressive design, fine materials, and outstanding craftsmanship that would be the physical center piece of their community. In 1946,Monsignor Leo Steck began plans for enlarging the school. The new section provided a library, a kindergarten, two classrooms and living quarters for the sisters. By 1950 the school enrollment numbered 550.
Before his promotion to Auxiliary Bishop of Salt Lake City, Utah, Monsignor Steck initiated plans for a new and much larger church for the parish. Originally, the parish plan called for a church facing the corner of Tamm and Murdoch avenues. Following the war, however, the parish purchased the property at Nottingham and Tamm, facing the prominent northeast corner of Francis Park for their buildings. Monsignor Rudolph E. Schuler became pastor in July 1948.
After a spectacular and determined fund-raising effort, only one obstacle remained. A two-story duplex near the corner had to be removed. The answer? Move the house 275 feet to the west—no easy feat, but it was accomplished. Monsignor Schuler had placed an almost full glass of water on the mantle in the first floor of that house…not a drop was spilled as the movement went to the West. The house currently sits at 6337 Nottingham. Rallo Construction Company broke ground for the present church at Nottingham and Tamm Avenues on March 5, 1950; Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter dedicated the Church on October 28, 1951.
Architects A. F. and Arthur Stauder designed the white stone contemporary Gothic edifice. The steeple of the spectacular new church towered twelve stories over its neighborhood, like a Gothic cathedral overall a medieval European city. Its design combined wildly different styles and concepts to create a stunning St. Gabriel the Archangel Church. It was starkly modern, while Gothic in its concept and spirit. All these styles, concepts, and traditions were united with artwork and symbolism that expressed the beliefs of the Roman Catholic faith.
Like its Gothic predecessors, the form of the church and its steeple turned the eye toward heaven, but the façade and steeple rejected the abundant sculpture and flowery ornament for the sleek, geometric ornament of the Art Deco style. The steeple narrowed with setbacks, like an Art Deco skyscraper. Sharp, geometric reliefs framed the sculpture of St. Gabriel over the entrances, enhancing the dramatic stone surface. Even the covered driveway, the aluminum light standards, and the aluminum railings featured the sweeping Art Deco curves.
Like the church, the rectory was sheathed in the same light gray stone. Both the church and the rectory were roofed with red ceramic tiles, visually connecting the church and rectory with the earlier Romanesque school buildings.
The interior of the church possessed all the features developed over centuries of building great churches in Europe:
- A dramatic central nave dominating the interior;
- The whole space focuses the eyes and thoughts on the sanctuary, with its dramatic brass baldachino sheltering the altar and symbolizing the canopy over the ark;
- At each side of the altar, sheets of marble rippled with salmon and burgundy veins were cut and placed to create symmetrical patterns.
- Transepts expand seating to the sides of the central nave; and
- The narthex provided a quieting space between the busy neighborhood and meditative church.
The new church interior also incorporated concepts developed by American architects. While traditional ecclesiastical design features have been retained, the structure's plan is unique in that trusses have replaced the usual columns in the nave. Instead of the traditional lining the nave with columns, trusses supported the ceiling of the central nave. The transepts were not rectangular, but instead were wedge-shaped. The result was that the seating was actually fan-shaped, or more like a modern theatre. This American concept directed attention toward the altar and enabled the architect to fit a large church, with seating for one thousand people, into a shallow site. In addition, it kept all the parishioners closer to the altar, with all seats within eighty feet of the celebrant.
One architectural feature of the church reflects that it was built at the height of the baby boom. A soundproof room, screened with artfully decorated windows and fitted with speakers carry the voice of the priest, was next to the narthex. Literature from that era explains that the “cry room has been provided so mothers with young children can still attend the divine services.” The first Mass was celebrated on Sunday, September 23, 1951. On Sunday, October 28, 1951, the church was dedicated, and the works of many talented artists were showcased.
- Emil Frei, Jr. created the windows and all the stained glass in the church.
- Prussian-born St. Louis artist Siegfried Reinhardt designed the twelve golden toned high clerestory windows depicting an angelic choir.
- The Stations of the Cross are of golden mosaics in Byzantine style.
- Artist Margie Pershing designed the stained glass screen the cry room and narthex.
- St. Louis artist Milton Frenzel designed three sets of windows in the transepts depicting the significant events in the lives of Jesus and Mary, referred to in the Rosary as the Joyful Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. The coats of arms of the archbishops of St. Louis, from Rosati to Ritter, filled the window openings over the confessionals and shrine on the east transept.
Smooth marble columns, without bases or capitals, framed doorways and altars. Their rich mauve color accented the tan of the marble-paneled walls and the blonde wood of the pews. The designs in the railing of the choir loft, with their geometric shapes and lozenge patterns, reflected the Art Deco style.
Monsignor Harry E. Stitz served as the fourth pastor for twenty-seven years, from 1951 to 1979. A steady influence in an era filled with radical cultural changes, Monsignor Stitz broke ground for the convent building in 1955. The yellow brick home for the sisters faced the school on Murdoch. Its construction allowed the old convent rooms in the school building to be converted for more classroom space. The convent building, now called Gabriel House, provides a home for the school band and meeting rooms for ACTS retreats. Monsignor Stitz also transformed the annual school picnic, formerly an outing to an amusement park, into a parish festival at Nottingham and Tamm. The St. Gabriel Picnic is now known citywide with many grade school alumni attending.
To accommodate the growing parish community in the late 1950s, St. Gabriel once again commissioned the architectural firm of A.F. & Arthur Stauder to design a gym and parish center facing Tamm at Murdoch. And once again, the parish and architects created a handsome structure that reflected the Romanesque style of the school buildings and convent.
Three years later, the parish completed the gym with a piece of spiritual artwork, a twelve by fifteen foot sculptural image of the Archangel Gabriel. The stainless steel, ceramic, and glass sculpture, with a spotlight, was installed on the wall of the gym facing Murdoch Avenue. Instead of portraying the archangel with a human body, the sculpture represented the spiritual essence of an angel—wings.
Monsignor Richard J. Lubeley was appointed the fifth Pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in June 1979. He served until January 1991. During his tenure, the church was renovated in keeping with the spirit of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Monsignor Lubeley also saw the use of the computer to be of great benefit to parishes and he designed programs to benefit our parish and others.
Father Charles E. Burgoon was appointed the sixth Pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in 1991. During his tenure, he led the Call to Build campaign, which added six new classrooms and a school meeting room, completed the air conditioning of the school, installed new windows in the rectory, and cleaned and water-sealed the external façade of the church. Fr. Burgoon also brought the ACTS program to St. Gabriel, which has enriched the lives of many parishioners.
Father Robert J. Samson was appointed the seventh Pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in June 2006. Under his direction, our parish school maintained a strong enrollment, completed needed physical improvements, and implemented curriculum improvements. Fr. Samson oversaw the transition of our convent to a parish center known as Gabriel House, a meeting place for a variety of parish, school, and community functions. With his oversight, our campus has been improved in its landscape, its core systems (utilities, roofing etc.) and its safety and security. During our 75th Anniversary as a parish in 2009, Fr. Samson encouraged and supported a variety of unifying celebrations.
Monsignor John B. Shamleffer, J.C.L., M.C.L., was appointed the eighth Pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in June 2013. Upon his arrival, he quickly embraced the many activities and functions of our parish, and celebrated our 80th Anniversary in 2014.
The parish purchased their first church bells, a set of Schulmerich Basilican Bells, in 1957. They echoed the hour of the day and the times for Mass through the streets and gently reminded people of the presence of the church in the neighborhood.
When the bells needed repairs and replacement parts were not available, Monsignor Richard Lubeley came up with a new way to keep the church heard throughout the neighborhood. The new digital bells had eighteen octaves. They tolled the hour from 8:00 am to 9:00 pm, rang the Angelus from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm, and were to be rung for special occasions.
In 1994, Father Charles Burgoon was able to procure the original bells from his childhood parish, Holy Name. They were installed in time for Easter; however, the swinging of the bells caused structural damage, and they were silenced in 2005. Two years later, a striker was installed, eliminating the vibrations, and allowing the bells to ring again.
Compiled with permission from Reedy Press, July 2011.