I would like to share some information that Father Thomas Keller, pastor of Assumption Parish in South County and Professor Thomas Madden (Professor of History at SLU) and world renowned expert on the crusades shared with me. These thoughts I agree with and seem quite apropos in light of the protests surrounding the Statue of St. Louis the King.
Regarding the Apotheosis of St. Louis statue in Forest Park confusion is present on all sides and deserves a relook. I present this to you as background information and food for prayer and thought.
The statue was not put there out of piety or to honor the 13th century French king and Catholic saint. The statue was erected first as a plaster ornament near the entrance to the 1904 World’s Fair to symbolize the city, then a bronze replica was made after the Fair and placed on Art Hill to commemorate the event.
The statue was not made by Catholics for Catholics, instead it is a secular image representing the emergence of the City of St. Louis as an industrial and economic power at the beginning of the 20th century. The “Apotheosis” or “ascendancy to greatness” or more literally “to be made godlike” is represented by the horse and rider proudly striding forward into the future just as the City of St. Louis which started as a fur trading post in 1763, then by 1904, counted itself as a world-class metropolis. The sword is held in a position representing peace, not war. The image of the crusader represented the determination of the City to overcome any obstacle. The 1904 World’s Fair made every effort to highlight the progress of a liberal democracy wed to modern industry and the statue was a symbolic embodiment of the reality. When visitors to the World’s Fair looked at it, they felt admiration for the progress of the city not devotion to the saint.
The Apotheosis embodies the St. Louis population much in the same way Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in the “Spirit of St Louis” embodied how the region saw itself in the expanding world of aeronautical research and manufacturing.
The historic figure of Louis IX was quite different person. Saint Louis was an unusually humble and pious medieval king. He was a humble man who was more at home attending daily Mass and then feeding and washing the feet of the homeless in Paris than striding about in regal splendor. He funded and established the Sorbonne which was associated with the University of Paris. He sat under a tree hearing the cases of those who felt they experienced injustice. He coached his son on the importance of leading a moral life and prepared him to administer justice when his day to rule would come.
Saint Louis was also a crusader. It should be noted that the crusades were a complex series of offensive and defensive wars with the emerging and often aggressive Islamic kingdoms in the sensitive area where multiple religions lay claim to ancient pilgrimage sites. As the seat of power for the Arabs and later Mamluks shifted from Jerusalem to Egypt the military activity shifted too. The Arabs had long since displaced some of the native African populations (Egyptians) with their own people. It should be remembered, Saint Louis was influenced by Saint Francis of Assisi and Louis was a lay member of the Franciscan Order. One of the objectives of the Franciscans was to evangelize. Saint Francis himself went to the Holy Land unarmed with the hope of evangelizing and converting the Sultan even if it meant being martyred. King Louis, potentially inspired by Francis, led an army, twice, potentially to regain Jerusalem and defeat the Muslims who has massacred the Christians. Neither attempt was successful. The first attempt was disastrous with Louis being taken captive. In the second attempt, in Tunisia, North Africa, Louis fell ill and died. The “apotheosis” of the man and king named Louis IX was his service to God and neighbor in acts of worship and care of the poor, not in military conquest. The Apotheosis statue is an imaginary image of a victory that Louis never experienced.
It should be noted that no canonized saint was perfect during their lives. They struggled with sin and may even have been blinded by the prejudices of their times. But they endeavored to grow in holiness within their vocation and were inspirations to others to do the same. Even accounts of the administration of justice at the time of Louis would seem harsh to us, but in a relative sense, everyone agrees, Louis elevated the process eventually leading to a system we have today. Though imperfect, justice today is far from that which preceded Louis and countless other reformers. Certainly, modern sensibilities would inform Saint Louis’ conscience differently today. Catholics remember Louis for his extraordinary impact on society and for his personal pursuit of holiness, and now freed from his sins, we look to him as a heavenly advocate.
Similarly, the leaders of the Black Lives Matters movement would want to be remembered in history for making the lives of future generations of minorities better, not for the actions of those who took advantage of defenseless businesses by destroying property or chanting hateful things on the streets. Canonized Catholic saints are not sinless, but represent in different periods of history, individuals who never gave up trying to embody the best of who we are. Hopefully, truly peaceful protestors calling for change will be remembered for making a positive change someday.
Rightly, many Catholics have stood up to defend the reputation of King Saint Louis, many by praying and offering opportunities to dialogue at the Apotheosis statue in the last few days. Anti-Catholicism is just as much a part of American history as racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and Islamaphobia. Catholics should have a place in society and like all others, Catholic voices should be heard. The comments of many protestors exposes the anti-Catholicism that is just as deeply embedded in society as any other prejudices. The instinctive reaction of Catholics to defend their Faith would be unnecessary if the statue were understood for what it is.
Absent from the conversation about the Apotheosis has been the commitment of area Catholics to combating racism, beginning in the 1950’s with Cardinal Ritter’s aggressive desegregation of parishes and Catholic schools. And the Catholic Church’s long term financial commitment to provide much needed educational opportunities to minorities in places with failing public school districts. Or the Local Church’s unparalleled services to the poorest of the poor regardless of race or religion. The Archdiocese of St. Louis has a truly great history of overcoming racism.
However, the misguided debate over a secular statue bearing a faint resemblance to the Catholic saint misses the point of a multigenerational class and race of people who cannot escape poverty because education, employment, services, protection, and justice are simply not accessible in the same way as they are to other races and social classes.
The Apotheosis artist, Charles Henry Niehaus, used the image of a triumphant crusader to represent a city taking its place in history.
If the City of St. Louis no longer sees itself embodied in the hopeful image of a horse and rider progressing forward into history, then a new image should be suggested that resonates with the current population. The Apotheosis could be given to a 1904 World’s Fair society for preservation and contextualization.
But if we want to discuss whether black lives really matter, we should address the complex issues facing multigenerational urban, and more recently suburban, inescapable poverty and find ways to give the outrage of today an outlet which brings people together to find solutions to centuries old problems.
God Bless You!
Msgr. John Shamleffer
Stewardship Reflection ~ July 5, 2020
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:30)
When we think of being good stewards, we may think that God is asking too much of us when He calls us to generously share our time, talent, and treasure. However, we must remember that we are not “owners” of anything, we are merely “stewards” of the gifts God has given us. All He is asking is that we give back a small portion, in gratitude, of what He has already given to us.
We are St. Gabriel!