In 1848 the Czech Republic region of Europe was known as Bohemia and was suffering from what is known as the Revolution of 1848 . This was where the people of Bohemia were rebelling against Habsburg, Austria for the right to government themselves, which included fighting for the rights of a Free Press and freedom from state-run churches. This battle sparked the Bohemian people to travel to America in search of religious freedom. Like many settlers that arrived into St. Louis at this time, they found their way to the city by traveling up the Mississippi River from New Orleans in steamboats.
Bohemians who arrived in St. Louis found the climate too warm, so they chose to continue to travel northward toward states like Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Those who remained landed where Soulard Street meets the river. This southern section of St. Louis city, which was populated with businesses and manufacturing plants, was known as “Old Frenchtown.”
This area became popular to newly arrived Bohemians in America because of their shared language of German and French, along with their desire to live and practice their religion freely. As their numbers began to grow, so did their interest in building their own Bohemian parish. A local priest, Father Francis Renaud, purchased land on the hilltop of 11th Street and Lafayette Street from Frenchman Antoine Soulard with the goal of building the Bohemian parish. This purchase would lead to the founding of St. John Nepomuk Parish and the Bohemian Hill neighborhood in 1854.
With a dozen or more Catholic parishes sprinkled throughout the city, St. John’s Bohemian parishioners sought a parish to practice their own traditions, while wishing to join and connect with other parishes in their new home of St. Louis. The first tangible accomplishment toward this goal was the founding and building of St. John’s Parish. The people of St. John’s were resilient workers who populated many of the factories of south St. Louis, and the parish served as an inspiration to them and the continued flow of new Bohemians arriving in St. Louis seeking the same religious freedom.
Its humble beginnings of the church and school started with its first Holy Mass held on April 20, 1855 by Father Lipovsky. The first High Mass was celebrated on St. John’s feast day on May 16 with well known Jesuit missionary priest Father Pierre Jean De Smet, who enjoyed a reputation for his work in negotiating a treaty with the plains Indians. The parish and the Bohemian population in St. Louis continued to grow, and by 1860 their numbers had reached 2500.
St. John’s was not without its early struggles as Father Lipovsky resigned his pastorship just 2 years later in 1856. His replacement, Father Francis Trojan, also found the challenges of the parish too much and asked to be transferred in 1864. This left the parish without a pastor for a year and a half, and whether or not the church would survive came into question. With the Civil War finally over and inflation increasing, the church was forced to closed while it was absent a priest. However, all that changed when Father Joseph Hesson opened the doors again to St. John Nepomuk Parish on October 4, 1865.
It has been stated that, “the history of St. John’s parish from 1865-1906 might be remembered as a biography of Father Hesson. The name came to stand for any priest to be pious, erudite, diligent, perseverant of one’s priestly duties.” Father Hesson was a critical and pivotal person in the survival and prosperity of St. John’s as it became inspirational to all other Bohemian Catholic churches in America.
Father Hesson helped perpetuate the balance between the Bohemians’ old world customs and the necessary assimilation needed to adjust to their new lives in America. This balance also helped to forge partnerships with other American Catholic churches. St. John’s was the first Catholic church outside the Bohemian homeland, and their pioneering innovation gave way to such advancements as a parish school, a Bohemian Press, fraternalism, Catholic Action, and the support of the community’s social, cultural, and civic life. St. John’s was truly the heart and soul of the new Bohemian Hill neighborhood in St. Louis.
From 1865-1896 St. John’s Parish grew to be one of the largest Catholic churches in St. Louis, and with this impressive growth so did the need for a proper school. Father Hesson then took on the mission to construct a school which could also serve as a meeting hall for social events and as well as a library. At the time Bohemians did not enjoy the best of reputations in the city, and so their goal was to built a school that could match any other school in the city.
Almost immediately upon the completion of the new school, Father Hesson laid the cornerstone on building a new church in 1870. The opening of the new school had garnered favorable attention. However, it was nothing compared the attention they had received from national organizations that gathered for the parade and dedication of laying the foundation for their new sanctuary. On May 15, 1870 orations were given in Bohemian, German, and English so as to include the whole of the city in their celebration. The new gothic style church was completed in November of 1870 for a cost of $50,000.
Under the guidance of Father Hesson, the first issue of the periodical “Hlas” (The Voice) was published in 1873. The mission of the newspaper was to unite Bohemian-Americans under the banner of Catholicism and give spiritual guidance to those who were at risk of losing their faith without the support of a church or priest. It had such a wide distribution that it reached out to the prairies or plains homesteads of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas, and also served Bohemians in all large American cities.
One very important mission that Father Hesson felt that St. John Nepomuk Parish could serve was to unite immigrants who did not have a church of their own. In an effort to preserve the faith of Poles, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Croatians and Slovenes, he welcomed them to St. John’s and helped guide them to founding their own parishes. This was also further accomplished by joining the Catholic Central Union in 1877.
It was at the church’s height in 1896 when about 1000 people were affiliated with the church in some way and almost 800 children were attending the school. The parish had grown so much that it sparked the founding of a new parish by Father Hesson, St. Wenceslaus. All of St. John’s buildings were in first class shape; its 2 large schools, Sisters’ house, rectory, church, parish hall, and all debts were nearly paid off.
It was also around this time when the Tornado of 1896 tore through south St. Louis and destroyed a number of churches, with St. John Nepomuk being one of the worst damaged. The church was nearly completely leveled except for the front wall of the main entrance where the date “1870” remained.
“When we of today glance at the 1870 above the entrance to our church, we can be reminded of the struggles of the Catholic Church in that fateful year, and of its ultimate triumph; and also of the brave struggles of the parishioners of that day who made such a great sacrifices, in which we share today, for the fruits of those sacrifices are our inheritance. May we of today be worthy of that heritage!” – Rev. Albert J. Prokes in 125th Jubilee of St. John Nepomuk Church (1979).
One of the school buildings was severely damaged along with the convent hall and rectory. It was a serious blow to the Bohemian community as the result of 30 years of hard work lay in rubble. Despite the low feelings after the storm, the Bohemian community did not dwell on things lost. By fall of 1896 they quickly began reconstruction efforts and worked to raise funds to rebuild. Their house to house collection raised $7,000 alone. In October of 1896 Father Hesson announced plans to rebuild the church for a cost of $35,000. The cornerstone was laid on March 21, 1897 in front of ceremonies, a parade, and the attendance of various national organizations. The new rebuilt church was blessed and dedicated on November 7, 1897.
St. John Nepomuk Church had much happiness and pride restored after the storm. A number of church wide events reenforced the tightness of the community, as well as drawing continued acceptance from all of St. Louis and the rest of the country. The work of Father Hessoun was also being recognized as far away as Rome, and so on July 7, 1896 Father Hessoun was raised to Monsignorship by Pope Leo XIII. Later on August 3, 1903 the parish held a golden jubilee for the newly promoted Monsignor. No one event more illustrated this prosperity for the parish as Monsignor Hessoun’s golden jubilee of ordination celebration a year later on August 3, 1904. This event was quoted as having been so festive “the likes of which never took place before and probably never will again.” The Archbishop Glennon was in attendance with the Pontifical High Mass sung by Bishop Meerschaert of Oklahoma. Many other outstanding clergy from all over the country were present for the joyous event.
On July 4, 1906 the pastor who had made such an enormous impact for St. John’s parish and Bohemian-Americas was called home to the Lord. Monsignor Hessoun’s death was a lose that was felt by the many projects, institutions, and organizations with which he had earned their respect. His resourcefulness and pioneering as a pastor was truly historic. The last festive event of the decade was in 1908 with the dedication of the Hessoun Orphanage, in memory of Monsignorship Hessoun. The pastor duties of Monsignor Hessoun at St. John’s were now fully being covered by Father Charles Bleha, as Father Bleha began assisting Monsignor Hessoun over the past seven years due to his failing health.
As you can imagine during the days of the Great Depression, the church funds were at a severe low. Since many of the parishioners were ordinary laborers, where funds may have been short the parish was rich with volunteering hands. In the decade following the market crash of 1929; repairs were seen in the hall basement in 1931, and a new floor in the main hall in 1932, entire basement remodeled in 1935. On September 25, 1938 the niche statues in the front of the church were a donation from Mr. William Wotawa, who did not live to see them. With the difficult means of the Depression, young people had very few opportunities for activity and entertainment. As a result the parish benefited with tighter relationships with young people than ever before.
It was also in 1929 when the brilliantly colorful stained glass windows were installed in the church. The artist, Emil Frei, was in Germany at the time, but in 1895 he and his new bride emigrated to San Fransisco through New York. By 1898 they had settled in St. Louis because of its large German population that made them feel more at home. In St. Louis he started the Emil Frei Art Glass company where it remains today.
On June 21, 1942 Father Prokes created a special organization called “The Home Front” to unite and show support for our soldiers during World War II. Its mission was; to show aid and comfort to our boys in the Service, to fulfill our patriotic duty as citizens, to join the Civil Defense Corps., and to aid the Red Cross. At Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving each soldier from the parish received a heartfelt package of a crucifix, a rosary, and a missal. Within one year as many as 102 men perished in the war, where they became part of the “Honor Roll. ” At the end of the war that number had jumped to 202, 21 of them alumni of the Hessoun Orphanage. The organization was funded by annual carnivals.
Once a year the parish celebrates the Crowning of the Holy Infant of Prague with a special service. The founders of the Czech church maintained their devotion to the Holy Infant of Prague when they came to America. As the history is told the original statue of the Holy Infant traces as far back as 1555, when the statue was presented to the Discalced Carmelites in Prague by Princess Polyxena von Lobkowicz. The Princess had received the statue as a wedding gift from her mother, who also received it as a wedding gift in 1555. One story goes that the statue was given by Saint Teresa of Avila.
The original statue, which has been attributed to miraculous healings, remains in Our Lady of Victory Church in Prague. When the founders of St. John’s came to America, they brought with them a replica of the original statue. Father Prokes asked his parishioners and friends to donate precious stones and gold in order to construct a special crown for the infant. Each year the special service for the Holy Infant of Prague includes the crown and other vestments honoring the infant statue.
St. John Nepomuk Church continues to serve as a spiritual beacon to the Bohemian Hill and Soulard neighborhoods, and to those of Czech heritage around the city. They hold worship services on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings, and welcome historic tours.
Many of the article’s sources are linked throughout the text, the following are sources outside of the internet.
- Rev. Albert J. Prokes, 125th Jubilee of St. John Nepomuk Church, (1979)
- Harris, Nini, Bohemian Hill: An American Story, (St. John Nepomuk Parish, 2004);
- Striritz, Mary M., St. Louis Historic Churches & Synagogues (St. Louis Public Library and Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Inc., 1995);
Special Thanks to:
Deacon Mike Buckley