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Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Saint Louis, Missouri

Rating: 14 votes, 4.93 average.
A historic church in North Saint Louis is adorned by beautiful sacred art — priceless Emil Frei windows, Byzantine icons, statuary — and is home to a caring priest and dedicated staff who are working hard to keep their church and school doors open…

Golden mosaics from The Holy Trinity Catholic Church altar — The Alpha and Omega (I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End…), The Lamb of God — and communion rail elements (mosaic-inlaid marble posts, gothic arches) — adorn our video frame. Click the "play" button, and enter this beautiful church in St. Louis, Missouri.

Before progress changed its landscape, and its Bremmen neighborhood to Hyde Park — early watercolor view of The Holy Trinity Catholic Church.
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For over 111 years, the 215-foot twin stone spires of The Holy Trinity Catholic Church have crowned the skyline of North St. Louis — before the Great Tornado of 1927 destroyed part of the church and devastated the city; before federal GI home loans that excluded inner-city areas and caused a mass migration to the suburbs; before Interstate 70 dealt the coup de grace to its neighborhood, destroying hundreds of homes; and before signs of progress — BP and Phillips 66 to mention just two — and a forest of electric columns and wires vied for visibility with its elegant, slender belfries (see watercolor, left).

"Your destination is ahead, on the left." My trusted GPS electronic companion has guided me to The Holy Trinity.

And what a destination it is: The Holy Trinity is a grand church, its front decorated with lancet windows and small decorative Gothic arches. A Wheel Window (similar to a Rose Window, but made up entirely of carved stone) is centered under the roof peak and between the two clock faces at the base of the bell towers. Octagonal stone peaks that end in elaborate spire-like finials reach a height of 215 feet, making the Holy Trinity visible for miles.

I walk up the twelve steps leading to the front door, shooting the ornate wrought iron hinges (see photo, bottom of page, left). The door frames are lined with clusters of carved-stone shafts with flat buttresses on either side capped with pyramidal terminations. Above the central door of the church there's a relief of The Holy Trinity: The Holy Ghost, in the form of a dove above the depiction of God the Father embracing the body of the Son after Jesus' Descent from the Cross.

It's a Monday, about 9:00 a.m., and dark clouds fill the sky. It started to rain the day before, as I was leaving The Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashvile. To my delight, in the narthex of this magnificent cathedral I found a beautiful Nativity and a window of The Annunciation (I plan to share them with you in the future).

But little did I suspect as I drove by famous Ryman Auditorium — the so-called mother church of Country Music — and crossed the Cumberland River that its waters would flood and destroy so much of Nashville.

It rains hard all the way to St. Louis where I arrive late at night. The famous Arch pierces the dark sky, a silver arc marking America's Gateway to the West and a beacon for me: I stay in its shadow, by the old Riverfront, just minutes away by foot from The Basilica of St. Louis, King of France.

A school sign, evidence of The Holy Trinity founders' commitment to education.
The massive columns and pediment of "The Old Cathedral," as it is known, remind me of a Greek temple. With the Arch in the background, The Old Cathedral is one of those Kodak moments, and I oblige. Then I head north on I-70, and a few miles later I reach The Holy Trinity.

All three front doors are closed, so I walk down the front steps admiring the curved balustrades that are pierced by Gothic arches. Around the corner, camera case wheeling behind me, amidst all the brick-red two- and three-story houses that once housed a formerly vibrant German immigrant community I see a patch of bright yellow: a school bus with the words "Most Holy Trinity Catholic Academy & School" written in black.

The street is empty, save for the bus and a few parked cars. I pass the school and walk to the other side of Mallinckrodt Street. A wrought iron gate decorated with bright, painted, sheet metal, Easter eggs hanging from a wire (see photo, left) has caught my eye.

The stucco gate posts lean just a bit out of true, and gravity is keeping the gate open. I try to close it for my photo, but every time I try all I accomplish is an extremely loud "bang!"

"May I help you?"

I'm startled to see a woman in a blue pantsuit, red blouse, and glasses standing beside me. Absorbed as I have been with trying to bang that gate shut I don't hear her walk up.

Dr. Ann Russek, Principal of Holy Trinity Catholic School, catches me banging the administration building gate shut — but welcomes me with a smile just the same.
The woman is holding bunches of keys hanging from a long, green, ribbon, and a stack of notebooks, and says, pleasantly, "Hello. I'm Ann Russek, the School Principal."

I shake her hand and tell Ann about my almost 4,000 mile work-and-church trek — on this trip — in search of photo locations. And about my pilgrimage in search for The Nativity.

"Our School will be 161 years of age at the end of this year," Ann says, "the oldest operating school in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Our Holy Trinity Parish will be ending its 162nd year. It was started by Franciscan nuns from Indiana who taught boys. This wall and gate were built to enclose the convent, which later became the School, and is now the administration building. We have Kindergarten through 8th Grade, 151 children, and we're hoping to increase that number this year.

"Holy Trinity was built by Joseph Conradi, a Swiss architect. The archdiocese refers to it as Most Holy Trinity, but Father Rich says you can't have 'most' without 'least' — and how can you be holier than "holy?" So he dropped the 'most.'

"The Holy Trinity has beautiful stained glass windows. Visitors go into the church and say, 'How remarkable!' It's a wonderful place to find yourself alone in."

Is there a Nativity Window?

"There is: on the left side of the altar — and on our Christmas card. Father Rich — our remarkable priest, a holy person, who has been here for fifteen years — had back surgery, so I can open the church for you."

And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? Genesis 3:9 — Detail from The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, by Emil Frei, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, St. Louis, Missouri.
We walk by red-brick houses that line the street, a few of their large, white-trimmed windows and and some doors covered with plywood. "One of these empty houses was purchased by a donor, to protect the church," Ann says. "We're getting the other two from the city, and the Pulitzer foundation is setting up a photography and art studio for our school in them."

Ann opens a side door, and we enter in The Holy Trinity. "I do Saturday school," Ann says, "so I often come in on a Saturday afternoon, when the church is quiet. On a sunny day, when the light is coming through the windows, you You feel very calm, reflective; you do feel the presence of God.

"This is my first year here, and on Good Friday evening the church was dark, as it is today, except for the lighted pulpit. But on the upper right hand," she points high above the altar, "you see the figure of Christ coming out of the grave? All of the other windows were dark, but you could see the outlines of The Resurrection that Friday night, as you can now. It was very beautiful."

I can't believe my eyes — or ears. It's not just all the marvelous stained glass windows, but the Holy Trinity's remarkable acoustics that leave me with my mouth open: Ann's words are carried aloft, to the top of arches and rib vaults, only to be echoed back as many voices, but quiet, ethereal. It's a mystical, magical moment: sound is amplified, multiplied, only to — whole seconds later, count 'em: one-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three, one-thousand-four — fade away as the softest echo.

I can just hear how beautiful the choir must sound in this glorious chruch, and I ask Ann, may I chant?

Ann says, "Please; and I'll call Father; I know he'll want to meet you."

I stand in front of the first row of pews, facing the altar. My eyes drift upwards, to the window of the Resurrection. The sun is just now beginning to come out from the clouds, and the window glows. I begin to sing, and The Holy Trinity's superb acoustics transform my simple chant into the sweetest sound. And I'm no longer chanting alone, as though a chorus of chanters have joined me in antiphonal song.

Christós anésti ek nekrón,
Thanáto Thánaton patísas,
Kai tis en tis mnímasi,
Zoín harisámenos.

The poetic Greek words of Orthodoxy's triumphal hymn of the Resurrection — Christ is Risen from the dead/trampling death by death/and to those in the tombs, bestowing life — travel to the very top of the Holy Trinity (play video, top of page), and echo back as if in affirmation that, "Indeed He is Risen!"

Reverend Richard H. Creason, Pastor, has served The Holy Trinity for fifteen years, and is recipient of the St. Charles Lwanga Center 2010 Fr. Edward F. Feuerbacher Lifetime Achievement Award: "For being a faithful servant and dedicated Christian who is committed to living out the Gospel of the Lord."
"God bless you," says Reverend Richard H. Creason, Pastor of the Holy Trinity, who has entered through an altar door. "That was beautiful."

Your blessing, Father, and thank you. What a beautiful church!

"The Holy Trinity," Father Rich says after sitting down at a front pew, "goes back to my childhood roots. I had an aunt and uncle who lived on 19th street here, and cousins who lived around the corner on Mallinckrodt. My cousin's husband, who was my Godfather, came here from Austria when he was 14-years-old — and they put him in the first Grade of Clay School because he couldn't speak English.

"We used to come visit my Godparents and this church when I was a kid. Everything about city life fascinated me when I was a child: you had houses with gangways and second-story walk-ups, stores right in the middle of a block.

"Of course, churches fascinated me to no end. So that's how it all started for me."

"I've told Alexis a bit of our history," Ann, who is sitting next to Father Rich, says. And looking at me, she adds, "But Father is the real historian."

"This was the Village of Bremen," Father Rich says, "named after Bremen, in Germany. Now it's called Hyde Park. This church is Gothic Romanesque, as you can tell, and the stained glass windows are from the Munich School. They were created by Emil Frei, and Emil Frei Stained Glass still maintain them for us.

"They have a studio in Kirkwood, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb, and, to this day, they import their glass from Munich. They say, to do windows like these would be prohibitive today, so there's no call for them anymore. They were here last week, with their fabulous 60-foot ladder they use for repairs.

"When I was appointed pastor fifteen years ago we merged with the St. Augustine and St. Liborius parishes to the north of us. We still have a lot of neighborhood folks that attend Holy Trinity — our primary mission is to the people who live here — but we welcome anyone from any place. Our parishioners belong to over 15 separate zip codes. We are always trying to reach people."

"I told Alexis about visitors who come in from the highway," Ann says. "One man on the bus tour last week had been married here. Most, but not all, had some relationship in the past to this church, which I found astounding."

"There was a couple here yesterday," Father Rich says, "who totally surprised me: they were celebrating their anniversary, married 65 years ago in this church.

"Holy Trinity doesn't look exactly as it was originally designed, because of the tornado and the last parish merger. When that happened, the ambo [pulpit] was brought here, and this new predella was built: it was a choir stall in St. Liborius Church that they fabricated into an altar.

"But the biggest change at Holy Trinity was because of the tornado: the baldacchino over the altar was not part of the original design of the church. The pastor who was here in those days was legendary — he served Holy Trinity for 45 years — and loved to refer to the Holy Trinity as the Cathedral of North St. Louis. So he wanted a baldacchino that rivaled the one in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis!

The Fourth Station of the Cross: Jesus Meets His Mother, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, St. Louis Misouri.
"Did you see The Crucifixion, above the altar? One of our oldest parishioners said she was totally shocked, because there used to be a Rose Window there. When people came to church one day, the Rose Window was gone — and the Crucifixion had taken its place." (See The Crucifixion in the video).

"The tornado was on September 29th, 1927, which is the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel. And St. Michael's job is to be a guardian and protector. On either side of the church roof there are two very nicely sculpted statues of St. Michael standing, guarding the church. But on the South side, because of the tornado, he's missing part of the sword and his right hand. And because, the story goes, he didn't do his job, the pastor who created the baldacchino refused to restore St. Michael's hand. Because, it is said, St. Michael failed to protect the church from the tornado.

"Please take all the time and photos you need," Father Rich says, "And do stop by the Rectory next door before you leave; we'll have a little present for you."

With Father Rich returning to the Rectory and Ann back to the school, I find myself alone in The Holy Trinity. As clouds give way to sun, the dark church is transformed by the light filtering through polychrome stained glass. What have been dim, gray, outlines — like The Crucifixion, for example, in the dark apse of the altar — can now be seen as beautiful iconography.

Holy Trinity is filled with works of sacred art: sculpted Angels, Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Liborius, the elaborate Stations of the Cross resting on triangular platforms between the stained glass windows.

But you might say that the glory of the Holy Trinity — besides its architecture and acoustics — is its Emil Frei stained glass windows.

I walk along the outside aisles of the church, trying to take them all in. Suddenly, at the sight of the Lord God surrounded by a burning flame, I feel a shiver down my back. With flowing white hair and beard, hands crossed under rich robes, The Lord is standing, looking down at a naked, cowering Adam, and a animal-skin-clad Eve. Hanging from the Tree of Knowledge is a red apple and an emerald Serpent.

Does Paradise Lost get any more powerful than Emil Frei's depiction of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden? (See detail, top of page, left)?

Throughout the church, Emil Frei's mastery is evident in every window: in The Baptism of Christ, The Crucificion, The Annunciation, The Nativity, to mention just a few of the Holy Trinity's stained glass treasures.

Then, amidst all the stunning stained glass I see a Byzantine icon decorating the Gospel open to the Fifth Sunday of Easter: Christ carrying the Lost Sheep on His shoulders, inscribed with the Greek words, O Poimin O Kalos, (The Good Shepherd).

The Mother of God tenderly holds the infant Jesus who visualizes His Passion, represented by the spear, sponge, and cross held by Archangels Michael and Gabriel — The Virgin Mary of the Passion Byzantine icon, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, St. Louis, Missouri.
Adjacent to the Gospel, behind three tall candles, there's a Russian icon of The Holy Trinity, Andrei Rublev's 14th famous depiction of the visit of Three Angels to Abraham and his wife Sarah.

Amidst the beauty of The Holy Trinity, I find myself spending more time admiring than shooting. Hours go by, and then I see it: on a wall, to the left of the altar, a Byzantine icon of The Mother of God, set in a gilded frame and set-off from the wall by four columns.

As I approach, I instinctively bow and cross myself in reverence. The icon depicts The Virgin Mary of the Passion (I Panagía Ton Pathón, in Greek.) The Mother of God holds the infant Jesus Who, with both hands, tenderly holds the right hand of the Virgin Mary. The Child Jesus is looking up, at the Archangel Gabriel who is holding a cross, symbol of Christ's Passion. To the left of the icon, the Archangel Michael holds the lancet and sponge, likewise symbols of the Crucifixion.

This icons is a reminder that Catholicism and Orthodoxy are sister churches. And, as if one more reminder was needed about this unity of faith, there it i, on the front of the altar: in red letters set in a gold mosaic background the Greek letters Alpha and Omega — The beginning and the End (please see video frame, top of page).

Hours have gone by since my arrival, and I still have over 600 miles to go to my next destination, but who wants to leave?

As I exit the church on my way to the Rectory, I see that I'm not the only photographer visiting The Holy Trinity today. A young woman is taking photos of the front door wrought iron hinges I had just photographed a few hours before (see photo, left). She's Kristin Butler, traveling with her husband Adam.

"We came to visit relatives," Kristin says, "and we stopped, because we saw the church from the Interstate.

I'm sure a lot of people keep on driving. What made Adam and Kristin get off the highway?

Today, the decorative doors and wrought-iron hinges of The Holy Trinity attract not one, but two, photographers. Above the door, in a relief of The Holy Trinity, God the Father holds in His arms the Son, after Jesus' descent from the cross.
"Where we come from, in the Bible Belt," Adam says, "we don't see a lot of churches like this, so we were intrigued. We have very nice, large, churches, and in fact I've helped build many of them. (I do design for an architectural firm.) But they don't compare to this. Nothing of this level. We renovated a very ornate, old Catholic church in Huntsville, Alabama, and doing that was awesome for me."

"I do weddings, portraits, landscapes, commercial work," Kristin says, "and love shooting churches. On this trip, Adam and I visited St. John the Baptist in Savannah. What a gorgeous church."

"It's a veritable art museum," Adam says.

What a coincidence — I tell Adam and Kristin that I was just in Savannah myself, that I spent hours at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and that they also must see Charleston's homonymous cathedral.

The Butler's ask me if the church is open, and I ask them to follow me to the Rectory. There, Sr. Janice Munier, Pastoral Associate at Holy Trinity, greets us and takes Kristin and Adam to the church through the Rectory garden.

Father Rich greets me and introduces Kim Lenz, Holy Trinity Church and School Financial Development Director.

"You were there for awhile," Kim says. "There's a spirit there.

Then, with enthusiasm, she talks to me about the church and the school. "There have been over 17,000 baptisms here at Holy Trinity, and the Holy Trinity reach is out to all areas of St. Louis. In fact, we opened a Facebook account for Holy Trinity in January and had people from all over the world signing in. Our reach is very broad, and I think that's why we continue to be strong, even though the population has moved away.

"We're an Access Academy, a special foundation that helps middle school children. Our Middle Schoolers come in from eight in the morning to five-thirty at night, and they go to Saturday school, from eight to noon. They are also required to go to summer school with us.

"We stay with them all the way through High School, because we want to make sure these kids are engaged and graduate. Graduation rate is generally around 92 percent.

"There's a spirit there, and The Holy Trinity reach is to all areas of St. Louis," says Kim Lenz, Holy Trinity Church and School Financial Development Director.
"We're about 93 percent free and reduced lunch, and almost all of our children come here on scholarships. The tuition, $2,700 a year, may not sound like a lot of money, but it's out of reach for many of our families. Imagine the value that you get for this sum, the kind of education and stick-to-it-veness that we're giving these kids.

"Our school takes part in a program called 'Succeeding with Reading'. This program was developed by Josh Goldman, who recently received his Masters from Washington University. Josh applied to the Pulitzer Foundation for a grant to tie into Holy Trinity's 'Succeeding in Reading' program — and we received that award!

"The program for the last few months is multi-fold. Professional photographers arm our younger students with Canon cameras, and then take those students out into our community, teaching students how to take pictures.

"Then those students come back and work with artists, learning the language and meaning of the composition of their photos. Finally, professional journalists join the class, and using the digital images captured by the children, assist our students in writing about the photos, capturing the picture in 'a thousand words.' Journalism is a close neighbor to reading — thus the tie-in to 'Succeeding with Reading.' Our aim is to make learning a fun process at many levels, and many angles.

"On May 15th, our students' work will be on display and for sale at the Pulitzer Downtown, on Washington Avenue. A shuttle will run individuals from Washington Avenue to Holy Trinity, where our children will talk about their work and about their semester of learning.

"Our school doubled in size," Kim says as she presents me with a set of colorful notecards featuring the Frei window of The Annunciation. "We left school last year with 82 kids, and we enrolled this fall with 150. The life is definitely here."

Father Rich sees me to the door and smiles for a photo. Just to our right the Holy Trinity stands, the top of its spires disappearing into the blue sky. Just beyond, you could almost hear the sound of busy I-70.

"Because we are so visible from the highway," Father Rich says, "I feel The Holy Trinity's extension into the city.

"We live in uncertain times. Families are at risk, the church is at risk, and the city is a place that a lot of people consider at risk. So The Holy Trinity stands as a symbol of hope to our whole city. So when I walk into the sanctuary, that is the connection I make for myself."

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While in, or driving by St. Louis, you won't want to miss seeing The Holy Trinity Catholic Church, 3519 14th Street, Saint Louis, Missouri, 63107, (314-241-9165). For more information, visit The Holy Trinity website.

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The Adoration of the Magi, by Emil Frei, The Holy Trinity Catholic Church, St. Louis, Missouri.

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