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  • Writer's pictureFred Hodes

St. Louis's First Bishop

Bishop Louis William Valentine DuBourg

Because the Louisiana Territory came under American political control, the papacy gave the fledgling American church charge of administering the area. Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore appointed the French revolutionary exile, the Rev. Louis William Valentine DuBourg, as ecclesiastical administrator and sent him to New Orleans in 1812. DuBourg, born to a merchant father in Saint-Domingue, began as a religious order priest (Sulpician), had spent his years as a priest in America. In New Orleans the Capuchin Fray Antonio de Sedella, rector of the Cathedral, saw no reason for DuBourg's coming and doubted Carroll's right to send him. Some of the harassment centered about DuBourg's royalist leanings in a city where the French delighted in Napoleon's victories. When peace came in 1815, DuBourg traveled to Rome to settle who would govern the diocese. Pope Pius VII made DuBourg "Bishop of Louisiana and the Floridas." Because DuBourg did not want to return to the harassment he had suffered in New Orleans, he decided he would move to St. Louis on a temporary basis. After recruiting several religious for his new diocese, he returned to America by way of Annapolis. He imposed on his friend Bishop Flaget of Bardstown, Kentucky, to travel to St. Louis and announce DuBourg's intentions of coming to St. Louis and report the reaction.


The 1776 log church

While in Rome, DuBourg recruited a number of religious from the Vincetian order to serve in his diocese. This large contingent of five priests, four brothers, and four seminarians arrived in Baltimore on June 12, 1816, and slowly headed west for St. Louis by way of Kentucky. Reverend Felix de Andreis, C. M., served as their superior and Reverend Joseph Rosati, C. M., assisted him. As a result, DuBourg did not have to depend on the Capucians at New Orleans to staff his diocese. Bishop Flaget had to meet with the various religious recruited by DuBourg and then travel to St. Louis to announce DuBourg’s coming.


The indispensable Rev. Felix de Andreis

When Bishop Flaget visited St. Louis, he found no real opposition to DuBourg's coming. There was a general indifference and some concern about support of the church if DuBourg expected the locals to carry the burden. Bishop DuBourg arrived in St. Louis on January 5, 1818, and was well received. Two days after his arrival, he asked for a new brick church to replace the dilapidated log structure. Pledges were made and some non-Catholics pledged support. Many of the town leaders saw the value of St. Louis’s becoming another administrative center. DuBourg held several meetings to sell his plans for locating at St. Louis. At one of these assemblies, it was probably Patrick Lee who expressed concern about the St. Louis parish supporting the bishop when his expenses should be borne by the entire diocese. Perhaps collecting the pew fees had worn him down.

DuBourg set about raising money to pay for his new brick cathedral. The first subscription drive raised $6,566 of the expected $20,000 cost. The bishop received support from several prominent Protestant politicians such as William Clark, Alexander McNair (whose wife was Catholic), Frederic Bates, and Thomas Hart Benton. A few months later M. P. Leduc collected an additional $1,303.36.

Bishop DuBourg moved quickly to revitalize the church in St. Louis. On Holy Thursday he ordained one of his seminarians: Francis Niel. On March 29, 1818, he laid the cornerstone of his new brick "cathedral" to the south of the old church on Second Street. By November 1818, with the roof completed, the church could be used temporarily. The middle nave measured 135 by 40 feet, with planned side aisles that were never constructed. The arches were filled in “temporarily” so the building could be used. The Panic of 1819 caused a cessation in raising the money necessary to complete the building.

The formal dedication of the church took place on January 9, 1820. With each passing year, the inadequacy of the structure prevented further work. In several years it became obvious that it would be better to build a new church than complete the brick building.

With his years of experience in America dealing with Protestants, Bishop DuBourg did nothing to upset or annoy the newly established Americans who were not Catholic. Henry Von Phul wrote John Brackenridge and commented that the incoming Catholic clergy had only a “most evangelical Spirit.”

So, the relatively sudden appearance of a substantial Catholic clerical presence did not upset the local scene. Several years earlier, Brackenridge had written the Gazette and described in disparaging comments the Trappists at the Big Mound across the river. Later Brackenridge included his description and comments in his Views of Louisiana. Perhaps those negative comments elicited Von Phul’s comments after DuBourg’s arrival.

Bishop DuBourg was an energetic visionary and promoter, ever ready to begin another project once he saw the task at hand started. Others would finish the construction and pay the final bills. Two days after laying the cornerstone for his brick cathedral in St. Louis, he was off to Perryville, some eighty miles south of St. Louis. There, in an area known as the Barrens (no trees in a generally forested area), some eighty Catholic families had settled. They were Americans from Maryland, and of English ancestry, not French. They offered the bishop 600 acres of fertile land on which to build a large seminary for the diocese; they would even pay some of the cost of the start-up. This offer, they correctly reasoned, would guarantee them priests to serve in their community. After the deal was struck and the building started, DuBourg ordered the seminarians he had recruited to come immediately from Kentucky where he had left them.


Almost immediately after starting the seminary at St. Mary's, DuBourg launched another project. In Europe he had recruited nuns from the order of the Sacred Heart, to minister to Indian tribes. The order chose to send Philippine Duchesne, with choir sisters Octavie Berthold and Eugenie Aude, and lay sisters Catherine Lamarre and Marguerite.

On August 21, 1818, they arrived in St. Louis, by way of New Orleans. DuBourg wanted them to staff a school at St. Charles, despite the offer of John Mullanphy to locate them at Florissant. The Religious of the Sacred Heart sent five nuns to America under the leadership of Rose Philippine Duchesne, (canonized in 1988), for missionary work. Before they arrived, DuBourg decided to send them to St. Charles to educate local girls instead of actual work in the Indian missions. The nuns opened the first free school for girls west of the Mississippi on Sept. 14, 1818, in St. Charles.

St. Rose Philippine Duchesne in mosaic in the New Cathedral

The nuns complained about the change in their planned missionary work, especially when it was obvious that the population was not enough to support the operation. DuBourg intended that the facility would service the entire region, but the Missouri River often cut off many would-be students.

In 1819 DuBourg had the nuns move to Florissant, so fewer girls had to cross the Missouri River. The economic collapse of the time made the operation more difficult to continue. As a result, the convent went into debt to construct its building. John Mullanphy loaned $2,000. Bishop DuBourg gave the convent several oil paintings, one of which was the Sacred Heart (to whom the order was dedicated) and several of various saints. From France, unloaded and sent from St. Louis, the convent received altar furnishings, a crucifix, candle holders, materials for vestments, along with colored paper, books, and seeds for their garden. The shipment from France also included a piano, which must have presented an interesting shipping bill.

The increasing number of English-speaking Catholics, mostly Irish, brought pressure to preach some of the sermons in English. The Sunday morning “high Mass” always had a sermon in French. Upon his arrival with several priests and seminarians who were quickly ordained, DuBourg, who had a good command of English, ordered that the sermon following Sunday evening vespers be given in English. Usually, Fr. DeAndreis, and later Fr. Niel, delivered these English language sermons.

There was method to DuBourg's spreading of institutions. As an order priest, he sought to anchor religious life around religious institutions rather than around the usual parish/priest structure. The southern portion of the St. Louis area, Ste. Genevieve-St. Mary's, would be anchored by the seminary at St. Mary's. The new convent at St. Charles would anchor the St. Charles/Florissant western area. St. Louis would have the cathedral and soon a college.

His apparent decentralizing of religious institutions out of St. Louis might later be thought awkward because St. Mary's and St. Charles both had very difficult times. However, Bishop DuBourg was using them to accomplish more than the narrow intent of the institution itself. By placing these institutions "outside the city," he did not intend to shield them from any urban contamination, an interpretation perhaps suggested in future generations. But rather he viewed this dispersal of institutions as a means to support and minister to the rural population that contained a large percentage of the inhabitants.

The energetic Bishop DuBourg wanted not only a cathedral, but also a college to go with it. He devoted four of his priests to the project and opened his school almost immediately. For a building he was given the use of the house of a Mrs. Alverez, located across the street from the church block, on the north side of Market, between Second and Third. It opened as an academy for boys, high school age or younger. It quickly became a real college when DuBourg moved some of his seminarians from his intended seminary to St. Louis to complete their education. So St. Louis University counts its foundation from 1818. The ad, which appeared both in English and French, reflected the times:


The Rev. Mr. Niel, assisted by three other clergymen, under the

auspicies and superintendence of the Right Rev. Bishop, will open on the

16th, November next, in the house of Mrs. Alverez, Church Street, an

Academy for young gentlemen.

None will be admitted before he can read at least tolerably well. The

branches of instruction will be the Latin, English, and French Languages,

Arthmetic, the elements of Mathmatics and Geography, according to the

ability of the pupil and the intention of the parents.

Such as may be disposed to encourage this institution as desired to

transmit during the month of October their names to Mr. Niel at the

Bishop’s, and not delay sending their children after the commencement, in

order that a proper distribution of the classes may be made at once,

without confusion or loss of time.

Terms: twelve dollars per quarter, payable in advance. Books and

stationary at the expense of the parents -– each pupil must have a bag to

bring in and carry out his books, for the eventual loss of which the

masters do not hold themselves answerable.


Very quickly, a brick building was erected on Second Street, just south of the new brick Cathedral.

St. Louis Academy, from which SLU and SLUH trace their origins

On March 10, 1820, Jeremiah Connor announced his intention to donate two city blocks to Bishop DuBourg for the future home of the fledgling St. Louis College. The ground was an open field near Judge Lucas's property at what would be about 8th and Washington, well outside the town. The occupation of this site occurred years in the future; at this time the college struggled alongside the brick cathedral in the heart of the town.

Excerpted from Beyond the Frontier, 2005, by Dr. Frederick A. Hodes


When the massive diocese of Louisiana and the Two Floridas was divided in 1823, Bishop Rosati took over in St. Louis, while DuBourg returned to New Orleans. Still opposed by factions in lower Louisiana, Bishop DuBourg resigned his post in 1826 and returned to France, serving as Bishop of Montauban and then Besancon.  Bishop DuBourg died as the Bishop of Besancon on December 12, 1833.



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