What is happening to the Jesuit gravesite and the remains of Father De Smet in Florissant?
In 1823, encouraged by Bishop Louis W.V. DuBourg of Louisiana Territory and U.S. President James Monroe, eight Belgian Jesuit missionaries built a log residence and Indian school in Florissant , thus beginning St. Stanislaus Seminary.
In 1840 a new “Rock Building” replaced the original log structures. Its three foot thick walls are indeed of limestone, quarried from the bluffs of the Missouri. At one time St. Stanislaus was totally self-sufficient, like a medieval monastery. Its 999 acres included an orchard, chicken ranch, cattle barn, wheat fields, vineyards, butcher shop, creamery and bakery.
But for the Jesuits the center of gravity moved to Saint Louis.
In 1971 the St. Stanislaus Seminary closed and in 1972 the Missouri Province sold all of its land from the Florissant Seminary to The United Pentecostal Church. The Missouri Province Jesuits were given use of the Rock Building and of the cemetery land for as long as they chose to use them as an historical site and cemetery. The newer buildings were sold to the Gateway College of Evangelism.
With the hard work of Fr. Heithaus and Fr. Faherty, the Old Rock Building was preserved as The Museum of the Western Jesuit Missions (700 Howdershell Road, Box 1095 Florissant, MO. 63031).
But after a presence of 180 years in Florissant, the Jesuits wrote their final chapter in 2002. The Missouri Province made the decision to move its collection of artifacts from the Rock Building at Florissant and to place them at new museum on the campus of Saint Louis University. That move is now complete and the museum on the former grounds of the Jesuit Seminary has been closed.
The Province also decided to move the remains of the 120 Jesuits buried in the "Mound Cemetery" and to relocate them to the Jesuit plot at the large St. Louis Catholic Cemetery where the remains of our other Jesuits lie.
A few of the 120 Jesuits buried in the “Mound Cemetery”:
Among those currently interred at the Calvary Cemetery are 359 Jesuits whose remains were moved from the Florissant Cemetery in 1972 when the Jesuit Seminary was closed. Since that time, all Jesuits who have died in the St. Louis area are also buried in the Calvary Jesuit plot.
With the closing of the Museum and the transfer of the graves, that land now reverts to its owner, The United Pentecostal Church. In Florissant only the old Saint Ferdinand chuch remains. In this church, which so much resembles the little churches in Flanders, Pierre-Jean De Smet was ordained a priest.
The Jesuit plot at Calvary Cemetery will be redesigned to provide a resting place for all the Jesuits.
It is difficult to accept the decision to abandon the “Mound Cemetery”, as it is the place where the Jesuit missionary work started and where the pionierJesuits found their final resting place. Once executed it will become irreversible!
In 1905 the famous engineer and historian Hiram Martin Chittenden wrote :
“The death of Father De Smet produced a deep grief in the city of St. Louis where he had made his home for almost exactly fifty years. His funeral was one of the most largely attended ever held in that city, and among the audience were many distinguished people. The funeral oration was pronounced by Monseigneur Ryan, Bishop Coadjutor of Monseigneur Kendrick, Archbishop of St. Louis, and was well worthy of its subject. The press universally gave testimony of the high estimation in which the departed Jesuit was held.
Father De Smet was buried in the little cemetery of the Novitiate at Florissant, at the foot of the grave of Father Verhaegen, who had come to this place with him just fifty years before.”
The people of Belgium, Flanders and the city of Dendermonde have not forgotten Pierre-Jean De Smet and all the other courageous missionaries who spent their lives christianising the natives and the immigrants living on the “frontier”. We dislike the idea that the remains of Father De Smet will be disturbed and that he and the other pioniers will have to leave “the little cemetery of the Novitiate” at Florissant.
We can only hope the U.S. citizens of 2002 show the same “the high estimation” shown in 1873.
(map indications Frank Petruso)