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Former St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church

Founded in 1891 and closed in 1993, the church of St. Agnes sits on a quiet stretch of Sidney Street at the intersection of Salena. It is currently vacant and has been for a number of years.

St. Agnes Catholic Church, James McNamara, Architect, Photograph by Emil Boehl, c. 1903, Missouri History Museum, N34567

It was designed by James McNamara, and if one looks closely, we can tell that this church was clearly associated with the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, due to the presence of the IHS monogram in the pediment. I wonder if McNamara was a Jesuit himself. You can see this monogram on another Jesuit-associated church in St. Louis, that of the Shrine of St. Joseph.

And of course, I can’t help but think of the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in Rome when I think of the saint in question. St. Agnes was martyred after pagans repeated tried to violate her chastity in various locations, including on the site of the church in Rome, which was the ancient Stadium of Diocletian (the medieval Piazza Navona, which survives to this day, takes its form from the buildings on its borders being built on the foundations of the old circus). The current church was designed by Francesco Borromini, one of my favorite Baroque artists (see two of his other churches here and here), and as usual, had to fit a large church in a small area.

I bring up Borromini’s church because I can’t help but notice that the central entrance has a vague and extremely simplified design reminiscent of McNamara’s design for St. Agnes here in St. Louis. I wonder if he had traveled to Rome as part of his training, if he was in fact a Jesuit.

The narthex, as we can see in the historic photograph above, was added later.

Also, heading inside of another famous Catholic Reformation church, Il Gesu, we see that the sunburst with the monogram of Jesus, IHS, also has a precedent in Rome. Could McNamara have just seen it in a print? Of course that is possible as well.

But Jesuits are very smart about their architecture and nothing is ever a coincidence.

As mentioned before, and can be seen in the historic photograph, people probably got tired of standing in the cold on the way into the nave, and this narthex was built out front to allow people to gather inside.

It sort of ruins the original composition but it’s historic at this point.

Looking at the twin towers out front, and reminding ourselves that they once held decorative urns on the four corners of their pediments, they also again are reminiscent of the precursors at St. Agnese in Agone in Rome.

Obviously, due to changing tastes and the predominance of red brick, the towers are much more simple than in the Borromini composition.

The church is much more than its front façade, though.

Around on the side elevations, it becomes very much a simple Romanesque Revival church, with a vaguely Second Empire style rectory attached to the east behind a broad lawn.

But the rectory shows that transition from the Second Empire that we see in South City in the 1880s and 90s.

Again, on the Salena side of the church it is relatively simple, with just some slightly projecting side chapels.

The convent, I learned from its owner who was out watering her plants when I walked by one day, was down the street in this house, which I suspect was built as a private residence. Note the cross over the doorway.

2 Comments

  1. I knew St. Agnes Church as a boy and was intrigued by the architect’s seeming influences, as well as your wondering about his Jesuit influences.

    The architect of St. Agnes, James H. McNamara, was a married Catholic, born in County Mayo, Ireland in 1839, who was quite active in St. Louis from at least the late 1860s to his death in 1910.

    He seems to have started as a draftsman and worked with Embly and Sons in the late 1860s on St. Francis Xavier Church in Jerseyville, IL. He also seems to have had connections to Thomas W Brady, architect of the former St. Boniface Church in Carondelet.

    McNamara was a leader and charter member in St. Louis architectural organizations (named a Fellow, AIA-St. Louis, 1889), worked for the federal government here as a Superintendent of Construction, and was a trusted and respected expert for construction-related lawsuits and complex agreements related to public works.

    He designed the plans for Cabanne House (FP HQ) in Forest Park (1875), but I find no listing of his other designs or buildings. He wasn’t a priest but he was active in Catholic activities, serving as a leader of the Knights of St. Patrick in St. Louis. He died suddenly at 70 at his residence at 3511 Park (probably a two-family; it’s gone but neighboring buildings still exist). He was buried at Calvary Cemetery from St. Francis Xavier on Grand Blvd.

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