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St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church

St. Ambrose Catholic Church, Photograph by Emil Boehl, 1903, Missouri History Museum, N37753

St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church, as can be seen above, started out with much more humble accommodations than its current church, which dates from 1925. St. Ambrose, who was the archbishop of Milan when it was the capital of the late Western Roman Empire, is one of the Four Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. Doctor simply means “teacher” in Latin (the modern day advanced degree really simply conveys the qualifications to teach at the university level), so these four saints, which also include St. Augustine, St. Leo and St. Gregory, are recognized for their contribution to the understanding of the Roman Catholic faith.

Consequently, it is quite the honor that this parish is named after such an important saint, though it is logical since he hailed from Italy. We’ve looked at the Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan before; the earlier church replaced by the present Cathedral of Milan was where St. Ambrose famously prevented the Emperor Theodosius from entering after the Massacre of Thessalonica. There was once a St. Leo, which I’ve shown the site of in the past; St. Augustine, which I’ve covered extensively; and a St. Gregory in St. Ann from 1942 to 2002.

The current St. Ambrose sits in the “Italian Romanesque Revival Belt” that stretches across southwest St. Louis, and includes other churches such as St. John the Baptist in Bevo or Epiphany in Lindenwood Park.

It’s a beautiful structure, more in what I would specifically call the Lombard Romanesque Revival, referring to that region of Italy north of the Apennines but outside of the Veneto and Emilia-Romagna.

The clay for the bricks and terracotta was probably mined by parishioners in the mines deep under the Hill hundreds of feet below this church.

The main portal is a standout in the architecture of the church with complex terracotta ornament that comes out of Italian design of the Middle Ages.

The abbreviation D.O.M. and DIVO AMBROSIO are in Latin, and are loaded with history going all the way back to Roman history.

Both are in the dative case, which is the part of speech used for indirect objects, so the inscription is saying that the church is being given to, or being dedicated to somebody. The second part, DIVO AMBROSIO, is perhaps more easy to explain: it is simply Latin for “St. Ambrose.” Since it is a Second Declension noun, the dative noun and adjective endings are “O.” While there are prepositions in Latin, there are no need for them often since the reader can infer meaning from how the nouns are “declined.”

The first part, the abbreviation D.O.M., is ancient in origin, and is an adaption of the name of the most important temple in Rome, the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest, which was located on the Mons Tarpeius, the taller of the two summits of the Capitoline Hill, which you can see below. Jupiter Optimus Maximus means “Jupiter Best and Greatest,” so when early Christianity coopted ancient pagan religion, the phrase was changed to Deus Optimus Maximus, or God Best and Greatest. Since of course in the case of our church here in St. Louis, it is in the dative case and again the Second Declension, it is D(ivo) O(ptimo) M(aximo), meaning that the church is given to or dedicated to God the Best and Greatest.

Nowadays, the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest is in a complete ruin, and pretty much all that is left are the foundations, which go down to bedrock.

And one wall survives, quarried out of tufa rock, which once made up one of the walls of the cella, one of the three sanctuaries of the temple.

Back to St. Louis, we can enjoy the history of the church and its pedigree wrought in clay.

The two side portals flanking the main door are not too bad, either.

Like many churches in St. Louis, for structural simplicity, the windows of the clerestory, which in this case are round, are small, so there is no need for extensive buttressing.

The church and its outbuildings take up the entire block.

A side door includes another Latin inscription which simply says, “This is a holy place.”

The campanile towers over a network of clay tile roofs which remind me of my stay in Urbino in the mountains of central Italy back in 2012.

I like the parish school, which stretches out to the east from the back of the church; it’s in a sort of cool early Modern style with central entrance towards the classrooms and the gymnasium.

3 Comments

  1. Great post! So “Divo Ambrosio” can mean to “divine or god-ly” Ambrose? Some historians sniff at the Theodosius massacre, but not much later Justinian didn’t have any qualms about slaughtering the Blues and Greens, so it sounds plausible to me. I hope you revisit Our Lady of Sorrows. There is hopefully still a little walkway between rectory and convent I used to enjoy going through.

    • There was no concept of sainthood in ancient Roman religion, so early Christian theologians had to use what words they had on hand. “Divus” was as close as they could find to what we now call “saint” in English. “Sanctus” is not quite the same meaning in Latin even though it is obviously the root word for our word saint and is frequently used, for example for Sanctus Ludovicus, “St. Louis.”

  2. St Aloysius Gonzaga was the nearby parish I grew up in. Sadly it was demolished.We were always told that the Italian community held church services in the basement of the old St Al’s hall until they could complete their church on the Hill.

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