St. Joseph Croatian Catholic Church and Former Ursuline Convent

Convent of the Ursuline Sisters, Richard Henry Fuhrmann, Missouri History Museum, P0764-00556-4a

The old Ursuline Convent was built in 1850, on land purchased by Archbishop Kenrick with money apparently donated by the King of Bavaria. Devoted to teaching, at one point they managed nineteen schools around the Archdiocese. You can read about the Ursuline Sisters here at their website. They were named after St. Ursula, a famous saint who was martyred in the future German city of Cologne, which perhaps explains the Bavarian donation; there was also a large Ursuline presence in Germany anyway. It was also not the only convent in Soulard; there was one to the north, the Convent of the Sacred Heart on Broadway at Convent Street, and there was the Carmel of St. Joseph to the south. As the old photo above shows, we see a grand building in the Greek Revival/Neoclassical style as would be expected in the years before the Civil War for an institutional structure, reminiscent of St. Stanislaus Seminary.

Detail of Plate 28, Compton and Dry’s Pictorial St. Louis, 1876

Compton and Dry’s Pictorial St. Louis hands us a perfect window into the state of the convent in 1876, with each building labeled. We can even see the massive retaining wall on the north, east and south that holds up the compound after presumably street grading lowered the surrounding topography. A was the chapel, B was the Sisters’ residence, C was the Academy and D was the day school. There was probably a kitchen garden in the middle that provided food for the Sisters and for charity.

Whipple’s fire insurance map of St. Louis, Mo., 1892. Vol. 1, Plate 11

By 1892, fire insurance maps give us a window into how the Greek Revival/Neoclassical edifice was expanding and upgrading as the times changed. We can also see what each building was used for because everything was carefully labeled. The front lawn was filed in with a one story service building that flanked an expanded chapel that extended out for two more bays from the front fa?ade of the old building. The large school/academy building on the southwest corner (lower left) of the complex had been completed, as well.

Convent of the Ursuline Sisters, Richard Henry Fuhrmann, Missouri History Museum, P0764-00290-4g

The Sanborn map below in 1909 shows the convent close to its final iteration before the Sisters and their school moved west to Oakland. The neighborhood was no longer the suburbs, as it had been when it was first built

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, August 1909

The second act of what are some of the oldest buildings in St. Louis commenced in the early Twentieth Century. St. Joseph Croatian Roman Catholic Church, founded 1904, purchased the old Ursuline building in 1927, the year after the nuns moved out.

The chapel was converted into the church, with Cardinal Glennon laying the cornerstone, and the old convent and school buildings survived for the time being. However, by the 1950s, they were a century old, Soulard was starting to come under pressure for wholesale clearance itself, and surely modernization was the spirit of the age. Many of buildings around the church were torn down to the first floor, though it looks like the wing facing Russell is a heavily modified survivor of the 1850 structure.

Old Ursuline Convent, 12th and Russell, Photograph by E. Golterman, July 1927, Missouri History Museum, N39327

Above, you can see one of the original Neoclassical portals of the convent, which I suspect faced Twelfth Street (maybe). Below, facing the Russell Boulevard side, one of the portals survives, battered by soot and time, but still proudly hanging on.

Much of the rest of the convent, however, was gutted and torn down to either the first or second floors, as can be seen below.

Ursuline Convent, 1850-1926, Photograph by William Swekosky, 1951, Missouri History Museum, N05227

You can see the remains of the southern wing of the original convent building below, with the later one story addition in front of its along Twelfth Street.

Viewed from a distance, it begins to become more obvious how the old convent was converted into a more traditional church, though it is one of the most unique in St. Louis.

First of all, looking closely, it is obviously in the change from the red brick to the brown brick that the last two bays of the central chapel axis of the building that they were added later along with the simple Romanesque Revival fa?ade. However, it is also possible the red brick is a badly matched patch in the wall. I am not sure.

The fa?ade was also altered, as well, with the construction of three large portals in place of windows seen in the historic photograph above.

The spire probably dates to the 1950s or 60s, and is rare example of Modernist architecture in Soulard.

Moving south down the block, the academy building comes into view.

The academy was clearly converted into light manufacturing or warehouse space at some point, as it is a separate parcel and has had its windows bricked up or filled with unsightly glass block. There is a garage door in the front portal space.

One the north side, the white stuccoed wing is perhaps an incredibly old portion of the convent, if you compared its massing to Compton and Dry and other fire insurance maps above.

The one story wing facing Twelfth Street is still connected to it, as well. This portion of the building is perhaps the most intact women religious dwelling surviving in St. Louis.

Moving around to the south on Ann Avenue, the retaining wall is concrete, most likely due to the demolition of service buildings that once held up the earth right here.

It is at least ten to fifteen feet above street level at the corner of Eleventh and Ann here.

You can clearly see where the buildings and the old stone retaining wall met. I also wonder if the wall deteriorated and was replaced with concrete.

Also note on the back side that the chapel has a massive relief arch over the apsidal window.

Update: Two new images added below with new commentary in March of 2022.

Here is a detail of the back of the church; there is no apse in the traditional sense, at least not one that projects out the back of the building.

Judging from the brickwork, I now wonder if the vast majority of the church is a complete rebuilt of the original chapel.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Keith Murray says:

    Absolutely brilliant. One of your best realizations for our history.

    A life in St. Louis and with its churches and I never realized. Thank you!

    1. Chris Naffziger says:

      Thank you! I was actually a little embarrassed I had never noticed how multi-layered this building was before November.

  2. Michelle says:

    My great-grandfather was one of the original founders of the church.
    Thank you for this!

  3. Mariya Frohwitter says:

    I grew up in this church. It was so fun exploring it.

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