St. Louis is home to the Gateway Arch, St. Louis-style ribs, a population that consumes more barbecue sauce than any other in the nation, and two historic Catholic cathedrals. St. Louis was founded by immigrants from France, Ireland, and Germany and named for St. Louis IX of France, a king of great faith. These immigrants brought their faith to their new homeland, and as a result, Catholicism has deep roots in the Gateway City.
The original cathedral, also named for St. Louis but often referred to as “the Old Cathedral,” is located near the Mississippi River and the Gateway Arch. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is “the New Cathedral.” The groundbreaking took place in 1907. Today, the structure looms large with its distinctive, green-tiled dome rising 217 feet. The building is reminiscent of some of the finest churches around the world: the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
The exterior is Romanesque in design, but the interior is Byzantine, with its hallmark domes and mosaics. The floor plan of the church resembles a cross, with the narthex, nave, and sanctuary making up the long part of the cross and the east and west transepts forming the crossbar.
As you open the hand-carved outer doors that are 14 feet high and 8 feet wide, prepare to be amazed. The cathedral’s interior is a work of art in keeping with tradition. In the early days of the Church, many of the faithful were illiterate. Paintings and mosaics depicted Bible stories, the crucifix reminded them of Jesus’s suffering and death, and statues of the saints honored holy men and women of the past and kept their memory alive.
Here are just a few reasons to visit the magnificent Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.
1. Mosaics, Mosaics, And More Mosaics
The cathedral’s mosaics are without equal in the Western Hemisphere. Twenty different artists used 41.5 million glass tiles in 7,000 colors to cover 83,000 square feet -- a project that began in 1912 and wasn’t completed until 1988. Each section of the church has a theme. Some of these include the story of creation, the Holy Trinity, the essential tenets of the Catholic faith, and the history of Catholicism in the Americas and in St. Louis.
The Historic Bay And Dome
After passing through the narthex, which is covered in mosaics depicting St. Louis IX, you’ll enter the historic bay. This section was the last to be finished. The south dome mosaic features the red seal of the Archdiocese of St. Louis against a blue background.
The historic bay is dedicated to American saints, significant events in the Catholic history of St. Louis (including the first Mass and the first baptism), and the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. One mosaic shows Joseph Cardinal Ritter welcoming black and white students to school in 1947. Integration in St. Louis happened seven years before the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in the nation’s schools.
The Central Dome
Between the historic bay and the sanctuary, the central dome rises 143 feet. Against a background of red tiles, four mosaics span the Old and New Testaments and are the artistic high points of the basilica. The mosaic depicting the Holy Trinity is based on an image from medieval France, the Throne of Grace. It shows God the Father cradling the crucified Christ beneath a dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit.
The Great Arches
The four great arches around the central dome feature mosaics representing the essential truths of the Catholic faith: creation, redemption, sanctification, and judgment. The Arch of Sanctification also depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove, and seven angels around him hold seven small doves, representing the virtues the Holy Spirit bestows: wisdom, understanding, right judgment, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
As you face the sanctuary, you’ll notice the mosaics on the Arch of Triumph. These depict Old Testament greats -- Noah holding a dove, David with his harp, and Solomon with the architectural plans of the temple he built -- as well as 12 saints, including St. Peter, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Patrick.
To the east of the central dome, the mosaic in the half dome depicts Christ’s resurrection. The west half dome depicts the feast of Pentecost, considered the birthday of the Catholic Church. The orange flame of the Holy Spirit engulfs all of the Apostles and Jesus’s mother, Mary.
2. The Sanctuary And Baldacchino
A marble crucifix hangs in the sanctuary flanked by statues of the Blessed Mother and St. John the Evangelist. A canopy, called a baldacchino, is located over the altar and supported by 14 Italian marble columns, each 2 feet in diameter and 20 feet tall. Statues of the Gospel writers -- Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- stand around the dome, which is a replica of the exterior central dome of the cathedral.
Mosaics also decorate the dome above the sanctuary. Here the 12 Apostles, each 14 feet high, are set against blue tile. A mosaic over the bishop’s chair, or cathedra, features a crown and a fleur-de-lis. The cathedra makes this church a cathedral, or the official seat of a diocesan bishop. An ombrellino, or umbrella, and tintinnabulum, or bell, are displayed near the altar. These two items signify that the church is a basilica. On April 4, 1997, Pope John Paul II designated the Cathedral of St. Louis a basilica, or an especially significant place of worship. This is why the church is now called the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.
3. The Rose Windows
Located behind the baldacchino and best seen from one of the side aisles is a red rose window featuring a gold cross and crown of thorns. This and the blue rose window on the south end of the cathedral were designed by Tiffany and Company.
4. The Four Chapels
Four intimate chapels are located on the periphery of the cathedral. They each have a special purpose.
To the east of the sanctuary is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Its bronze doors come from the Austrian Exhibit of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The benefactor of the chapel was the Honorable Richard Kerens, an ambassador to Austria. The chapel was completed in 1917, three days before Austria and the United States cut diplomatic ties before World War I. No photography is permitted in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, which is reserved for private prayer.
West of the sanctuary is the Blessed Virgin’s Chapel, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany himself. The chapel’s mosaics depict the life of Mary and her role in the Church. A plaque at the chapel’s entrance commemorates Pope John Paul II’s time spent here in private prayer during his visit to the basilica in 1999.
Louis Comfort Tiffany also designed the All Saints Chapel, located west of the historic bay. Mosaics depicting the saints line the walls, but the statue of St. Joseph is the most striking feature of the chapel. Don’t forget to marvel at the elaborate ceiling and floor, too.
The final chapel, east of the historic bay, is the All Souls Chapel. The black marble on the lower half of the chapel symbolizes death, while the white marble above symbolizes eternal life. Several cardinals and an archbishop are buried in the crypt beneath this chapel, including John Cardinal Glennon, who broke ground on the cathedral. The cardinals’ red hats hang from the chapel’s ceiling. A statue of the Risen Christ completes the chapel.
5. The Sacred Heart Shrine
One of the most recent additions to the basilica is the Sacred Heart Shrine in the west transept. It features a mosaic of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a replica of a Spanish painting. The artists used 30 types of marble and onyx to create the mosaic.
6. The Replica Of The Pieta
It’s hard to believe that Michelangelo was only 24 years old when he sculpted the Pieta. A bronze replica of his masterpiece is on loan to the cathedral and is located near the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
7. The Mosaic And Papal Museum
To better understand the art of making mosaics, visit the museum in the cathedral’s crypt, or basement. Paul Heuduck began working on the mosaics in 1912. At the time, his son Arno was six years old. Arno later took over where his father left off. The two men installed 90 percent of the mosaics in the church.
A second part of the museum commemorates Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1999. A special chair and a kneeler with needlepoint upholstery designed and sewn by the cathedral’s parishioners are on display.
What To Know Before You Go
Allow 1 to 2 hours for a visit. There is a lot to see!
The cathedral is wheelchair accessible.
Planning a visit to St. Louis? See what else the Gateway City has to offer on this page.