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St. Mary Magdalen Church celebrates a century of service

SOUTHAMPTON – In the second decade of the 20th century, the city of St. Louis was growing to the southwest. The establishment of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church to the south in 1907 provided a place of worship for the faithful who lived in the area, but parishioners to the north weren’t satisfied.

So in 1919, a group of them sent a letter to then-Archbishop John Joseph Glennon, asking to have their own parish.

Glennon agreed, and in April 1919 sent a letter to the Rev. John J. Thomson asking him to form a new parish.

On Sept. 7, 1919, Thomson celebrated the first Mass

A store at 5351 Devonshire Ave. that served as the first St. Mary Magdalen church. The first Mass was Sept. 7, 1919.
of the new St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church at 5351 Devonshire Ave. (The site is the current home of Espresso Yourself Coffee & Cafe and the Heirloom Room.)

It was a small beginning for the parish, which later built the church building it now occupies at 4924 Bancroft Ave., just off Kingshighway Boulevard.

The church officially celebrated the 100th anniversary with events from September 2018 to Sept. 14 of this year. As the anniversary year continues, parishioners have much to remember.

Our existence for 100 years is a testament of a parish born out of an act of vision, consecrated in sacrifice, steeped in tradition, and tested in battle,” Joseph Miklovic, an informal historian for the church, wrote, in comments addressed to The SouthSider.  

There is the matter of the collection for the first Mass – just $53.25. But the spirit was strong.

“I think they were very committed. They raised a lot of money,” said Cookie Muntges, a member of the committee that organized centennial events.  

In 1920, the church spent $7,500 for what would become their current campus.  

Education was a priority for the church from the beginning. Fifty students attended the parish’s school when it opened in September 1920 at 4909 Devonshire Ave.

The first St. Mary Magdalen school in 1920.
 A mere seven students were in the first graduating class in 1923, but many more followed.

The cornerstone of the current school building was laid in March 1925. Two years later, the church moved into the school hall. It stayed there until 1940, when the current church and rectory were completed.

Wherever parishioners met, a variety of priests served them. Since 1919, the parish has had seven pastors, including Msgr. John J. Borcic, who has been pastor since 2008. 

This year, parishioners have been celebrating their centenary in a variety of ways. They’ve held a barbecue, sewn a quilt in honor of the anniversary, hung 100th anniversary banners on the exterior of church buildings and distributed a Centennial Christmas ornament. 

They collected canned goods during Lent for the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, retired more than 100 U.S. flags on Independence Day and bought sidewalk pavers for the church entrance. Parishioners feted the milestone at a banquet at The Cedars and read weekly memories and reflections in the church bulletin.

They look forward to the publication of a 100th anniversary book documenting its history. 

Priests who formerly served at the church celebrated Masses there, as did Archbishop Robert J. Carlson. 

Miklovic drafted and announced the questions for the 100th anniversary trivia game for St. Mary Magdalen. The questions would stump anybody who hasn’t attended Mass at the church for at least a decade.

One asks, “How did Ozzie get to work on snow-iced-over days?” 

If you worked on it, you might come up with the answer, “In his golf cleats.” But that wouldn’t tell you that Ozzie was in the first graduating class at the parish school in 1923, and that he was the maintenance man from 1938 to 2000.

Then there was this question: “Name the (future) Major League Baseball player who hit a home run over the dead center field fence of the baseball field while playing against St. Louis University? The answer is Reggie Jackson, while he played for Arizona State University.”

The baseball field was part of the 8.5 acres the parish bought in the fall of 1946 on the east side of Kingshighway for a youth center. The parish dedicated a bowling alley and youth center on part of that property in 1950. Now, a developer plans to use the land for a mixed commercial and residential area.

The man whose name is most connected to that youth area is Msgr. Louis F. Meyer, who was pastor from 1966 to 1984.

Meyer knew mayors, sports personalities, soccer and children. He held important youth positions with the Archdiocese of St. Louis and won several major local soccer awards. One story was that the Giants offered Meyer a baseball contract. But he was ordained as a priest in 1944.

“I was ordained with a Bible in one hand and my soccer shoes in the other,” Meyer said.  

Meyer was friends with then-Mayor Vince Schoemehl and knew other celebrities in the area. He was on numerous boards and had a long list of awards. 

He headed the Catholic Youth Council for the archdiocese from 1960 to 1985 and served the parish until 1985, when he moved to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Clayton.  In later years, Meyer was the chaplain of St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Meyer died in 2011. Times were tough in recent years. About 11 years ago, the parish sold the center to the CYC, and it became the Msgr. Louis F. Meyer Youth Center. Then about two or three years ago, it was closed. 

All that history was enough for the Board of Aldermen to recognized the centenary in a resolution passed on Nov. 1. The resolution took note that as of the end of 2018, the church had recorded 7,700 baptisms, 2,414 weddings and 4,714 funerals. 

In fact, until the school closed in 2005, it had a total of 18 principals and 3,404 graduates. That year, it consolidated with Our Lady of Sorrows to form a new school, St. Katharine Drexel.

All that’s a big deal to Miklovic.

“We celebrated these deeds, not as exploits, but as contributions to the greater good – circumstances where Christians take care of not just their own, but reach out to care for others,” he wrote in his remarks to The SouthSider.  “As a nursery rhyme has reminded generations of Christian children, gardens do grow.” 

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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