Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Photos of Saint Anselm Church, in Creve Coeur, Missouri

Here are photos of Saint Anselm Church, located about 17 highway miles west of downtown Saint Louis in the suburban town of Creve Coeur, Missouri.

Modernism in Catholic churches isn't exactly my cup of tea, but this building, completed in 1962, has its charms. It was designed by the Saint Louis-based Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (, one of the world's largest architectural firms.

From the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus website:
Even St. Louisans who generally dislike modern architecture are apt to make an exception for the Priory Chapel, as the church of the St. Louis Abbey is still popularly known. From a distance, its tiers of parabolic arches seem to be lifting off from its green ridge, and from inside, the sense of soaring is even more pronounced. Three men share the major credit for this: Gyo Obata, the architect; Pier Luigi Nervi, his consultant; and the first prior, Father Columba Cary-Elwes, who insisted on a real church rather than a small chapel. Cary-Elwes was able to achieve this goal thanks to the generosity of an anonymous family of donors. Obata, the design partner in the internationally known firm of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) of St. Louis, probably had less to do with obtaining the commission for the chapel than his partners George Hellmuth and George Kassabaum, who were both active Catholics; Kassabaum sent four sons to the Priory School.
The parish is staffed by Benedictine monks of the Saint Louis Abbey, who also run the prestigious Priory School (

I once interviewed with an archdiocesan official, looking for something to do. He recommended that I go to the Abbey: he said that these monks are some of the smartest people around.

This is a lousy photo of the interior. [UPDATE: click here for a newer photo of the interior.]

Although you can't see it, the monks are in the far side of the church chanting Vespers. The beauty of Gregorian Chant still effects me greatly, especially since I didn't expect to hear it when I walked in.

Andrew Cusack recently wrote that the Benedictines should more appropriately have a church like Saint Vincent de Paul Chapel, and he has a point. In-round seating can be extremely distracting and is often symbolic of pantheism or congregationalism. Also, I could not identify the location of the tabernacle; while everyone else entering and leaving the church genuflected to the central altar, I was just confused.

From the early 1950s, until quite recently, building anything in any style other than Modernism was strictly unthinkable. It is hard to describe the feeling of the inevitability of Modernism during that time: even those of us who loved the traditional styles, and who found little to like with the new style, gave up fighting it, even mentally, and just accepted the revolution as an unstoppable force of nature. We were so propagandized that we just gave up.

But some modern churches built before the close of the Second Vatican Council are quite fanciful and almost attractive, and this is one of them. The architects and other artists who designed these churches had a classical arts education, which emphasized objective standards of quality and the view of art as a virtue that is developed with practice. All of these charming Modernist churches predated the Marxist revolutions in the schools of the 1960s. Although the objects of art here are stylistically Modern, the artists of that generation approached art as a mature virtue, instead of childishly promoting their own "creativity". Everything in this church is very artful: made of the best quality material with fine workmanship, although its iconic value is sometimes minimal.

530 South Mason Road
Creve Coeur, Missouri 63141


  1. I know, I know. I don't like modernism either.

    I was just admiring what is objectively good artistry, but done in a style that isn't objectively Catholic: it fact, it was a style that went out of style very quickly.

    I promise to post photos of traditional churches again soon!

  2. Peggy,

    Yeah, it resembles a number of buildings done around that time period: The Lambert Airport main terminal, the recently destroyed Busch stadium, and of course, the UFO Famous-Barr stores.

    I think that HOK did all of the first three designs. Not sure about the Famous-Barrs.

  3. Looks like a wedding cake on the outside

  4. I also am not a big fan of modernist architecture, but I love this abbey church. I think you should give it another chance, because I know your photography could reveal its spare elegance. The quality of light inside at certain times of day is just ethereal. The church also looks lovely from the outside, when the interior is lit. I'm a Cathedral Basilica parishioner, but I find the chanted office of Tenebrae on Good Friday at St. Anselm to be the most moving service I attend all year.

  5. Anon,

    You are right, there is more to this church than seen here, and I did revisit it, and took more careful photos, although those photos are not posted on this website.

    The monks' chant is wonderful.

  6. Ahhh...I see you did make it there. And as I suspected, it wasn't your thing. I got to know the monks of St Louis Abbey quite well throughout the 90s, as I was considering a vocation and was drawn specifically to the Benedictine order. (I chose Benedict as my confirmation name after reading St Gregory's conversations)

    I'm glad you took the time to evaluate and research this particular church and not rush to reactionary judgement on it. At one time I was very traditional and had a problem with the placement of the tabernacle. I remember reading through the Documents of Vatican II and found sound reasoning for that arrangement within a monastic church. I don't recall what that was, now, but it satisfied me at the time.