In early 2016, demolition crews rolled up to one of St. Louis’ oldest churches, St. Bridget of Erin. Demolition crews ploughed their way into her beautiful front brick façade and soon enough, this 19th-century church was just a pile of rubble. This was not an ordinary old church though. Built in 1859, St. Bridget of Erin was a staple of the Gateway City’s Irish American community and located in the heart of the Kerry Patch neighborhood. No doubt did the St. Bridget congregation consist of many Civil War veterans and their families. According to the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, she was one of the five oldest churches left in the city. Sadly, St. Bridget of Erin was the very last of the Irish Catholic churches of the mid-19th century still remaining up to demolition.
I have always had a heart for historic preservation – the preservation of history, stories, artifacts, battlefields, and, of course, buildings. My dad got me hooked as he spearheaded major rehabilitation and restoration projects of three historic structures in St. Louis County. I had the fortune of working with him on several of those projects, learning the craft and loving these historic structures. Each saved structure was intended to be open to the public in some way, requiring us to connect visitors to the site in meaningful and impactful ways. I always tried to find neat connections to history and historic buildings for people, especially with Civil War sites.
Besides many of the major historic house museums that are inexplicitly tied to the Civil War through a famous resident or a connection to a particular event, there are many historic buildings remaining across the country that witnessed different facets of the war. We just need to think outside the box. There is tremendous value in finding those small or seemingly insignificant stories.
St. Bridget of Erin was looked at as an eye sore to many, but to me and other preservationists and groups in the St. Louis area, she was a crown jewel of St. Louis’ Irish community before, during, and after the Civil War. In fact, there were no doubt Civil War veterans who attended that church. St. Louisans certainly looked to their faith and their church – like St. Bridget of Erin – for hope during the tumultuous Civil War years.
In the words of Freeman Tilden, “through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” A St. Louis preservationist of Next STL made a statement about preservation and St. Bridget of Erin, “We absolutely need citywide preservation review, there needs to be a high bar for a structure like this that’s been around for 160 years. This is not just our history it’s our future. One thing that is our buildings and history and if we start losing that we become bland like a lot of other cities.” We hope, through education, to convince people that old buildings deserve protection and preservation.
While the organization that owned the structure and surrounding property wanted to build a new school on the site of St. Bridge of Erin, there could have been a neat adaptive reuse project. With it being in good shape structurally, she could have been transformed to meet the needs of the school. On the historic interpretation front, we could have been able to interpret the stories of Irish Americans to the public, lead tours throughout the structure, and connect people with this place on a new level. Now, because of a lack of appreciation, a need for a new structure, and a push for urban renewal, St. Bridget of Erin is physically gone forever.
This place mattered. Other places like St. Bridget of Erin matter and must be preserved.