If you’ve had the chance to poke around on this site, you know that I have a liking for unusual holy sites. So you can imagine my delight when I found one in the St. Louis area that includes a medieval king, miniature nuns, St. Valentine clutching a relic, and a saint who slept in an under-the-stairs closet just like Harry Potter. Jackpot!
The place is the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in Florissant, Missouri. Let me tell you about its highlights, one-by-one. First, there’s the medieval king who stands guard at the entrance to the shrine: St. Ferdinand. Frankly, it was difficult to get much information about St. Ferdinand, because the real star of the place is St. Philippine Rose Duchesne, a native of France who lived in the convent here from 1819 to 1827 and from 1834 to 1840. She is the fourth American to be named a saint and one of Missouri’s foremost pioneer women. Why isn’t the shrine named after her? Good question, as I think an American saint trumps a European king.
Next, those miniature nuns. Within the church there’s a collection of dolls dressed up like nuns from dozens of different orders, from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, who wear rose-colored habits. How many places in the world can you see a collection like this? I don’t know, but I doubt it’s very many.
Next, there’s St. Valentine, a Prince Charming-like figure who sleeps underneath the altar in the church. In his hands is part of the hip bone of the real St. Valentine, a martyred Roman saint who lived during the third century. (Every Valentine’s Day, they hold at party at the church.)
Finally, there’s the closet under the stairs of the convent. St. Philippine Rose Duchesne used to sleep in that spot, because she wanted to be as close as possible to the Blessed Sacrament that was kept in the adjoining church. She was so widely known for her goodness and piety that ever since, people have been leaving prayers in the closet, making it (you might say) a kind of divine post office.
Now you may think I’m making fun of this place, but I’m really not. I love the way that even the most out-of-the-way places can get sanctified, and how the holy often intertwines with the bizarre. Flannery O’Connor, that marvelous chronicler of human foibles and divine grace, wrote about this intersection brilliantly. In her words, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”
I wish Flannery could have visited the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine, as I think she would have loved it. I know I did.
And yes, I tucked a prayer in the closet.
You’ll find the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine at 1 Rue St. Francois in Florissant, Missouri.