Shrine of St. Joseph St. Louis, MO | History 1955-1979

homeShrine of St. Joseph St. Louis, MO | History 1955-1979

History 1955 - 1979

During the 1950’s after the school closed, there was just a very small resident population. There were, however, still a handful of extremely dedicated people who tried to take care of the church. Headed by Al and Clara Baldes along with Ralph Ellerbrock , Joseph Baldes, Dorothy Ellerbrock, John and Marcella Karras, Bill and Ann Kalinowski, Bill and Dorothy Curley, Ross Barrole, Janie Wesolowski, Fred and Helen Hoffman, Stan and Helen Galkowski, and Ben and Emily Hardi, this important group of people managed to keep the church going and sustained it through very difficult years when there was no guarantee of its future.

Bob Baldes, the son of Al and Clara Baldes, has the following memoirs of growing up then:

“There was a hard core group of about eight families who formed a ‘friends of St. Joseph’s group,’ and my father was its president. My mother, Clara, sang in Ralph Ellerbrock’s choir and put in many hours baking pies for weekly fish fries, lottos, and all kinds of events to try to raise money for the church. My dad ran the annual homecoming picnic and spent countless hours doing physical labor with some of the others in order to keep the church open. My dad and a man named Norman Twist met with the Archbishop asking that the church not be closed. Finally, the church was allowed to remain open. The interior needed a great deal of work...pigeons were plentiful...despite all of the church’s problems, people still loved coming to the beautiful old place because they wanted to be in this extraordinary church. My uncle, Joe, was the caretaker for 30 years and he lived in the room above the priest’s sacristy... I hope that my parents are able to look down and see how all of their earlier hard work finally paid off and to appreciate the wonderful things you all have done to restore this beautiful church.”

Obviously, without the early efforts of this group through the 1950’s which allowed St. Joseph’s to survive through troubled times, there most likely would not have been a Shrine left to restore when our current Friends group eventually got involved in the late 1970’s.

Urban decay, old warehouses, and truck depots had all nearly obliterated the ethnic enclaves that were so much a rich part of the Biddle Street neighborhood. In Pat Degener’s 1976 Post-Dispatch feature article about the Shrine, the Shrine’s first bit of favorable publicity for awhile, she said “the view north from the P-D building is one of unrelieved urban desolation...one big exception is a commanding structure, the massive Shrine of St. Joseph standing in isolation.” Indeed, the Shrine had become nearly surrounded by fields full of weeds with one big truck depot just to the west. The Shrine became a remnant of St. Louis’s immigrant past, and remained as a symbol of the once-teeming ethnically diverse north side that it had served.

The interior was in bad shape with plaster falling off walls and the ceiling, glass dropping from windows, filthy floors, the beautiful marbleizing had been covered with a gray plastic paint that was designed to be indestructible and proved to be an immense obstacle to controlled removal to find the original colors and finishes. And then there were pigeons and starlings making their home in the church.

Ralph Ellerbrock, was truly a living legend at the Shrine. He was the organist for an incredible 66 years beginning at age 14. He was taught to play the pipe organ by his mother but she passed when Ralph was just 20 years old. Ralph resided near the church for a number of years and saw first hand the changes in the church and the surrounding neighborhood during that period. He certainly had a lot to do with helping to keep the place going when there was no money to really do much. Ralph liked to tell folks on tours his personal eye-witness memoirs. For example, Ralph said that there were times when it was so cold in the church the holy water froze. “There were pigeons everywhere; but one Christmas Eve night,” he said, “there were also hundreds of starlings flying all over the church dive bombing the worshipers who were there for Midnight Mass.” In 1965, the Jesuits who had founded and run the church for 123 years, gave it up. It was turned over to the Archdiocese. It appeared as though the church’s usefulness had run its course. Through the 1960’s and 70’s, with no more than twenty worshipers on Sunday, it was both humorously and sadly said that there were more pious pigeons in church than humans.

Father Filipiak, a Dedicated Architect , and Five Businessmen

In the early 1970’s, Father Filipiak, who was pastor of Our Lady Help Of Christians, was also given a part-time assignment to St. Joseph’s. In 1975, the Italian Church was razed as well as over 40 square blocks to make way for the new convention center. Father was then assigned full time to St. Joseph’s.

Landmark’s Association, a local preservation group, had been approached by Father Filipiak about the peril in which the church found itself. Father knew that the Archdiocese, along with the City, and Sverdrup and Parcel, a politically powerful engineering firm, planned to create a massive truck depot that the location of the church in the center of this huge site, thwarted. Landmarks proceeded almost immediately to commission Ted Wofford, an architect noted not only for his superb restoration work but he also had an established track record of disproving Sverdrup and Parcel’s self-serving rigged feasibility studies. Wofford and the firm he worked at had previously done a lot of work with Catholic schools and churches, and the settings in Kiel and the Arena for Liturgical Conferences that led to Vatican II, and he helped with the restoration or design of 100 churches, synagogues, and libraries--so he certainly had credibility in the Archdiocese. Not being naive, before considering Landmarks request, Wofford checked with Archbishop Carberry, and got his word (rather reluctantly) that he would look at Ted’s feasibility study and seriously consider it. What follows is Wofford’s recollections of his first visit to the church in 1974:

“I rang the bell of the rectory. I was met by an elderly frail man [Father Filipiak] with teeth that went in a number of directions and I entered the broken-down deteriorated rectory. Everywhere was wood lathe and a few cords with light bulbs hung from the otherwise disintegrating ceilings of the deteriorating rectory. I had never seen a priest living in such poverty, and I was shocked and confused. He grinned graciously and hurried me in to the church. When we entered, this odd man physically changed, becoming almost luminous and  robust, and he simply exclaimed, “Isn’t it beautiful!” Somehow, beneath all of the carnival colors and decay...it was beautiful. I stood there inside the sanctuary amazed, suddenly overwhelmed by a strange sense of peace... and I was hooked. There was something about the priest and his intense devotion to this historic church that was irresistible, so we shook hands and I began to explore the church. Sverdrup and Parcel had declared both the church and rectory structurally unsound, and I didn’t. They had also declared both buildings impossible, and impractical to restore, and I found that to be nonsense. Because of the grand plan to build a gigantic truck depot, it became very convenient to their plans for Sverdrup and Parcel to declare the buildings as virtually worthless. During the next two years, I studied the building from the attic to the crawl space in detail and attempted to define a scope of work and priority of needs, and finally, in 1977, presented my findings to the membership of Landmarks at their annual meeting held in the crumbling church. My first trip up to the west tower was on a cold day in which I discovered the vast quantities of pigeon droppings, frozen into an icy ramp. Father Filipiak would happily let anyone into the church, and, when I reached the top of the highest ladder, and looked inside the big bell, I was startled to see an elderly man who said his name was Kavanaugh, working on the bell clappers. He said he was a Lutheran, but he loved bells. Having just re-tightened my grip on the ladder from the near descent upon seeing him, the guy said, ‘listen’, and he rang the huge bell where my head was located, and I nearly went down the ladder again. I skied back down the stairs on “frozen pigeon droppings” with my ears ringing. On another occasion, when no one was aware I was around, I stepped out onto the roof to discover that it was steep and the decaying old shingles were like ball bearings. I thought I was going to die as I slid down, but was able to grab the corner of a skylight and hang on until a stranger finally appeared below, and help could be called to haul me back into the tower. That year my staff humorously celebrated my birthday with a St. Joseph cake with me skiing down the roof. From then on, I learned to let someone know when I went exploring!”

After many months of looking at every aspect of the structure, in his feasibility study, Wofford determined that for the most part, the church was structurally sound; furthermore, he said that not only could it be restored, it should be restored--that preserving and restoring the Shrine was economically feasible. He said that everywhere, the work of anonymous loving hands was evident, literally demanding a respectful restoration. This was the beginning of what turned out to be Wofford’s long and dedicated commitment to the Shrine utilizing his extremely knowledgeable expertise in directing what has become a world-class original restoration.

In the mid to late 1970’s five business men who had not previously met each other, also came on the scene. They were: Robert Arteaga, a well-known photographer; Charles Finninger, a catering restaurateur; Eugene Boll, who ran a window business; Robert Voss, in public relations; and Charlie Heisler, who had a sign-making company, along with Ted Wofford. The elder priest, Father Filipiak, had a lot to do with bringing these men together and getting them involved in trying to save the Shrine. As Wofford put it, “you could not help but be impressed with Father’s love for the church -- his devotion to it was contagious.”

Said Wofford, “Arteaga became a major influence in my life. He was a true character, the most pious man I ever knew, yet with an endless store of hilarious jokes that often curled your toes. His brother was the organist for Padre Pio in Italy, was always praying to the future saint for the cause to save St. Joseph’s. My phone would ring in the dead of night, and Arteaga’s jovial voice would assure me that the Shrine would survive and prosper.”

Arteaga spearheaded a campaign through his photographs of the Shrine to make people aware of its beauty because even though it was in bad shape there was an inner beauty that could not be denied. His photography and his unending publicity did much to save the church. Arteaga got Kevin Madden, a feature writer of the South Side Journal, involved, and in March of 1977, there was a full, front page article explaining why the Shrine should be saved with a large Arteaga color photo of the sanctuary. This was one of several articles written in favor of saving the Shrine.

Wofford commented, “In my opinion, the second miracle of the Shrine was that six men who had no common thread but the church, could come together, without friction, and against enormous odds, to do the impossible.” More people began asking questions as to what the archdiocese’s actual intentions were for the historic Shrine now that Wofford’s feasibility study was known. The archdiocesan officials were largely silent and non-committal on the question. However, Rev. Gallagher, Executive Secretary of the Archdiocesan Building Commission, said he did not know if the archdiocese would decide to agree to preserving the Shrine. In a front page St. Louis Review article in December of 1978 was stated: “the Archdiocese has not announced a decision on the future of the Shrine.” In 1978, Landmarks named the Shrine to the National Register of Historic Places in hopes that this would help in the cause to save the Shrine.

A difficult and highly controversial situation developed when it became known that there were plans to build a “modern” new “low rise” Catholic church just a few blocks away next to the sports stadium to be known as St. Patrick’s. When this decision was announced, there was a gloom of defeat in the Friends organization. The reason frequently given for selling off the Shrine was that there was no viable parish community. So then the question was asked by Shrine supporters: Why build another church just blocks away? Others also asked: Why do we need another church anywhere in the downtown area?

During 1978 and 1979 before the official Friends were incorporated, it was realized by Wofford and others that the leaky old roof had to be corrected as quickly as possible. The simple roof had been the element that protected the artwork on the ceilings below it, but this old roofing was well past its prime. Father Filipiak, using mostly the scant remains of his personal private money, had a new roof put on. It was cheap, but it would buy time and offer protection. It was put on in secret as fast as possible -- it was done without the knowledge and approval of the Archdiocesan Building Committee, who would have most certainly stopped the project. According to Eugene Boll, Father Filipiak proceeded anyway in order to save the beautiful ceiling from further moisture damage.

Incorporation of the Friends

On a cold winter night in January of 1979, Arteaga, Boll, and Fr. Filipiak were in the rectory talking about how to save the Shrine and the need to raise money. Boll brought up forming an organization that could be tax-free. With that, said Boll, “Arteaga and I jumped in the car, went and picked up Robert Voss, and the three of us drove up to Finninger’s restaurant and we discussed it.” Finninger got his lawyer, Ray Bruntrager, on it, and by March the papers were signed -- it was official -- making the Friends, a not-for-profit corporation. Even with the incorporation having taken place, the mission of saving the Shrine had so many obstacles that it almost seemed a hopeless undertaking.

From One Bad Deed Came Hope

Father Filipiak lived in the dilapidated, run-down deplorable rectory -- it was even in worse shape than the church. He was offered a comfortable retirement but he refused to leave fearing that his departure would accelerate the demise of the Shrine.

Father could be seen on any summer evening sitting on the front of the Shrine’s steps listening to Cardinal baseball on his radio and talking to some of the kids. Folks remember playing cards with him in the rectory and they especially remember him saying frequently: “I would die for this church.” At some point, Robert Voss, vice president of the newly-formed Friends corporation said, “Father, why don’t I come and stay with you...it would be safer.“ Father said, “no, that won’t be necessary.” But, on the night of Saturday, September 29, 1979, three young men broke into the second floor door of the rectory, and brutally murdered Father Filipiak, The Globe Democrat reported: “a 79 year old priest who was waging a campaign to keep St. Joseph’s Shrine from being closed was beaten and killed, apparently in a burglary at the rectory. At the funeral”, said the Globe, “nearly 1,500 filled the church.” People were openly weeping throughout the Requiem Mass. Robert Arteaga said, “Father died for the church as Christ died on the cross for the sins of man.” “He died a martyr,” said Gene Boll, “a beautiful example of love.” Ralph Ellerbrock, long-time organist devoted to the Shrine, said, “when this happened I thought we were doomed for sure...I figured this was the end.” It did appear with this tragedy as though the old church had met its demise.


Momentum for saving the Shrine built very slowly after the release of Wofford’s feasibility study until this senseless murder and its brutal nature occurred, which brought publicity and sympathy to the cause of saving the Shrine. Out of something terrible came a very ironic twist of fate. The entire story not only of the murder but also the historical, religious, and architectural significance of the Shrine came out and was talked and written about for many days in all of the news media. This act of senseless violence rallied many different people around the seemingly hopeless cause of saving the church. With this widespread media coverage came an outpouring of sentiment from people of all denominations asking the archdiocese to not tear down the church. Over the difficult years only two priests were willing to publicly support the saving of the Shrine: Father William Barnaby Faherty, SJ, and Father Sal Polizzi. But it was felt that many of the Archdiocese’s clergy at Father’s funeral were privately in support of saving the historically significant church. In addition to the murder, Wofford said that public attitudes and opinions were beginning to shift and preservation was no longer a “dirty” word.

Just before the murder, near the end of 1978, Ted Schafers, who was about to retire as business editor of the Globe Democrat, began his many successful years of involvement at the Shrine. Ted was a hard-nosed business man, and, at first, questioned the wisdom of trying to save the Shrine because, as he said, “I just don’t know how we can get the donors that will be needed and keep them willing to stay with us for a long time. “ However, when Ted saw this huge positive response from people following this horrific event, that’s when his opinion changed. From that time forward, Schafers directed his energies toward fund raising especially within the corporate community successfully raising thousands of dollars. After the murder, Robert Voss, vice president of the Friends, and son, Bobby, actually lived at the rectory in order to protect it from any further problems.

Then there was also a lady named Melane Harangozo, who was the church’s housekeeper. But she was much more than that. Old-timers remember her as someone who had a “heart of gold” who contributed immeasurably toward holding the place together and organized during the years after this murder occurred. They all credit her with having a remarkable devotion to the Shrine during a difficult time.

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