Knights Convene in Historic City
St. Louis opened its history and attractions to Knights of Columbus who assembled from around the world in the city along the Mississippi River for the 135th Supreme Convention. With scheduled tours of the Gateway Arch, St. Louis Art Museum, the old and new archdiocesan cathedrals, Anheuser-Busch Brewery, and riverboats along the Mississippi, delegates and their families had plenty to see and do as they prepared for the official convention opening Tuesday, Aug. 1.
The famous arch, rising 630 feet above the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial park, was the prime attraction. But in the pleasant walk from the convention center to the arch, visitors encountered some of the other outstanding downtown landmarks. The Old Courthouse, in the shadow of the arch, was the scene of some of the nation’s more dramatic proceedings, including the courtroom where Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, first sued for their freedom in 1846. Every schoolchild knows of the U.S. Supreme Court Dred Scott v. Sanford decision of 1857, which declared that slaves were not citizens and had no rights, but few know where the case originated. In a room on the second floor of the sturdy, classically domed courthouse, a St. Louis court ruled that Dred Scott and his wife were free under Missouri law. On appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court overruled that historic decision, and then the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, upheld that unjust ruling in a decision that helped set the stage for the Civil War.
Now a national landmark run by the National Park Service, the courthouse also features exhibits on the history of St. Louis, the center point of the nation’s westward expansion. High up in the building’s dome, in a painting barely visible from the ground floor, there is a tribute of interest to Knights of Columbus – a faded portrait of the Order’s patron among other paintings decorating the interior of the structure. Painted in 1880 by Ettore Miragoli, the portrait of Christopher Columbus is accompanied by images of John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln.
Knights who stopped at the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France (known as the Old Cathedral) on the way to the arch saw another connection to the Order. The plaque on the façade summarizing the history of the churches on the site was placed by local Knights of Columbus in 1916, and replaced with a newer plaque in 1982.
The arch, billed as the world’s largest stainless-steel structure, is a solid, splendid tribute to the role of St. Louis in the nation’s history, and a symbol of hope for its future. It is a perfect shape, a half-sphere that suggests what has been accomplished and what still needs to be done in America.
The arch also has a little-known connection to the Knights of Columbus.
Plans for the arch began in the 1930s but the design competition was not launched until after the Second World War. In 1947, the contract went to Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American, but political and legal controversies held up the project. Construction began in 1963 and was finished two years later. This is when the K of C connection came in. Helping to complete the arch was Irish-American Kevin Roche, an award-winning architect who later designed the Knights of Columbus international headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut, which was finished in 1969.
The trip to the top of the arch is unique and fun-filled. Visitors bend to enter one of the cars of an enclosed tram. With five seats to each of the nine cars, only 45 people can ride to the top at a time. The ascent takes about four minutes (the descent takes three), and passengers emerge to walk slowly and awkwardly up a series of steps onto the viewing deck, which is curved with the shape of the arch.
The windows are narrow but offer a breathtaking view of the Mississippi, looking east, and downtown St. Louis, including the Cardinals’ Busch Stadium, to the west. It is a rare manmade monument in that it feels so much a part of the natural setting of the land and the skyline. Form and function come together perfectly, and visitors feel a true sense of awe at being inside such a brilliantly designed structure.