Just inside the doorway of St. John the Baptist Church in Villa Ridge, there’s a wooden beam that runs the full width of the structure. It catches your eye, not just because it is clearly old — original to this 1863 church — but also because of what’s inscribed on it. “The House of God, the Gate of Heaven” it reads.
The beam stands in contrast to the freshness of a church renovation completed four years ago. But it’s just one example of how these parishioners feel about the past.
They celebrate it, especially this year as St. John’s-Gildehaus, as the parish is better known, marks its 175th anniversary.
The church will observe its 175th anniversary with a celebration Sunday, May 18. Mass will be at 2 p.m. followed by a meal for parishioners.
Founded as a Jesuit Mission
St. John’s-Gildehaus was founded in 1839 by the Jesuit fathers as a mission called St. John the Baptist. The first church was a log structure built near where the cemetery is today.
The land for the church was donated by Dietrich and Anna Clara Gildehaus. They originally donated 10 acres in 1848 and in 1865, Dietrich Gildehaus bequeathed the remaining 23 1/2 acres of the “so-called church farm” to be passed to St. John’s Church upon the death of his wife, Clara.
This is partly why the church is nicknamed “St. John’s-Gildehaus,” said Don Brinker, a lifelong member, noting it was Monsignor George Hildner, who came to St. John’s as pastor in 1934 who coined the term. The nickname also is appropriate because the area where the church is located was once known as “Gildehaus.”
Both Dietrich and Anna Clara Gildehaus are buried in St. John’s Cemetery.
The church that stands today at St. John’s was built in 1863, as the Civil War was still being fought. It is only the second church in St. John’s history.
“They made the bricks right over here on this field,” said Brinker. “At least, that’s the story that I’ve been told.”
The rectory was built around 1875, and the convent around the same time. All are still standing and of sound construction.
Today the old convent, where the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of O’Fallon used to reside, is now used for the school library and computer lab.
The old school used to be located between the convent and the church.
Annual Corpus Christi Procession
Something that seems to be unique to St. John’s Gildehaus, at least among Catholic parishes in this area, are three outdoor chapels it has for the annual celebration of Corpus Christi, or Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.
“With that feast there is an encouragement to have a procession,” said Father Tim Bannes, administrator at St. John’s-Gildehaus, “to proceed around the grounds or the neighborhood, carrying the Eucharist.”
At St. John’s, about 50 to 75 parishioners take part in the annual procession, which includes a stop at each of the three chapels for benediction.
The first chapel, featuring the Pieta statue of Jesus after he was taken down from the cross, lying in Mary’s arms, has the date 1873 carved in the stone. The church has been holding its annual Corpus Christi procession at least that many years.
“We’ve had Corpus Christi as long as anyone can remember,” said Brinker. “In the days when I was a kid, late ’50s, early ’60s, you were here. Even though it was summertime and school was out already, you were here, and you listened.”
The outdoor chapels are not necessary for a Corpus Christi procession, noted Father Tim. At the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, for example, the procession will come out onto Lindell Boulevard, stop traffic and process around the city block, he said.
“The purpose is to do honor to Jesus,” said Father Tim, and in the case of processions like the one at the Basilica in St. Louis, perhaps even a little bit of evangelization.
Father Tim said he’s excited to see the procession at St. John’s. Still in his first year of serving the parish, he arrived last June after the feast day.
Father Tim has heard about a special feature of the Corpus Christi procession at St. John’s — cannon fire.
“At each chapel, when the priest makes the sign of the cross with the monstrance, they fire a cannon,” said Brinker.
The cannon is located down in the field, away from the people, he said, but one of the men in the procession has a walkie-talkie to let the men know when to fire.
“They make a big boom,” Brinker remarked.
This year, Corpus Christi will be held Sunday, June 22, and the procession at St. John’s-Gildehaus will begin at 7 p.m. It usually lasts about one hour and 15 minutes.
The procession is held rain or shine. If it’s raining, sometimes the group waits for the storm to pass, said Brinker. Other times, they pray in church.
Honoring the Past
All around St. John’s church and grounds is evidence of the people who came before and made the parish what it is today.
The parish’s veterans are particularly honored, with the names of World War I veterans inscribed on the side of the main altar and a list of World War II veterans hanging on the wall in the back of church.
The base of the altar that faces the people was made from the gate of the church’s old Communion rail. Two late parishioners, George Brinkmann Sr. and Joseph Ley Sr., made the gate and altar base.
The names of all of the popes and bishops are painted on the wall on one side of the church, and the names of all of the pastors are painted on the other side.
When the church was renovated four years ago, it was repainted and the statues were all redone, along with the altar and the crucifix.
The crucifix features the old body of Jesus, but a new cross, one made from an oak log parishioner Joe Tobben had at his house.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
If you’re thinking about attending a Mass at St. John’s-Gildehaus, be prepared to be noticed, but also welcomed. There are about 450 people in the parish, and most are longtime members, which means newcomers are easily identified.
Brinker describes St. John’s as “a country parish where everybody is welcome, and we make them feel welcome.
“We’re not too big . . . where you don’t know the person sitting next to you in the pew. Out here, you practically know everybody,” he said. “Especially when you get your kids in school, you’re even more involved. You know everybody.
“Once your kids are out, you don’t know everybody. You don’t know the newer families,” said Brinker, “but you get to know them at the church dinners and other functions.”
St. John’s church seats around 250 at full capacity, which is why the parish holds four Masses each weekend — Saturday night at 6 p.m. and Sunday morning at 7, 8:30 and 10:30 a.m.
Known for Sausage, Fried Chicken Dinners
Two things St. John’s-Gildehaus is known for across the metro area and beyond are its annual sausage festival held each October and its fried chicken dinner held in March.
Both serve upward of 3,500 meals out of the school gym area.
This fall will be the 53rd annual sausage festival. Brinker was just a kid when the first one was held.
“They butchered six hogs behind the barn that first year,” he said. “Now they do 47 to 50 hogs.”
The dinners are run exclusively by the men of the parish, who do all of the preparing, cooking and serving. And that’s something that everyone seems to notice, said Brinker.
“We’ll have people from St. Louis who want to take photos of us, because they say, ‘People in our church won’t believe this,’ ” said Brinker. “As far as I know, we’re the only parish that does that with all men.”
Father Tim laughs thinking about how he first heard of the sausage and chicken dinners held at St. John’s. He was an associate pastor at Holy Infant Parish in Ballwin and was telling parishioners last year that his new assignment was at St. John the Baptist in Villa Ridge.
“They would say, ‘Oh, St. John’s-Gildehaus. They’re the ones who have that sausage supper,’ ” Father Tim recalled.
Both the sausage and chicken dinners are held as fund-raisers for the parish, but the biggest fund-raiser is the annual dinner-dance auction held every February.
Brinker, who was among the parishioners who got the event started some 30 years ago, said the first event was held as a way to raise enough money to send the eighth-grade students on a train ride from Kirkwood to Jefferson City.
“Back then if we raised $3,000 we thought we did good,” he commented. “This year they raised something like $46,000 or $48,000.”
Today St. John’s-Gildehaus is still surrounded largely by farmland, albeit less than it was in the beginning.
The school has just under 100 students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade. There also are 35 students enrolled in preschool, something St. John’s added about 10 years ago.
An addition was made to the gym to provide a kindergarten classroom and a music room.
The school offers both before- and after-school care programs for parents who work. Those were added after the school’s bus service was canceled some years ago due to the high price of gas and insurance.
“People thought the school would close if the bus system was gone, but people found a way,” said Brinker, proudly.