Illinois boasts a rich tapestry of history and culture, with an intriguing secret: it houses the oldest church in the United States – the Church of the Holy Family in Cahokia Heights. This remarkable structure is not just an architectural gem but also stands as a testament to the unwavering faith of its congregation. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the historical journey, distinctive features, and profound significance of this venerable church.
The Church’s Historical Journey
Established in 1699 by Canadian missionaries, the Church of the Holy Family initially stood as a simple wooden edifice. Unfortunately, a fire ravaged it in 1783. The current church, constructed between 1786 and 1799, showcases French colonial architecture using the “poteaux-sur-solle” technique. This method involves placing hefty wooden timbers on a stone foundation and filling gaps with rubble and clay. A rarity in North America, it stands as the oldest example west of the Allegheny Mountains.
The church has borne witness to pivotal events, from the Louisiana Territory’s transfer to the U.S. in 1803 to the Civil War and the Great Flood of 1993. Functioning as a focal point for community life, it has hosted various ceremonies and events. Despite undergoing renovations, the church has retained its original character, earning recognition as a National Historic Landmark and inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
Distinctive Features of the Church
Measuring approximately 32 by 74 feet, the Church of the Holy Family exudes modest elegance. Walnut timbers form its exterior walls, while the interior boasts plastered and whitewashed walls, wooden plank floors, and oak beam supports for the ceiling. The church’s layout comprises a nave, sanctuary, and two wings, offering a simple yet profound space for worship.
Within the church, notable items include a painting of the Holy Family, the oldest in Illinois; a statue of Saint Anthony of Padua, the oldest statue in the state, carved by a Native American convert; and a relic of Saint Valentine, donated by Pope Pius IX in 1866 – the sole relic of the saint in the U.S. The church’s cemetery, with graves dating back to the 18th century, adds a serene touch to its history.
The Profound Significance
Beyond its physical presence, the Church of the Holy Family embodies the faith, heritage, and resilience of its parishioners. As the oldest continuously active Catholic parish in the U.S., it welcomes a diverse congregation, including descendants of French settlers, Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants. Its ties with the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest reflect a commitment to preserving Catholic traditions.
Functioning as a cultural and historical nexus, the church showcases French colonial influence and contributes to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. It also stands near the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site, enhancing its role as a living museum that encapsulates the early history of Illinois and the U.S.
The Church of the Holy Family emerges as a hidden gem in Illinois – a must-visit for enthusiasts of history, architecture, and religion. As the oldest church in the U.S., it stands as a unique embodiment of French colonial construction. Beyond its historical significance, the church thrives as an active parish, celebrating its diverse heritage. Open for tours, Masses, and events, it invites everyone to uncover its history, features, and enduring significance – truly a treasure of Illinois and a testament to the concept of the holy family.