While football fans rev up for Super Bowl Sunday this week, the faithful of St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church will be preparing for a celebration of their own: the parish’s 100th anniversary.
The Catholic parish will celebrate the milestone with a special mass at the Brentwood church with St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson presiding. Current clergy, along with former pastors, associate pastors and priests in residence are expected to participate in the 2 p.m. service that will be followed by a reception in the school gymnasium.
Everyone is welcome to attend the celebration, the Rev. Jack Siefert said.
Siefert, 49, is the eighth pastor at St. Mary Magdalen, an active parish with 900 households and 171 students. And it is very much part of Brentwood.
In fact, the parish preceded the city’s incorporation.
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Church and (then) state
Before Brentwood was incorporated in 1919, the town was called Maddenville after one of its leading citizens, Thomas Madden. The Maddens were one of the 45 families of St. Mary Magdalen parish.
The church held its first mass in a renovated building at North and South Road (now Brentwood Boulevard) and Russell Avenue. One year later, in 1913, the church was moved across the street to a former grain shed.
Flooding prompted the church’s relocation a few years later to a parish hall on the site of the current parish property. Religious services were held there — until the building’s floor collapsed. The church then moved to the parish elementary school gymnasium in 1929.
Construction on a new church started in the early 1940s, but was postponed by World War II. It was completed in 1947 and still serves parishioners today.
“I love the people. I love that old classic style of church with the bell tower,” said Siefert, who routinely welcomes parishioners before Sunday services.
The Gothic and art deco-style limestone church has withstood many challenges over the decades, including one major battle with Mother Nature.
On Feb. 10, 1959, around 2 a.m., a powerful tornado struck the St. Louis area. The twister, given the second-most-powerful F-4 rating, lifted the roof of St. Mary Magdalen — and dropped it exactly back in place. A crack rimming the building near the roof remained as a reminder of the storm’s strength.
The parish school was also affected. The tornado lifted and moved the building a few inches off its foundation, recalled David Chiodini, 62, who was a fifth-grader at the school. Some roof shingles were also lost in winds clocking in at over 200 miles per hour.
School was closed for a couple of days and a structural engineer examined the building to make sure it was safe, Chiodini said.
In January 1962, “a parade of 700 kids slid their desks with books inside of them, across snow and ice on the parking lot to the new school,” said Chiodini, laughing as he recalled the scene. Parents helped the younger children.
Back then, the school had two classes for each grade. Today it is down to one class of each grade and a junior kindergarten program, but it is still vibrant.
Eat, pray, love
Chiodini is part of a group of St. Mary Magdalen parishioners who routinely head out to Steak ‘n Shake in Maplewood following Sunday services. On Tuesdays, after church, they go to McDonalds. They pray first and then eat.
The group is an an animated bunch and represents several generations of Brentwood families. Their conversation is often punctuated by laughter amid platters of food and several pots of coffee. Attendance varies from five to 15.
Chiodini’s mother-in-law, Mary Van Cleave, 85, is one of the group regulars. A spry and petite woman with white hair, she was baptized at St. Mary Magdalen, attended its grade school (class of 1940) and was married there.
“I’ve had everything but the last rites and I'm sure I'll get them there,” said a grinning Van Cleave. The last rites are administered to a Catholic when death is imminent.
But the parish is more than a group of buildings. It is a community with its own spirit and identity.
"It’s the people and the priests that make the parish unique," said Jackie Kaufman, 84, who has belonged to the St. Mary Magdalen community for 55 years.
Kaufman and her husband were part of a circle of people who helped at parish and school events. They were room mothers, scout leaders and cafeteria volunteers. They also made repairs around the parish for years.
“We were good Catholic families. Between the 16 couples, we had 74 children, all going to Magdalen, many of them still living in the parish,” Kaufman said.
But others helped the parish too. About 200 alumni have formed an organization called The Friends of the Dominicans to help fund the retirement of the Dominican Sisters who once worked at the school.
Later this year, they will host an outdoor dance on the parish parking lot to raise funds for the sisters.
Why younger generations remain in the parish
“It’s about family. It’s about tradition,” said Jill Kaufman Gilliam, a 1973 alumnus and Jackie’s daughter, who still lives in Brentwood and attends mass at St. Mary Magdalen.
“We’ve all grown up together. We know each other and their kids, and their kids’ kids. It’s very comfortable. It’s familiar,” said Gilliam, who now has a grandchild in the parish preschool program.
“Every parish I’ve been to — every one of them, and I'm not saying this to be politically correct — each one of them expressed their faith in a unique way and each had its own set of challenges, financial and otherwise," Siefert said. “This one has a small-town feel, almost like Mayberry in the Andy Griffith show.” It's a close-knit community and people are very protective of their parish.
“We’ve had very good stewardship over the years where people have given their money, blood, sweat and tears,” Siefert said. And they are faithful. “There us a real strong desire among parishioners to promote and embrace their faith.”
After leading a busload of teenagers to an anti-abortion march in Washington, D.C., lifelong parishioner Dan Fitzgerald, 53, expressed his love for the St. Mary Magdalen community.
“I wouldn’t want my kids growing up anywhere else,” Fitzgerald said.