St. Francis high altar an ecclesiastical masterpiece

In this undated photo, an extraordinary minister closes the tabernacle of the high altar at St. Francis Solanus Catholic Church in Quincy. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
By REG ANKROM
Posted: Jan. 20, 2019 12:01 am

It has a magnificence worthy of the most reverent worshipper -- or the boy, who, when he first saw it, believed the high altar in St. Francis Solanus Catholic Church in Quincy, was Han Solo's Millennium Falcon from "Star Wars."

As was the intention of its 19th century designer, Franciscan Brother Adrian Wewer, and its Quincy builder, Henry Schenk, the white and gilded high altar at Masses and meditations since its installation in the first St. Francis Church in Quincy in 1864 has drawn the eyes and hearts of the faithful ever upward toward heaven.

From its base to the crucifix at its zenith, this largest of three altars around the apse of St. Francis Church is framed within a gathering of vaulted arches and ascends to a height of nearly four stories. Its dozens of intricate elements -- arcades, buttresses, crockets, finials, fretwork, gables, pinnacles and towers -- soar from its sides.

The History Museum at 332 Maine displays several examples of the work German craftsmen built for the Schenk altar company before electricity and power tools. The exhibits are open to the public and free of charge.

At the altar's foundation is a bas relief replica of Leonardo DaVinci's "Last Supper," of Christ sharing bread and wine in his last holy meal with his disciples. On either side are eight gilded panels, symbols of the story of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection, as the late Rev. Roy Bauer described them in his "A Stimulus to Piety: The Religious Art of St. Francis Solanus Church." Above the sculpture is the tabernacle, which is reserved for consecrated hosts of what Catholics believe are the body of Christ, which will be distributed during Eucharist, or communion, the focal point of the Catholic Mass.

A statue of St. Francis Solanus, patron of the Quincy church named for him, occupies the largest niche at the altar's midpoint. A 16th century missionary to South America, Francis is depicted baptizing a native Peruvian while another awaits the sacrament. Frozen in frames within the gables on either side are statues of St. Joseph and St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan theologian.

The uppermost statue is of St. Francis of Assisi, the 12th-century founder of the religious Order of Friars Minor. Since the mid-19th century, Franciscans have served as priests for the Quincy parish. Statues of nearly a dozen saints attend the liturgies on brackets attached to pillars on either side of the nave. Craftsmen from Munich carved the lifelike and richly colored statues for the church.

Wewer and Schenk, trained as carpenters when teenagers in Germany, were part of the German migration to the United States in the 1850s and '60s. They were brought together in 1884 when growth in the Franciscan parish required a new church. Wewer designed it, and Schenk helped build it on land in the block between 17th, 18th, College and Elm streets. St. Francis Solanus College sold the block of land to the parish for $4,250.

By 1884, Wewer had achieved a national reputation for church architecture and construction. He was assigned to design and supervise construction of the second St. Francis Solanus Church. His plan proved too grandiose for the Alton Diocese's bishop, Peter Joseph Baltes. "It's extravagant," Baltes said, lopping off 18 feet of the planned 200-feet length of the structure.

The nave of the 182-feet-long church is 70 feet wide and 120-feet wide at its transept, the two rooms built at right angles on either side of the nave to form a cruciform. The structure is 75 feet high, its main steeple rising to a height of 217 feet and an eastern steeple rising 50 feet above the transept. Including the choir loft, the church provided seating for 1,400.

Wewer in 1867 designed the first St. Mary Hospital and St. Mary Catholic Church in Quincy and was the architect for St. Boniface Church's remodeling in 1868-69. As St. Francis was finished, Wewer designed a new friary in 1886. Then a resident with the Franciscan community in Quincy, he taught drawing to adults at night school at St. Francis. Wewer's neo-Gothic and Romanesque architectural work was prominent in more than 100 churches, monasteries, schools, and hospitals throughout the country.

Deciding that his hometown of Osterwick, Germany, was too small to support his vocation in carpentry and carving, Schenk migrated to Quincy in 1866. He married Elisabeth Holtgreve shortly afterward. His reputation in Quincy grew rapidly. He was named foreman of the carpenters for St. Anthony Church, which was built in Melrose Township and dedicated in June 1870. Over the next two years, he planned and built the east building at St. Francis Solanus College and Notre Dame School for girls at Eighth and Vermont Streets.

His partnership with Wewer helped Schenk develop a business that became national in scope. At its busiest, the firm employed about 20 craftsmen. The Schenk Co. designed and built intricately crafted altars, pews, pulpits and other church fixtures in the summers and installed them in churches around the Midwest during the winters.

"Brother Adrian Wewer appreciated Henry's capabilities," local historian Roger Frankenhoff wrote in a small broadside about St. Francis Solanus Church. "He called him often to work on altars for his projects. It is probable that he passed word about Henry's ability and talent to other builders."

Frankenhoff's great-great-grandfather, a well-educated teacher of English, German and mathematics in Germany, who migrated here in 1846, added that many of the elements that dress up each side of St. Francis's high altar, Schenk had salvaged and stored at a workshop behind his home at 833 Kentucky. Ludwig Xavier Klingele, a carpenter from Freiburg, Baden, Germany, designed, fabricated and added the buttresses, crockets, gables, niches, pinnacles and other features by which the altar opened like petals of a white rose.

In his last years, Wewer worked on ecclesiastical projects in California. He died March 15, 1914, in San Francisco and is buried there. Schenk died of a stroke on Dec. 17, 1901, at his home at 833 State. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery.

Klingele died Oct. 27, 1901, after a two-month illness. He is buried in St. Boniface Cemetery.

 

Reg Ankrom is a member of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County. He is a local historian, author of a prize-winning biography of U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, and a frequent speaker on Douglas, Abraham Lincoln and antebellum America.

 

Sources:

Roy Bauer, "A Stimulus to Piety: The Religious Art of St. Francis Solanus Church." (Quincy: PAM Printers, undated), pp. 3, 16-17.

 

Michael K. Brinkman, "Quincy, Illinois, Immigrants from Munsterland, Westphalia, Germany, Volume 1." (Westminster, Maryland: Heritage Books, 2010), pp. 145-146, 148.

 

The Rev. Theodore Bruener, "History of the Catholic Church in Quincy, Illinois," translated by Lester Holtschlag. (Quincy: Great River Genealogical Society, 2006), pp. 127-128.

 

Roger Frankenhoff, "History of St. Francis Church." Unpublished manuscript, undated.

Frankenhoff conversation with Reg Ankrom, Quincy, Ill., Jan. 5, 2019.

 

Martin Makarewicz, presentation on the history of St. Francis Solanus Church, Nov. 13, 2018.

 

"Paralytic Stroke Proved Fatal." Quincy Daily Whig, Dec. 18, 1901, p. 8.

 

"Saint Francis Solanus Parish: A Century of Service, 1860-1960." (Publishing details unavailable), pp. 1-12.

 

"Souvenir, Golden Jubilee: St. Francis Solanus Parish and Franciscan Fathers, Quincy, Ill." (Quincy: The Souvenir Committee, 1910), p. 82.

 

Paul VanderHaar, "A New Church on the Prairie: St. Francis Solanus." Unpublished manuscript owned by Roger Frankenhoff, Quincy, Ill.

 

"Adrian Wewer: Build My Church." At http://missourifolkloresociety2.truman.edu/home/missouri-folklore-studies/adrian-wewer accessed Jan. 3, 2019.