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The First Church

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Time for a little trivia, Chicago Catholics. Here's your quiz for today: 1) What's the oldest Christian church in Illinois? 2) What's the oldest Catholic parish in Illinois? 3) What's the oldest American church west of the Allegheny Mountains? 4) What's the oldest continuously active Catholic Parish in the United States?

It may surprise you that the answer to all these questions is the exact same place. The Church of the Holy Family, located in Cahokia, Illinois, at the intersection of Hwy. 157 & Rt. 3, holds these honors. It was established in 1699 by French Canadian missionaries traveling down the Mississippi River. The current building is a traditional French Colonial "poteaux-sur-solle" (post-on-sill) vertical-log construction style Log Cabin that was completed in 1799 and constructed of black walnut timbers. Today, it is one of only five such French Colonial log cabins that still stand in North America. Incredibly, Roman Catholic masses are still held at this location on Sunday mornings at 9:00 am, although a newer Catholic church across the street is used for most other religious functions.

Sadly, though, most Chicago area residents and Illinois Catholics are not even aware that The Church of the Holy Family exists. The church was declared a National Historic Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, but it is still little known to most people outside of the St. Louis area. However, this rare gem is open to the public, and guides conduct daily tours during the summer from 11:00am through 4:00pm. They read a brief history of the church and then allow visitors to walk around.

Having survived over 200 years, Holy Family has seen many fascinating events over the years. The town of Cahokia is one of the oldest settlements in Illinois, and was already 77 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Because the area was already home to a large American Indian population before white settlers arrived, French Catholic priests from Quebec chose Cahokia to do missionary work. About 2,000 Indians from various local tribes attended a ceremony for the raising of the cross in 1699. Sadly, the first priest stationed in Cahokia, Fr. St. Cosme, was killed in an Indian attack while preaching in what is now Natchez, Mississippi.

Some of the items in the church predate the current structure, with a bell from 1776 suspended from a tree in the churchyard, a missal printed in 1683, a monstrance made in 1717, a chalice, and a paten all coming from the previous church that stood at the site. In fact, Pope John Paul II used the Holy Family chalice in his Mass when he visited St. Louis in 1999. The church is so old that it is held together entirely with wooden pegs instead of nails. In 1949, Fr. Joseph Mueller "rediscovered" parts of the old log church that had been covered over with white clapboarding and it was restored to its original look in time for the parish’s 250th anniversary.

Simply put, The Church of the Holy Family is not just an historical marvel for Illinois residents, but for Catholics all around the United States. Even among non-Catholics, it is an amazing window into the past, especially given that many of Cahokia's earliest settlers are buried in the graveyard behind The Church of the Holy Family. Perhaps you've never heard of this hidden treasure. Well, now you know about it.

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