The past and present of Florissant, Missouri, are tied to community landmark St. Ferdinand Shrine, the oldest church still standing west of the Mississippi River. Anchoring the city’s Old Town historic district, the Catholic shrine is a must-see when visiting Florissant, a town of 50,000 residents about 20 miles northwest of downtown St. Louis.
Community members built the current brick structure in 1821, but the parish dates back to 1789, just three years after the first civil government was established. Most of the settlers, who were French, called their village Fleurissant, the French version of the city’s current name. The territory was under Spanish control at the time, and the Spanish authorities called both the settlement and the church St. Ferdinand.
As is fitting for a monument of such importance, the shrine plays a role in the town’s biggest festivities. Every April, individuals portraying fur trappers and farmers from the early 19th century, together with a Jesuit priest, descend on the shrine in the Historical Reenactment Encampment. In May St. Ferdinand is one of five venues for the Florissant Valley of Flowers Festival, a four-day celebration with carnival rides, craft booths and food, ending with a parade and the crowning of a new Valley of Flowers Queen. The shrine also takes a prominent place at the Old Town Fall Festival in October. Attendance hits 35,000 at this 11-square-block party that features live music, a petting zoo, a dog show and a chili cook-off.
St. Ferdinand Shrine cannot claim a monopoly on local history. One of the more intriguing sights in Florissant is the log cabin in Tower Court Park, now owned by the city. Any Florissant sightseeing excursion should include this 1850s cabin that once belonged to a fur trapper. The non-profit Historic Florissant, Inc. and the Florissant Valley Historical Society have each worked to preserve and restore the city’s oldest structures. Historic Florissant transformed the 19th-century Gittemeier House into its resource center and archive, where visitors can purchase books on local history. The Florissant Valley Historical Society operates from the Taille de Noyer, an antebellum plantation home. The home is also a museum that tourists should squeeze into their Florissant sightseeing itineraries.
This small city boasts more than historic sights and exuberant festivals. Every year 120,000 people attend performances at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre. Several theater groups stage productions at this venue, which features a proscenium stage and 567-seat auditorium.
One group, the Florissant Fine Arts Council, has brought some of the best national musical and dramatic productions to the theater over the course of two decades through its Applause Applause series. The Junior League of St. Louis specializes in theatrical productions of children’s literature, such as Charlotte’s Web and the Jungle Book, through its Bringing Stories to Life series. Two community-based ensembles, the Hawthorne Players and the Alpha Players of Florissant, also stage productions at the civic center theater. Anyone visiting Florissant should check the theater calendar before planning a night on the town.