St. Joseph Church, Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, was established in 1722 as a chapel dependent upon the royally endowed church of Ste. Anne at Fort Chartres. King Louis XIV of France had dreamed of a great French empire in Mid America, but died before he could bring his dream to reality. Following his death in 1715, the regent, Philip of Orleans, ruling for the boy king Louis XV, commissioned Pierre Duque Boisbriant to found Fort Chartres in 1718 on the mighty Mississippi, midway between Quebec and New Orleans, to be the capital of the new French empire in Mid America.
The fort was named after the Duc de Chartres, son of the regent, and was the functioning capital of the Illinois Country, then a French possession. From the beginning of the fort a church was established in the village of Nouvelle Chartres outside the walls. It was staffed by two Jesuit priests, Father Le Boullenger and Father De Beaubois, who cared for the spiritual needs of the soldiers garrisoned in the fort, and the French families of the area surrounding the fort.
Soon the swampy condition of the soil near the fort prompted some of the French settlers to move to higher ground at the foot of the picturesque rock bluffs. Jean St. Therese Langlois, the nephew of Pierre Duque Boisbriant, commandant of the king, received from his uncle, the commandant, a grant of land for a village beneath the bluffs. They called it "La Belle Prairie du Rocher," namely, The Beautiful Meadow Beneath the Rock. A chapel of logs in what is the present and original cemetery was erected for the convenience of the people, so that they would not have to travel the muddy three miles to Ste. Anne at the fort. In 1734 this small chapel was replaced by a larger log church. A similar chapel was established at St. Philipe near what is now Renault and Harrisonville, and was called Our Lady of the Visitation.
The river washed away completely the settlement and chapel at St. Philipe. In 1765, two years after all the rest of the Mississippi valley had been surrendered to the British, Fort Chartres likewise surrendered. It was a sad day for the French, and this surrender was the final blow that destroyed forever the power of the French in Mid America. Fort Chartres was the last place in America to fly the Bourbon flag of France, the three golden fleur-de-lis on a background of blue. When the Bourbon flag was hauled down and the British flag was hoisted in its place, an era had ended. Great changes were in the making.
The royal church of Ste. Anne was abandoned and soon fell into disrepair. St. Joseph Chapel alone survived, and became the parish church of the area, supplanting or rather continuing the mother church of Ste. Anne. In 1767 the records and sacred vessels of Ste. Anne were transferred to St. Joseph at Prairie du Rocher. The few remaining French at Nouvelle Chartres demanded them back, and a civil suit was entered in the British court. The court awarded them back to Ste. Anne. But by that time the church was without roof, and no priest was stationed there, and for safekeeping these priceless treasures were returned to St. Joseph at Prairie du Rocher, where they remain to this day and are the marvel and admiration of historians. St. Joseph Church and the village of Prairie du Rocher are thus the only living remnants of the French Empire in Mid America.
Founded under the royal patronage of the Bourbon kings of France, both parish and town have survived the Bourbon kings themselves, the British rule, and finally the founding and development of the United States of America. St. Joseph Church, venerable in its antiquity, and the ancient village of Prairie du Rocher, are thus the only living monument of the French power in Mid America, and the sacred vessels inherited from the mother church of Ste. Anne are the only usable relics of a colorful epoch that ended on a note of tragedy.
The present church building dates from 1850, and was inspired by the churches of Rome. Two residents of Prairie du Rocher, returning from the Holy Year of 1850, agitated for a new church. The foundations were laid to the right of the old log church, but in 1851 came the great flood. The site of the new church was surrounded by water and cut off by the flood. It seemed imprudent to continue to build the new church where it could be menaced by floods, so the foundations were abandoned, and the church built at this higher spot, which has never suffered from floods.
The Romanesque style of architecture and especially the flat ceiling were inspired by the famous basilicas of Rome. The corner stone was laid July 19, 1858. St. Joseph Church was never an Indian mission, as were the churches at Kaskaskia and Cahokia, but was for the French. It is thus the only truly French parish in the Diocese of Belleville, founded under patronage of the king.
Find the list of priests who have served at St. Joseph's here: