“The first time we walked into the Chapel, we said ‘Oh, my gosh!’,” said Bill Wichman, historian and resident of Laclede Groves Senior Living, a Lutheran Senior Services (LSS) Life Plan Community in Webster Groves, Missouri. “This is hallowed ground.”
Today, everyone can experience that wonder and learn the history of this holy place through a website Bill created – The Chapel at Laclede Groves: An Exploration of Sacred Historic Art. The website has a wealth of information about the Chapel, considered the crown jewel of Laclede Groves.
Upon moving into Laclede Groves in 2021, Bill turned his attention to learning about the history of his new home. “I am a historian and I love history,” said Bill. He started by learning about the oldest portion of Laclede Groves, which was built in 1919. “And then I wondered about the Chapel. I really got into researching the windows and mosaics. I thought, ‘This needs to be recorded somewhere so people know!’”
Bill is no stranger to historical research and creating websites. With his technological skills and passion for history, he also has created two other historical websites. His previous experience prepared him to create the Chapel website, which has been well received by other Laclede Groves residents and team members.
“What’s great about the Chapel website is people say that now when they enter the Chapel, they have a whole different view of what it is and what it was,” said Bill.
Laclede Groves was once a convent for the Sisters of Mercy, an order of nuns who combined a contemplative life with works like education and care of the sick, older adults, and children. The 64-acre site was gifted to the Sisters by a grateful former patient. There they built a convent in 1919 that included the Chapel. The organization that was the precursor to Lutheran Senior Services bought the building and land in 1970 to develop senior housing. Today Laclede Groves has expanded by leaps and bounds, but the Chapel remains the heart of the community.
The Chapel was formally rededicated on April 25, 1971, under the guidance of The Reverend Dr. Arthur Carl Piepkorn of Concordia Seminary St. Louis. A major renovation in the mid-2000s restored it to its original beauty. In his research, Bill found the text of Rev. Piepkorn from the ceremony.
“He really focused on the fact that this was a Christian chapel and explained the meaning of the windows in light of how they represent all Christians, not just one denomination,” said Bill.
In his research he learned that the stained-glass windows were created by Emil Frei, a stained-glass company that remains in operation today. “The fifth generation is still around in Kirkwood!” Bill is setting up a tour of the company, which isn’t far from Laclede Groves, for he and his wife Diann and some fellow Laclede Groves residents. “We’ll see the studios where the windows came from,” Bill explained. His website identifies many fascinating details about each window.
Also of note is that the mosaics were created by the artist Hermann Heinrich August Oetken, who made them as a sample to be considered for the mosaics of St. Louis’ Cathedral Basilica. His designs were chosen for Cathedral Basilica and can be seen there still today. Oetken donated his samples to the Sisters of Mercy for the Chapel. Bill’s website delves into each mosaic, identifying who is pictured and the meaning of each detail.
Bill spent hours online doing research, as well as exploring the materials that Laclede Groves team members had preserved. He also had a big boost from another former Laclede Groves resident who wrote an incredibly detailed account of Laclede Groves history. “It was an unbelievable resource!” Bill was grateful to have the honor of taking on her work and including it with his research for the website.
“What an amazing historical and cultural jewel the Chapel is for the community,” said Gina Timme, Director of Development for Laclede Groves. “I’m so grateful to Bill for elevating its history,” she said. Gina and other Laclede Groves team members were delighted with Bill’s interest and supported his project.
Bill is hopeful that not only will current residents of Laclede Groves use the website to learn more about the rich history of their home, but that others also will appreciate what an historic gem the Chapel is to the larger community.
Bill invites everyone to visit The Chapel at Laclede Groves: An Exploration of Sacred Historic Art.
“Today the Chapel is used for people from this era. And 100 years ago, this is where the Sisters of Mercy trained up people to be solidly in the faith. And the windows and mosaics represent people from the first and second century – the martyrs and the saints. I enjoy the juxtaposition of the generations of faith,” Bill said. “It really is hallowed ground to visit this space.”