St. Mary's Catholic Church (Helena-West Helena)
St. Mary’s Catholic Church is a Gothic Revival–style building along Columbia Street in Helena-West Helena (Phillips County), designed by renowned architect and designer Charles Eames and his architectural partner Robert Walsh.
Charles Eames was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. He attended Washington University in St. Louis for a few years before opening an architecture firm with Charles Grey and Walter E. Pauley. After a solo trip to Mexico in 1933, Eames started a new firm with Walsh in St. Louis in 1934. During the 1930s, Eames and Robert Walsh worked on several projects in and around St. Louis as well as two Catholic churches in eastern Arkansas: one in Helena-West Helena and one in Paragould (Greene County). Eames would eventually gain an international reputation as an architect and designer after attending Cranbrook Academy of Art in the late 1930s and moving to California with his wife, designer Ray Eames.
The first Catholic church in what was then Helena was established before 1850 when a log building was constructed for the congregation. By 1856, a new frame church was erected. In 1857, new land, including the former home of Colonel Henry Biscoe, was purchased by the church to establish a convent for the Sisters of Mercy and a day school, known as St. Catherine’s Academy. This first school and convent closed in 1868. A new convent and school, known as Sacred Heart Academy, was established in Helena in 1879 by the Sisters of Charity. By 1888, a new brick church building had also been erected along Columbia Street.
In July 1934, a local newspaper noted that the architectural plans for a new Catholic church had been approved. The new church was the project of Father Thomas Martin, who had started planning and raising money for the new church around 1933. After the church was completed, it was dedicated by the Bishop of Arkansas, John Morris, on May 3, 1936.
The church designed by Eames and Walsh is similar to early Christian basilica forms, with a simplified Gothic Revival exterior that features pointed-arch windows and brick buttressing. Although the structure is traditional in form, Eames and Walsh worked to infuse new modernist thought in their designs by eliminating ornamentation and focusing on the function of each aspect of the design.
The Kesl family, who were members of the congregation and local builders, were responsible for much of the construction work. Eames and Walsh also worked with the church members to design the interior furnishings, including the wooden pews, the communion rail, vestments, the pulpit, and light fixtures. The light fixtures are important design elements that incorporate motifs of the moon, the sun, and the stars to illustrate Catholic theology. Eames and Walsh also enlisted Emil Frey Jr. of St. Louis to help create the stained-glass windows. Sculptor Caroline Risque Janis of St. Louis created the Madonna and child statue above the front entrance doors. Artist Charles Quest painted the Byzantine-inspired murals on the brick wall behind the altar.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Helena-West Helena was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on January 24, 2007, and continues to serve the local Catholic community in the twenty-first century.
For additional information:
Kirkham, Pat. Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.
St. Mary’s 75th Jubilee Publication Committee. Catholicism on the Mississippi: The Helena Story. Little Rock, AR: Arkansas Graphics, 2012.
Wilcox, Ralph. “St. Mary’s Catholic Church.” National Register of Historic Places registration form, 2007. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at https://www.arkansasheritage.com/arkansas-historic-preservation-program (accessed December 19, 2023).
Williams, Callie. “Arkansas Listings in the National Register of Historic Places: ‘Some Oddball Churches’: Charles Eames in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 76 (Winter 2017): 375–383.
Zakrzewski, Katie. “Architect Honors Eames, Designer of 2 Arkansas Parishes.” Arkansas Catholic, December 18, 2023. https://www.arkansas-catholic.org/news/article/8073/Architect-honors-Eames-designer-of-2-Arkansas-parishes (accessed December 19, 2023).
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
A charming and original design. Even if you don’t know the history, you sense that this is a very special building.
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