By accident or by providence, the bells of nearby St. Peter Church struck a two-note countermelody to the coda of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Dignitaries and rank-and-file Missourians were gathered around the steps of the State Capitol in Jefferson City to celebrate their bicentennial of statehood.
“This is the day the Lord has made! Let us be glad and rejoice!” Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki, vicar general for the Jefferson City diocese, chaplain of the Missouri House of Representatives and pastor of St. Michael Parish in Russellville, proclaimed in the invocation, quoting Psalm 118.
It was the 200th anniversary of the day President James Monroe signed legislation recognizing Missouri as the 24th state in the Union.
Like all 73,049 days that came before it, it was a moment in history.
“It took all of us, every single Missourian for the past 200 years, to make us who we are and to bring us to this day,” Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Wilson asserted. “It will take all of us to move Missouri into the future — our future — that will be as bright as we make it, together.”
A place of promise
Dr. Gary Kremer, executive director of the Missouri State Historical Society, called to mind an assertion by 19th-century Missouri statesman Sen. Thomas Hart Benton that those who owned land and cultivated the soil were “the chosen of God” and their occupation “the most fruitful in the creation of patriotic and good Christians.”
Dr. Kremer noted that the approximately 70,000 people living in the state at the time of its founding could easily fit into the University of Missouri’s Memorial Stadium.
The largest concentration was in and around St. Louis, with other groups scattered along the Mississippi River, in the lead-mine region of the western Ozarks, “and a rapidly growing group along the Missouri River in the central part of the state, extending westward along the so-called Boonslick Trail.”
Howard County, in the heart of the Jefferson City diocese, was at that time the fastest-growing county in the United States.
Dr. Kremer pointed out that many of the early European settlers came in search of good farmland that they could afford.
“They saw Missouri as a place of promise,” he said.
Their lives were difficult and dangerous. They created a society that would sustain not only themselves but those who came after them.
“We owe them a great deal,” Dr. Kremer noted.
Among them were numerous Catholic explorers, missionaries, pioneers, statesmen and waves of Catholic immigrants of all occupations whose baptismal seal left an imprint on these hills, plains and valleys.
“Our presence has been evident here from the beginning,” Msgr. Kurwicki pointed out after the celebration. “Faith and religion have done much to influence good decisions, tolerance and charity, and prayer has always been powerful in the life of our government.”
Dr. Kremer, a seventh-generation Frankenstein native and current member of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City, spoke of fellow statesman as one might speak of family.
“Missouri and its people belong to me and I to them,” he stated. “The state and its people sometimes confuse and confound me, even on occasion annoy and aggravate me, but I’ve never not loved it and them.”
The years have brought change and complexity.
“We have become a complicated, diverse, interesting people, numbering more than 6 million, living in a complex, heterogeneous, intriguing place,” Dr. Kremer noted.
Among them are about 27,000 descendants of indigenous people who inhabited this place before colonial settlers, and descendants of about 100,000 enslaved people “whose forced labor helped to build this state and nation although they were regarded as property, not people.”
Dr. Kremer asserted that the state’s diversity has always been one of its greatest strengths and has allowed it to produce an amazing assortment of eclectic brilliance.
He echoed a statement by artist Thomas Hart Benton, whose raw and vivid “A Social History of the State of Missouri” mural adorns the House Lounge of the Missouri Capitol: “I like the men and women who make the real Missouri. I get along with them.”
“I feel the same way,” said Dr. Kremer.
“We’ll walk hand in hand”
Songs representing 20 decades of cultural amalgamation drifted down through the generations and across the Capitol grounds.
The Missouri Choral Directors Association’s All-Star Festival Choir performed several rousing songs, including Missouri State University Adjunct Professor James T. Gibson’s superlative rendition of the Black spiritual, “We Shall Overcome.”
Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson, an elder in the First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson City, spoke of what the state’s people have accomplished and experienced together.
“Especially in difficult times, Missourians fought and labored to help each other, rescue each other, free the enslaved and protect defenseless people around the world,” he stated.
“We did those things because we are a good people,” he added. “We’ve shone more often than we’ve blushed. We’ve been a force for light more often than we’ve been the cause of darkness.”
Looking ahead and extemporizing on St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he asserted: “Not one of us can make a difference unless we ALL make a difference.”
The festivities also included the unveiling of a U.S. postal stamp honoring Missouri’s bicentennial, and an official proclamation from Gov. Mike Parson.
The governor lauded the rank-and-file Missourians in the audience.
“The true dignitaries,” he proclaimed, “are the Missourians who go to work, raise their families, go to church, live a good life, are good neighbors, are people with good values and spread those values down to the next generation.”
He said the state’s bicentennial is a good time for all Missourians to take stock of their own place in history.
“Take a little time today to think about your own family, where you came from, your family history, your family tree, and find out what you’ve overcome in Missouri, and why we’re so privileged to be Missourians, and why it’s such a privilege to be Missourians with you today,” he said.
A bridge and a monument
In the days leading up to the Bicentennial festivities came the unveiling of the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument on the Capitol grounds and the dedication of the Bicentennial Bridge from the Capitol Circle to Adrian’s Island.
When completed in October, the steel and concrete bridge will carry pedestrians and cyclists to a park flanking the Missouri River, on the other side of the railroad tracks below the steep bluff.
Father Jeremy Secrist, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City, blessed the bridge during the Aug. 10 dedication ceremony, as several of his predecessors had done for other bridges in the Capitol City.
“We ask that You bless this bridge, and pray that You send Your holy angels to watch over, protect and support it,” Fr. Secrist prayed. “... Continue to keep safe all those workers who labor for its successful completion.”
He prayed for the new bridge to be a sign of everything good that unites people in the community, and everyone who passes over the bridge may find in God “a safeguard amidst the joys and challenges of this world.”
Sandra Deraps, a member of Annunciation Parish in California, whose youngest son was killed in 2006 while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. in Iraq, was the keynote speaker at the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument unveiling on Aug. 9.
The monument, located next to the Veterans Plaza on the Capitol grounds, honors families and loved ones of military personnel who died in service of this country.
A new century
In his Statehood Day invocation, Msgr. Kurwicki thanked God for all the people who have contributed building up Missouri in its first 200 years.
“We honor her heroes and heroines,” he prayed, “and express our gratitude for Your countless blessings over these many decades. We recall with joy our venerable past, we now live in our gracious and unfolding present, and we look forward to a hopeful future.”
In a statement, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, a member of Cathedral of St. Joseph Parish in Jefferson City, noted that for two centuries, Missourians have been making significant impacts at home and abroad.
“I am thankful for all they have done,” he said. “Claudia and I look forward to watching our great state continue to flourish for many more years to come.”
Dr. Kremer said he has good reason to hope that Missouri will continue to be a place of promise, “and may our third century of statehood be the time when that promise is fulfilled.”
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight shared his prayer for the state over social media: “May God guide and foster our unity in times of uncertainty; nurture social comity, justice and peace; and lead us all into prosperity.”