BEVO – Behind shuttered businesses on the east side of Kingshighway Boulevard south of Chippewa Street is a six-acre empty lot, crying out for somebody to do something with it.
To the north, beyond a fence, is more land, occupied by an empty parking lot and a building that was until late in 2018 a Shop ‘n Save market.
A developer from Florida has big plans for both properties. John Clancy wants to put a grocery store and a fitness center in the old Shop ‘n Save building and a mixed-use commercial building in the back.
But Clancy would have a hard time matching the success St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church had for well over 60 years.
Two visionary pastors used the property to create a first-class youth sports center that was far superior to what almost any other area parish had.
Joseph Miklovic, a retired CPA and longtime member of St. Mary Magdalen parish who has researched its history thoroughly, said the story of the youth center began in 1949. That’s when the church bought the area that includes the vacant property at 4354 South Kingshighway Blvd., the Shop ‘n Save property and the land now occupied by a Steak ‘n Shake.
The Rev. William Mullally, then the church’s pastor, used $350,000 of the parish’s money to purchase the property for a youth center. To make things easier, the two acres on the east side along Chippewa that became the Shop ‘n Save property was sold for use as a parking lot for Famous Barr Southtown.
Just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Mullally told St. Mary Magdalen parishioners he’d be joining the Chaplain Corps. He went in as a captain and came out as a colonel. After his military service, he resumed his duties and was later given the title of monsignor.
He noticed that a particular group of parishioners was overlooked.
“He just wanted a place for children to play,” said Gene Eichhorn, who was president of the parish council in later years.
“Mullally had the foresight to do that,” said Joseph Miklovic, a longtime parishioner who has researched its history thoroughly.
The cornerstone was blessed in 1949, and the center was finished in 1950. It included a full Broadway stage and a raised deck for spectators, a 10-lane bowling alley where the bowling great Dick Weber someday would bowl 300 and small apartments for priests staying on the property. Its fields included space for soccer and other sports.
Mallally stayed with the parish until 1966, when Msgr. Louis F. Meyer succeeded him.
Meyer was a friend of mayors, sports personalities, soccer and children. He held important youth positions with the Archdiocese of St. Louis and won several major local soccer awards. One story was that the Giants offered Meyer a baseball contract. But he was ordained as a priest in 1944.
“I was ordained with a Bible in one hand and my soccer shoes in the other,” Meyer said.
Meyer was born in 1919, the same year St. Mary Magdalen was established. That meant that when the church marked a milestone, so did he.
Meyer could pull strings. He arranged for the Brazilian soccer superstar Pele to come to St. Louis and do a free clinic at the parish center. After Pele slept at the rectory that night, a fan knocked on the door the next morning and asked to buy the bed. Meyer turned him down.
Meyer was friends with then-Mayor Vince Schoemehl and knew other celebrities in the area. He was on numerous boards and had a long list of awards.
He headed the Catholic Youth Council for the archdiocese from 1960 to 1985 and served the parish until 1985, when he moved to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Clayton. When he left, St. Mary Magdalen had a quarter of a million dollars in the bank.
“He was a politician,” Miklovic said.
In later years, Meyer was the chaplain of St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
When the St. Louis University baseball team played on the field, it hosted a team from Arizona State University whose members included the future Hall of Fame right fielder Reggie Jackson.
After a fire caused by arson destroyed the St. Mary’s High School gym in 1994, that school’s basketball team played its home games at the parish center. College coaches including Indiana Hoosiers basketball team head coach Bobby Knight scouted at the parish center.
Meyer died in 2011. Times were tough in recent years.
“As we started losing parishioners and families, the passing of the collection plate started slowing down,” Miklovic said. About 11 years ago, the parish sold the center to the CYC, and it became the Msgr. Louis F. Meyer Youth Center. Then about two or three years ago, it was closed.
It’s now in the hands of a developer, and the building has been torn down. The bowling alley had been long since removed.
The stories about Meyer remain.
One Miklovic related was that that Meyer would look with anger at stories of abuse. He certainly wouldn’t turn a blind eye to a report of abuse, Miklovic said.
“Straight as an arrow. Never been a question asked,” said Eichhorn, whose term on the parish council was during Meyer’s tenure.
Miklovic knew Meyer for many reasons, but especially for what the monsignor said to him one night at a Teen Town dance at the center.
Meyer tapped Miklovic on the shoulder and asked. “Could you put a little more space between you and that lady?”