In 1836, Bishop Joseph Rosati gave the Jesuits permission to found a parish in conjunction with their newly founded College. The parish congregation met for several years in the College Student Chapel dedicated to Saint Aloysius, located on Washington Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets. It was evident from the beginning, however, that the parish would need its own church building. Plans for it were begun; and on April 12, 1840, the cornerstone of the new church was laid by Bishop Rosati. It was situated at Ninth Street and Christy (Lucas) Avenue.
The church was dedicated to Saint Francis Xavier; but, from the first, it was familiarly known as the College Church. It was the first English-speaking parish in the city and the second regular church to be opened for public services. The Old Cathedral, of course, was the first.
As the city moved west, Saint Louis University (the College had received a University charter in 1832) decided to move with it. In 1867, the property was purchased in Lindell’s Grove at Grand Boulevard (then Avenue) as a new site for the University. In 1879, Archbishop Kenrick gave the Jesuits permission to build a new church on the site to supplant Saint Francis Xavier College Church at Ninth and Lucas.
Plans for the new church were drawn up by the prominent architect Thomas Walsh. In 1883 excavations for the foundations begun, and on June 8, 1884, the cornerstone for the new church was laid by the Most Reverend Patrick J. Ryan, coadjutor to the Archbishop of Saint Louis, assisted by the Right Reverend William H. Gross of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer, Bishop of Savannah, and by the Right Reverend Joseph Dwenger, Bishop of Fort Wayne.
By 1884, the basement was finished and roofed over and for many years served the new congregation of Saint Francis Xavier for its liturgical functions. From that date on, work continued steadily on the upper church as funds became available.
The architect, Thomas Walsh, had drawn the preliminary plans for the new church. He also designed DuBourg Hall which for a long time was the sole school building on the new Saint Louis University campus. He died before the construction of the upper part of the new church was begun and the project was taken over by the Chicago architect, Henry W. Switzer.
By this time, Father Henry C. Bronsgeest, S.J., a Dutchman, had been appointed pastor. Fr. Bronsgeest was familiar with churches all over Europe and decided that, of all the possible examples that might be emulated, the one he wanted as a model for the College Church was the Cathedral of Saint Colman, in Cobh, Ireland. Saint Colman’s was designed by E.W. Pugin, the son of Augustus Welby Pugin, the famous architect who, more than any other, was responsible for the Gothic revival in the 19th century. Among other things, the elder Pugin designed the interior Gothic decoration of the Houses of Parliament and the Altar of the Jesuit Church in Mayfair, both in London, and the entire Cathedral of Killarney in Ireland.