On top of a hill in front of an art museum in the biggest park in St. Louis stands a statue of an anti-Semite. It’s a monument to the city’s namesake, the medieval French king Louis IX, depicting the king astride a horse, wearing a crown and a robe and holding a sword in his right hand.
Erected 116 years ago in Forest Park, it is one of the city’s best-known monuments.
Now, a coalition of activists want it taken down because Louis IX persecuted Jews, presided over a notorious mass burning of the Talmud, issued an order of expulsion against his Jewish subjects, and led two blood-drenched Crusader armies in unsuccessful offensives in North Africa.
At a time when statues of Confederate leaders and other figures condemned for racist actions are coming down across the country, activists in St. Louis want the Louis IX statue to come down too.
“The impossible is becoming possible,” said Umar Lee, who started a petition calling for the statue’s removal, which had 849 signatures as of Sunday evening. Louis IX was “a rabid anti-semite who spearheaded many persecutions against the Jewish people,” as well as being “vehemently Islamophobic,” he said.
Lee is not Jewish but started the petition because of Louis IX’s anti-Semitism. He also took part in a successful drive to remove a nearby Confederate monument in 2017.
“Monuments don’t exist in the past. They exist in the present,” Lee said. “It’s not necessary to have a monument glorifying the individual in order to recognize history. King Louis IX will be in the history books no matter what we do in St. Louis.”
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis issued an emphatic defense of the statue on Sunday, without mentioning Louis IX’s persecution of Jews.
In its statement, the archdiocese said the Catholic Church canonized Louis IX because of his charitable work with the poor and his reforms to France’s judicial system.
The statement said the archdiocese supports “programs and policies that will dismantle racism” and said, “We should not seek to erase history, but recognize and learn from it, while working to create new opportunities for our brothers and sisters.”
“The history of the statue of St. Louis, the King, is one founded in piety and reverence,” the statement said. “For St. Louisans, he is a model for how we should care for our fellow citizen, and a namesake with whom we should be proud to identify.”
From a Jewish perspective, removing the statue would be “a very important part of reclaiming history, reclaiming the stories that have created the institutionalized racism that we are trying to unravel today,” said Susan Talve, founding spiritual leader of the city’s Central Reform Congregation. “If we’re not honest about our history we will never be able to dismantle the systems of oppression that we are living under.”
But as in other cities where activists have sought to remove monuments, the effort has sparked a backlash. Every night, several dozen Catholics gather by the statue to recite the rosary. One of them, Anna Kalinowski, called the statue a “remarkable work of art.” She emphasized that she reveres Louis IX as “a man who really wanted to follow G-d and [who] really wanted to do the right thing.” She feels his persecution of the Jews should be viewed in historical context.
“He wanted people to be Catholic because the Catholic Church believed that when you’re Catholic that is the way to fully serve G-d,” she said. “He believed that with his whole heart and soul and he wanted that for the Jewish people. Do we think that the way he went about that is wrong now? Sure. I mean, everybody has a right to their opinion on that, but at the time we can’t be so sure because we have to be careful and look at the context of his actions.”
Talve said that even at the time of Louis IX’s reign in the 13th century there were people who recognized that ordering the expulsion of Jews, burning their sacred texts and leading Crusades was wrong.
“I’m not exactly sure what people are meaning when they say that you can’t judge what was happening in the Middle Ages by today’s standards — but you know what? Pillaging and looting at any time I think was wrong,” she said. “Asserting that your way is the only way I think is always wrong.”
Jim Hoft, the editor of the far-right website Gateway Pundit and one of the rally organizers, posted a call for “all Catholic and Christian men and their allies” to gather by the statue at noon to recite the rosary. Kalinowski said her group is not affiliated with the Saturday rally.
Lee said he’s bracing himself for possible violence. But no matter what happens, he sees the protest movement as an opportunity to be honest about history.
“I don’t believe anyone should be free of critical historical analysis,” he said. “It’s very problematic if you say that because someone is a saint, they can’t be analyzed through a critical lens.”