October 1978 Print

An Historical Sketch of St. Mary's College

An Historical Sketch 


 compiled from various written sources
by Brother Augustine

ON  August 14, 1827, Father Felix Van Quickenborne and a lay companion arrived at a trading post among the Osage Indians on the Neosho River in Southeastern Kansas. This journey was mainly intended to survey the field and to investigate the prospects of doing effective missionary work among the Indians of the area. Ever since Father Van Quickenborne had come to Florissant near Saint Louis in 1823, he had been dreaming about such an undertaking and had been urging his superiors to allow him to make a start. He made his first approach to the Indians through the children but he ran into a language barrier. He subsequently received an invitation to dinner by two village chiefs, and then a third, who promised to send their children to a school as soon as one was opened. For some unexplained reason, no permanent foundation resulted from these missionary excursions at the time. On July 4, 1835, Father Quickenborne appeared at the Kickapoo reservation just north of Fort Leavenworth, after having heard of the readiness of the Indians there to receive the Gospel. He then returned to St. Louis. On June 1, 1836, he returned to the reservation and brought with him three lay brothers. He had one thousand dollars at his disposal from his superior and a promise of five hundred dollars from the government as soon as a school would be put into operation. He chose a spot on Salt Creek, between two Indian villages a mile and a quarter west of the Missouri River and five miles from Fort Leavenworth as the location for the mission. By the end of the year, he had built a two story residence, and a one-story school building. Several other buildings were also in the course of construction and all were made of logs.

On March 23, 1837, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs notified Father Quickenborne that the five hundred dollars which had been promised, had been sent to the disbursing agent, thus acknowledging that the school was opened. The names of the pioneers, besides Father Quickenborne himself, were Father Christian Hoecken and Brothers Andrew Mazzella, Edmund Barry and George Miles. The second foundation came about in an unexpected and somewhat surprising manner. This was the age of wholesale uprooting of Indian tribes in the eastern states and their forced transport to regions west of the Mississippi where lay the Indian Territory or Great American Desert of those days.

Among those brought to Kansas was a group of about one hundred and fifty Pottawatomie from the Wabash River in Indiana. A good share of these were Catholics. When the chief, Nesswawke, was informed that there were French-speaking priests with the Kickapoos, he at once sent a letter of appeal to them for spiritual aid. The chief's letter reached the missionaries during January of 1838, and before the end of the month, Father Christian Hoecken was with them. The place was on Pottawatomie Creek in present Miami County, about five miles above its junction with the Osage River, within the vicinity of the present Osawatomie. Here he stayed two and one-half weeks, working zealously. He returned in May and again in October.

Father was on hand when another body of Pottawatomie, numbering nearly eight hundred, arrived from Indiana in November. By this time it had been decided to set up a permanent mission among the Pottawatomie. A rude chapel was built and work continued here until the tribe moved in March, 1839, about fifteen miles further south to Sugar Creek, a short distance east of present Centreville in Linn County. This was the beginning of Saint Mary's Mission and the present Saint Mary's College.

SLOW progress was made for the remainder of the year 1839 and the early part of the following year. By this time, the need was felt for a larger and better constructed church. An elevated spot was selected and the building proceeded briskly. The dedication with picturesque ceremonies took place on Christmas Day in 1840.

During this year, a first attempt was made at conducting a school. The official date for the school for boys was July 7, 1840 but success was meager.

The situation brightened when four religious of the Sacred Heart arrived in the middle of July, 1841, and promptly opened a school for girls with forty in attendance. Before long a new building stood ready for them and before the end of the year 1841 a school for boys was housed and functioning.

Superioress of the new group of helpers was Mother Lucille Mathevan who for many years to come proved herself a valiant helper in the missions. But most memorable of the four sisters was Rose Phillippine Duchesne, who has now been raised to the altars as Blessed. She was "the woman who prays always."

IN May of 1841, a Father Eysvolgels arrived and on August 29th of this same year two more priests and two lay brothers arrived. Work went on unabated. During 1842, two hundred and thirty-five baptisms were recorded. In June, Bishop Kenrick of Saint Louis administered confirmation for the first time to about three hundred Indians. At this time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs reported sixty-six male pupils and seventy-two female students in attendance at the two schools. There were only four white students among them. A census taken at this time put the number of Indians who were Catholic at nine hundred and forty. Their sobriety, piety and industry were praised both by the missionaries and the officials.

In April of 1844, preparations were begun for the enlargement of the church. Digging for the foundations was begun on August 11, 1845, but as things turned out, this undertaking was not brought to completion. In January of 1845 a beginning was made with the splitting of rails for a new cemetery.

At the end of 1845, Bishop Barren, delegated by Bishop Kenrick, bestowed confirmation on eighty Indians. To this external evidence of progress in numbers, we add the testimony of the superior, Father F. Verreydt, concerning the interior life of the community. In April, 1847, writing his report to the Father General, he has this to say: "I can say that the piety of many among them and the innocent life they lead often touches me . . . it is a great satisfaction to see the church almost every Sunday filled with people."

Also, in 1845, Indian Agent Vaughn has this to say in his report: "It is grateful to state that the Pottawatomi, generally speaking, have evinced a very laudable desire to cultivate the soil . . . Those living on Sugar Creek . . . have been as usual very exemplary . . . They are industrious and moral; are comfortably fixed in good houses; and their fields are well fenced, staked and ridered."

STILL, just at this time, clouds were gathering. In June, 1846, commissioners came to negotiate the purchase of the Indian lands on the Osage River and the migration of the inhabitants to a new reservation on the Kaw River. This seriously unsettled the Indians and led to a marked increase of intemperance despite severe measures to prevent this. Reluctantly, the Indians agreed to sell and migrate to the new reserve within two years. It seems that there was trickery and deceit involved in all these negotiations. A penciled notation in the baptismal record of the tribe indicated that between November 21st and 23rd, 1847, the migration to the new reservation took place.

In January of 1848, Father Hoecken, assisted by the Indians, began erecting a residence and a church both under one roof. On February 20th of the same year, two lay brothers arrived to help to put the finishing touches to the rude log building. The occupation took place on February 26, 1848. Father Hoecken then set out on several trips to investigate a site for the new Saint Mary's Mission as his superior, Father Verreydt soon had realized that the site of the new reservation would not do. The community set out on September 7, 1848, to establish the new foundation. This was to become the location of the first Catholic church in east-central Kansas. Father Maurice Gailland gives a written account of the events that followed. Coming from Sugar Creek which lay to the east, he writes: "we entered a wood where we saw several Indian wigwams . . . Father Hoecken's house being a mile farther, we continued, penetrating the wood and soon found ourselves in a village containing more than one hundred lodges surrounded by fields and gardens. The missionary's house was in the center and could be distinguished from the rest by the cross which was placed over that portion that was used for the church." Finally, when they reached the Kansas River at Union-town, a short distance east of the present Willard, high water prevented the fording of the river until September 9, 1848.

The crossing was effected a short distance up stream from Willard. Then they all proceeded westward through the tall grass, made a noonday stop at or near the place where Rossville now stands, and arrived at their goal (the present-day site of Saint Mary's College) at about four o'clock in the afternoon. The date was September 9,1848.

LET us pause for a moment in our narration and take a brief glance at those who made up this very first group of pioneers who arrived this date at this site. First there was the superior, Father Felix Verreydt, S. J., successor to Father Van Quickenborne; there was Father Maurice Gailland, S. J., fresh from Switzerland, the future historian of the place and for many years the leading missionary to the Pottawatomie; there was the lay brother Patrick Ragan who acted as teamster for one of the wagons. With these, were four nuns of the Sacred Heart: Mother Lucille Mathevon, the intrepid superioress, Madame Mary Ann O'Connor, Sister Louise Amyot and Sister Mary L. Layton; the guide for the caravan was Mr. Joseph Bertrand (the present St. Mary's College is located on Betrand Street); and finally there was one pupil named Charlotte. Missing from the pioneer group were Father Hoecken and Brother Andrew Mazzella, still recuperating from illnesses at Sugar Creek.

To be concluded next month