Saint Mary’s An Outpost of the Faith
Christ, before ascending from this earth, commanded His disciples to “teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” From that day to the present, faithful men and women, illuminated with zeal and often at the cost of their lives, have spread the Gospel around the globe.
A millennium and a half later, after Europeans discovered the lands of the western hemisphere, missionaries arrived to bring the native peoples into the Mystical Body of Christ. It was Franciscan priests who first evangelized present-day Mexico; one of the millions they baptized was St. Juan Diego to whom Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared. Later, Franciscan missions like the one associated with Fr. Juan de Padilla and that of St. Junípero Serra pushed into the present-day southwestern United States. Heroic Dominicans like St. Louis Bertrand and Bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas worked to baptize the natives and defend them against rapacious colonists.
However, this period is best known for the amazing growth and accomplishments of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuit Order, beginning with only 10 tattered men in 1537, soon grew into a formidable force that left a lasting mark on all aspects of the Church’s life: preaching, asceticism, scholarship, and missionary work. Even before the formalities of the establishment of the Society of Jesus were complete in 1540, St. Ignatius sent St. Francis Xavier to evangelize the vast expanses of the East, telling him to “Go! Enkindle and inflame the whole earth!”
Other sons of St. Ignatius turned to the equally important missionary fields of the West. In the opening decades of the 17th century, Jesuits established the famous “reductions” in Paraguay; St. Peter Claver became the “Apostle to the Negroes,” signing himself in 1622 as Petrus Claver, ethiopum semper servus; and St. Isaac Jogues and his companions suffered martyrdom as they established the Faith in Canada and the northeastern United States.
A more specific thread in the Saint Mary’s story begins in 1641 when, near the end of his first visit to the New World, St. Isaac Jogues and Fr. Charles Raymbaut met representatives of the Potawatomi tribe in Michigan. Related to the Ottowa and Chippewa, the Potawatomi were originally from the upper Mississippi River region. Spreading across the lower Great Lakes region, from Green Bay to today’s Chicago and Detroit, the Potawatomi were evangelized until the suppression of the Jesuits and various wars left them without priests. The Faith did not perish altogether from them; like the Japanese on the other side of the world, they passed the rudiments of Catholic belief and prayers to their descendants until the return of the “blackrobes.”
Responding to the desires of the children and grandchildren of those first evangelized by the Jesuits, Chief Pokegan in Detroit requested a priest; Fr. Stephen Badin, the first priest ordained in the United States, was sent to them from Kentucky. Within three years, about 600 became Catholic. Upon Fr. Badin’s death in 1837, Fr. Benjamin Marie Petit, a young French priest, took over the mission.
By the 1830’s the United States government had enough interest in the lower Great Lakes region to forcibly move the native tribes west. The Illinois Potawatomi were sent to Nebraska while 859 of the Indiana Potawatomi, in what is known as the Trail of Death, were sent to Kansas in 1838. Fr. Petit accompanied his flock and died as a result of the rigors of the journey. Over 40 of the Potawatomi also died on the trail, over half of which were children. The tribe, now known as the Potawatomi of the Woods, first settled in Osawatomie, Kansas, about 60 miles southwest of Kansas City.
Meanwhile, after the suppression of the Jesuits was lifted in 1805, missionary work in America sprang back to life as the old priests who were former Jesuits called on their younger brethren to come to the New World. Men from Belgium in particular answered the call: Fr. Charles Felix Van Quickenborne; Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet, the great apostle of the northwest; and Fr. John Felix Verreydt, the founder of Saint Mary’s.
In 1823, Fr. Van Quickenborne and a small group of penniless Jesuits arrived in Florissant, Missouri to establish a Jesuit novitiate. Already there were St. Philippine Duchesne and her Ladies of the Sacred Heart, an Order founded in France by St. Madeleine Sophie Barat. Although the primary mission of the Jesuits was to minister to the Catholics of that region, both Fr. Van Quickenborne and Mother Duchesne longed to evangelize the native tribes. In 1824, they attempted to open a school for native boys and girls—the education of the youth has been a part of the Saint Mary’s story from before the beginning of its foundation.
Among the first Jesuit novices at Florissant were Fr. De Smet and Fr. Verreydt. After his ordination, Fr. Verreydt’s first work involved riding an arduous circuit to minister to Catholics in central and northeast Missouri. Meanwhile, Fr. Christian Hoecken, S.J., one of the great missionaries of Kansas, evangelized the Kickapoo tribe and then moved to southeast Kansas to care for the Potawatomies of Fr. Petit.
In March 1839, the Potawatomies, along with Fr. Hoecken, moved about 15 miles south to Sugar Creek, a short distance east of present-day Centerville in Linn County. The settlement was named “Saint Mary’s Mission.” The next year a school was opened, and, while visiting Missouri, Fr. Hoecken thrilled Mother Duchesne with stories of the successes of the Potawatomi community. By 1841, the mission enjoyed a thriving Catholic life, with almost a thousand Catholic Indians and about 140 students in now separate boys’ and girls’ schools; the latter was staffed by four of Mother Duchesne’s Ladies of the Sacred Heart from St. Charles, Missouri. The saint herself visited that year with three other sisters and was received with great joy by the natives. The parish boasted many confraternities and liturgical functions, including eight-day missions preached according to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, May devotions, the blessing of crops, and elaborate Corpus Christi processions. All who came into contact with the mission praised the piety and industry of the Potawatomi. Confessors affirmed that some of the Indians led such innocent lives they probably had never committed a mortal sin. Faced with the bitter trial of losing their native lands and the ever-present temptation of alcohol—which ruined many a man—the Faith gave the Potawatomi the spiritual resources to rise above the realities of a fallen world and reach for something higher. By the end of 1841, Fr. Verreydt was named superior and Saint Mary’s Mission became a focal point for the Jesuits in the region.
Settle in St. Mary’s
However, in June 1846, the government signed a new treaty with the tribe allotting them a thirty-mile-square track of land lying on both sides of the Kaw (now Kansas) River extending west of Topeka. Since the mission—now numbering about 1300—was forced to move with the tribe, Fr. Verreydt rode out to find a suitable location. In early June 1848, after asking the Blessed Mother to help him find a good site that he promised to name after her, Fr. Verreydt settled on the spot where Saint Mary’s campus is today. In September, a party consisting of the Fr. Verreydt and Fr. Maurice Gailland, S.J., the four Ladies of the Sacred Heart, Jesuit Brothers George Miles and Patrick Ragan, an Indian boarding student named Charlot, and the guide and interpreter Joseph Bertrand journeyed to the new site. They arrived at about four in the afternoon on Saturday, September 9, 1848, the date considered to be the founding of Saint Mary’s. All that was there when they arrived were two rough log buildings: one east of today’s Jogues Hall and one where the Convent is now.
From the early days as a mission, Saint Mary’s eventually became the boys’ boarding school made famous by Father Finn, and then a Jesuit seminary where some 1,000 men were ordained in the Immaculata at the center of campus. After the Second Vatican Council, falling numbers of vocations led the Jesuits to abandon Saint Mary’s. In 1978, as in so many other places and ways, the Society of Saint Pius X resurrected the old campus, restoring the Mass, traditional education, and parish life. In this our age of crisis, in which much of the west is again mission territory, this “pearl of the prairie” stands as an outpost of the Faith.
Author’s note: Most of the material for this article is taken from The St. Mary’s Magazine (Christmas, 1998). The author wishes particularly to thank Miss Mary Gentges (RIP), Miss Teresa Jones, and Mr. David Kleinsmith