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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 26

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Charles Nerinckx

Camillus Maes

published by
Robert Clarke & Co.
Cincinnati, 1880

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 28

 p465  Chapter XXVII


The Society of Jesus. — Establishment of the Western Missions. — The Missouri mission organized. — Novitiate at Florissant. — Indian missions. — The Pottawatomies of Michigan. — Father Desmet and companions. — Various establishments of the Missouri Province.

If the Jesuit province of Missouri has grown to be numerous and influential, and is doing much to maintain and extend genuine religion in the West, surely some share of the glory of this work is due to Father Nerinckx, under whose fatherly protection its founders all came to America. His impressive advice to them was to persevere in the purpose for which they left their native land, and devote themselves to the Indian missions, if the chance to do so should offer; nor were these solemn words of the saintly missionary ever forgotten by them.

Our readers will naturally be pleased to learn how that undertaking, in which Father Nerinckx encouraged them to engage, finally succeeded, and we devote the present chapter to the glorious work, which none in the United States ignore, but which, if we are not misinformed,  p466 none had as yet the honor to recount in print.

Two years after the arrival of Father Nerinckx and companions at Baltimore, Bishop Dubourg, of Louisiana, went to Georgetown to request, from the Provincial of the Maryland province, a colony of Jesuits for the evangelization of the Indians in the State of Missouri. Father Van Quickenborne and Father Timmermans, with Messrs. Van Assche, Desmet, Verhaegen, Verreydt, Smedts, Elet, and brothers Peter De Meyer and Henry Rysselman,º offered themselves for the missions in the Far West. They left White Marsh about the middle of April, 1823; went to Baltimore, where they procured wagons for their luggage, and started on their journey to Wheeling, West Virginia. They went by way of Frederick, Maryland; Conewago, Pennsylvania, and Cumberland, Maryland; thence across the Alleghany Mountains, reaching Wheeling after a journey of about two weeks. They were here entertained for a few days by Mr. Thompson, the kind gentleman whom Father Nerinckx visited in 1820, and whose daughter subsequently became a distinguished member of the Sacred Heart congregation.

Our travelers here procured two flat-boats, which they lashed together, placing upon one of them a wagon, some negroes who accompanied them, their stock of provisions for the journey, etc.; the reverend gentlemen, with their library  p467 and various articles of church furniture, being in the other. After a trip down the river of some twelve days, without striking incidents, they reached Louisville, where they met Rev. Father Nerinckx; a "Falls pilot" was engaged to get their boats safely over the falls, and, in this trip down the rapids, Rev. Van Assche accompanied him. They went down the Ohio to Shawneetown, where they disembarked, and sending their baggage around to St. Louis by steamboat, they journeyed across the land to the same destination.

They reached St. Louis, May 30, 1823, and on the evening of the same day, Father Van Quickenborne rode on horseback out to Florissant, accompanied by Father De La Croix. The present novitiate farm, or at least that part of it on which the houses stand, had been donated by Bishop Dubourg to the Jesuits. They took possession of the place, and began at once to clear land around the dwelling in order to make a garden. On July 31st, they began to dig the cellar for a dwelling, which, in the style of that day, was a log cabin. Father De La Croix made over his church at Florissant to Father Van Quickenborne immediately after the new-comers were settled at the novitiate of St. Stanislaus.

The aim of Father Van Quickenborne and his companions in first coming to the far West, was the devoting of themselves to the Indian missions, and this was a ruling thought in their minds for several years. Father Desmet,​a who  p468 afterward became so illustrious for what he accomplished among the aborigines of the Rocky Mountains and on the Pacific Slope, manifested, from his first arrival in Missouri, a deep interest in all things pertaining to this singular race. Shortly after the party settled at Florissant, he excavated Indian mounds on the summit of the Charbonniere, a bluff, three hundred feet high, over­looking the Missouri river at a mile's distance from the novitiate, and so called because it rests on a bed of stone coal. He exhumed therefrom an Indian skeleton, which he kept for a time in his room. One year after reaching Florissant, Father Van Quickenborne erected a large frame house, two and a half stories high, in order to open a school for Indian boys, the government of the United States agreeing to allow some compensation for each pupil. They began the school with fourteen Indian boys, mostly of the Cherokee tribe, a band of which was then still lingering on the prairies beyond the Missouri river; and a little later, some white families from St. Louis sent their sons to be educated at St. Stanislaus' novitiate.

It was soon discovered by the little missionary colony that Missouri was a field in which much could be done for the religious welfare of the white population, then pouring into its fertile plains and growing towns, from the more eastern States. Accordingly, when the young men were ordained priests, in 1827, they took full charge of the congregations in St. Charles county, in  p469 addition to Florissant, Fathers Felix Verreydt and J. B. Smedts residing in the town of St. Charles; besides, they went on missionary excursions into Illinois, the interior counties of Missouri, and also occasionally visiting the Indian tribes beyond the western boundary of the State. This Jesuit mission in Missouri was subject to the Provincial of Maryland till the year 1831, from which time it was governed by its own superior. The first two novices received were both natives of Kentucky, namely, James Yates and George Miles. They entered the novitiate at Florissant in 1827. From the year 1831, the number of members increased rapidly, as did also the extent and wants of the mission. It was made a vice-province in December, 1839; and it was raised to the rank of a province in 1864.

Before Bishop Dubourg left Missouri, resigning his title as Bishop of Upper and Lower Louisiana, he made over to Father Van Quickenborne a small piece of land near the town limits of St. Louis, which had been given by Jeremiah Connor, toward founding a college. Father Van Quickenborne purchased some adjacent property, and, in 1828, he began the erection of a college building, just at the edge of the town, and fronting on the St. Charles road. The St. Louis College began its first session on November 2, 1829; and, in February, 1833, it was incorporated by a special act of the State legislature, under the name of "The St. Louis University,"  p470 having Rev. P. J. Verhaegen as its first president. From 1829 to the present time, the institution has been uniformly prosperous, proving to be, on the whole, the most successful and influential of our catholic colleges in the Western States.

In 1836, Father Van Quickenborne established a residence among the Kickapoo Indians, at a point on the Missouri river eight miles above the site on which now stands Leavenworth City, with schools for this tribe. But, in 1838, the fierce Kickapoos, excited by the lies and the wild eloquence of a chieftain who published himself among them as a prophet, deserted the mission, wandering along the western border of Missouri, where they subsequently became notorious as drunkards and horse-thieves.

In 1838, Father Verreydt and Father Desmet began a missionary chapel and residence at Council Bluffs, around which collected a portion of the wild Pottawatomies, distinguished by the name "prairie Indians," from the civilized tribe then about to be removed from Michigan. Some roving bands belonging to other tribes also gathered around the fathers at this place; but when the wild Pottawatomies went off to rejoin their tribe, in 1841, the mission at Council Bluffs was given up. It was then that Father Desmet began his celebrated missionary journeys through the Rocky Mountains, where he  p471 and his zealous companions accomplished so much good for the savage tribes that roamed through that region. For a history of these missions in the Rocky Mountains the reader is referred to the published writings of Father Desmet, and to the forthcoming biography of this famous Indian missionary.

Early in the present century, the Pottawatomie tribe of Indians dwelt mainly in the territory between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, where they had above fifty villages, some of them situated as far south as the St. Joseph's river and northern Indiana. The wigwam of the great chief, Pokegan, whose descendants still remain in Michigan, was often visited by Father Richard, from Detroit, and Father Badin, from Kentucky, who went to dwell among these Indians in 1822. Father Deseilles, after giving all his patrimony to this mission, came over from Belgium in 1833 to spend his remaining life with these Indians in the wilds of Michigan. At the death of this worthy missionary, his place was taken by Father Petit, a secular priest from the diocese of Vincennes, Indiana. In 1837, Michigan was admitted into the Union as a state, and the government of the United States then determined to move this tribe of Indians to territorial domains under the jurisdiction of the general government. The place selected for them was a fertile district through which comes Sugar Creek, a head branch of Osage river, and just beyond the western border of Missouri.  p472 The tribe, accompanied by Father Petit, reached their new home in the Summer of 1838. The hardships and privations of such a life soon prostrated Father Petit; he started home to Vincennes for relief, and got as far as the St. Louis University, where he died, in January, 1839. He requested the Jesuit Fathers to take charge of his mission, and they consented to do so. Father Christian Hoecken, with several companions, went immediately to Sugar Creek. Church and schools were erected, the government furnishing money for the purpose, agreeably to a promise made to the Indians before their departure from Michigan. In July, 1841, four ladies of the Sacred Heart Society, with Madame Lucilla Mathevon as Superior, reached the mission and took charge of the school for girls. The tribe was again moved in 1847, and this time their destination was a district just west of the place where now stands Topeka, the capital of Kansas, and on the Kansas or Kaw river. By mistake, they stopped on the lands of the Shawnees, and did not reach the site of the present St. Mary's mission till the evening of September 9, 1848. Owing principally, under God, to the persevering zeal and ability of Father Mauritius Gaitland, who spent twenty-nine years of his life among the Pottawatomies, three-fourths of the tribe became christians. After they sold their lands, and the Kansas Pacific Railroad was built through their reservation, in 1866, these Indians began to disperse, some going to  p473 the Canadian river toward the mountains, some to the Indian Territory, some to Wisconsin, some remaining on a section of their Kansas reservation; so that this interesting tribe is now rapidly losing even its autonomy, and its beautiful language is also passing away.​1 At St. Mary's Mission there are now two flourishing institutions — St. Mary's College and the Sacred Heart Academy, which were chartered under the laws of Kansas, in December, 1869.

In 1847, Father Schoenmakers and Father Bax, with three lay brothers, went to take charge of the Osage Indians at their reservation on the banks of the Neosho river in southeastern Kansas.​2 Church and schools were erected, the girl children being committed to the care of Loretto Sisters, as narrated in another chapter of this volume. In 1869 and 1870 the Osage tribe were removed to the Indian Territory. About that time, white settlers commenced to pour into this portion of Kansas in great numbers; among whom were many catholics from Kentucky and the Eastern States. Fathers Philip Colleton and Paul Ponziglione made frequent excursions for more than a hundred miles distance, and in all directions, hunting up the scattered catholic settlers, and, when  p474 possible causing them to collect in the same neighborhoods. They built many churches, and formed a number of congregations which now have resident priests; as was also done by Father Du Mortier in the region around St. Mary's Mission.

Both at St. Mary's Mission and the Osage Mission the general government paid seventy-five dollars annually for each pupil in the schools. By means of this allowance in money, together with what could be raised on the land, the missions were well sustained; they were protected by the military, the gentlemanly officers frequently encouraging them by kind visits; and all was harmonious till the advent of white settlers, and the inauguration of the "Quaker policy," brought about a new state of things. At both places the institutions in charge of the fathers and those of the sisters were supported out of the common fund, as one family; but when the Indians departed from the missions, a division of their possessions was made in a manner that was mutually satisfactory. At both places there are now large churches with numerous white congregations, as well as flourishing institutions, male and female, for the education of white youths.

In 1838, the Jesuit fathers of Missouri took charge of St. Charles College, Grand Coteau, Louisiana, having been requested to do so by the Provincial of Lyons, in France, to whom that mission pertained. A full faculty of professors  p475 was sent to that institution by Father Verhaegen, the Vice-Provincial of Missouri, and it was retained by them till 1848, when the fathers of New Orleans were able to take it off their hands. During that time the College of St. Charles was very flourishing, as it now continues to be.

In 1837, Father Helias began missionary excursions among the German settlers in the interior counties of Missouri. He founded Westphalia, in Osage county, and resided there several years; at a later date, other fathers were sent to his assistance. They established numerous stations and churches, some of which now have resident priests, while others are still attended by the fathers residing at Washington, in Franklin county, and those at Westphalia, in Osage county. Father Helias, a native of Ghent, in Belgium, spent nearly forty years in those missions, and died in Cole county, on August 11, 1874, aged seventy-eight years.

In 1840, the fathers from Missouri accepted the Athenaeum, in Cincinnati, at the request of Archbishop Purcell; but they changed its name to the St. Xavier College, and Rev. J. B. Elet was its first president. As the college grounds were found to be too limited, and it being in the middle of the city, they discontinued it as a boarding-school in 1854. Since that time it has grown as a day school, till it has now become, both as to its course of studies and the number of its students, one of the leading colleges in  p476 the West. There is attached to the college a parochial church, with a congregation of fifteen thousand souls, and numerously attended parish schools.

On April 14, 1845, Right Rev. Bishop Kenrick laid the corner-stone of St. Joseph's (German) church, at the corner of Tenth and Biddle streets, St. Louis — Father James Oliver Vandevelde then being Vice-Provincial. When the church and dwelling were completed, German fathers from the St. Louis University went to reside there, with Father Hofbauer as superior. The congregation now contains nearly ten thousand souls, and the parish schools are regularly attended by more than a thousand children.

In July, 1848, the Jesuit fathers of Missouri, at the instance of the venerable Bishop Flaget, took possession of St. Joseph's College, Bardstown, Kentucky — Father P. J. Verhaegen being the first president under its new government. A number of the faculty appointed to take control of the college left St. Louis on July 24th of that year. When they reached Louisville they went to pay their respects to the saintly old Bishop. On being introduced into his room, he rose from his chair, and, tottering under the burden of more than four score of years, he affectionately embraced each one, saying: "The Jesuit fathers left my diocese for New York two years ago; and I have prayed much during those two years that I might live to see this day of their return to me;" then, with faltering  p477 voice, and quite overcome with emotion, he began the canticle of Simeon: "Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace." The college had numerous students, most of whom were from the Southern States; and it enjoyed uninterrupted prosperity, till closed on account of the civil war, in the year 1861. Classes were never again organized in the college by the Jesuit fathers, and they abandoned the place altogether, in December, 1868, donating to the Bishop of the diocese all the real estate owned by them in Bardstown, and giving back the college itself free of debt. A college was commenced on Fourth street, Louisville, Ky., in the year 1849, by the Jesuit fathers from Missouri, but it was closed in 1857; yet it had always been attended by a large number of intelligent pupils.

In 1855, St. Gall's church, in Milwaukee, was begun by Father De Coen, S. J., the nephew of Rev. Charles Nerinckx. The fathers now have two churches in that city, with excellent schools attached to St. Gall's church.

In the year 1857, Father Damen erected a frame church on the open prairie immediately west of Chicago. The spot is now at the center of the city, and the Holy Family church has a congregation of not less than twenty-five thousand souls, with from four to six thousand children attending its schools annually. The church, and the magnificent building of the St. Ignatius College adjacent to it, constitute an establishment​b  p478 that possesses imposing grandeur. The St. Ignatius College began its first session in September, 1869; it already has a full course of studies, with over two hundred pupils. From this institution a number of fathers go forth each year, under the general direction of Father Damen, to give missions in different portions of the United States, especially in the large cities and manufacturing towns. By means of these missions, annually many thousands are induced to begin a regular and orderly life, in accordance with the laws of God and the rules of His church.

On June 3, 1877, the fathers of the Missouri province took the old cathedral, in Detroit, Michigan, at the request of Bishop Borgess, who generously made a gift of the property; and they began a preparatory college at the same place in the following September, Father J. B. Miege, formerly Vicar Apostolic of Kansas, being the superior. Finally, arrangements are now nearly perfected for their beginning a college also in Omaha, Nebraska.

The foregoing brief historical summary of chief events will serve to convey some notion of the results which owe their origin to the little band that accompanied Father Nerinckx from Belgium to the United States, in 1821, the prime mover among them being Francis Judocus Van Assche, of St. Amand, that came to Missouri in 1823, in accordance with an invitation given them by Bishop Dubourg. Of those  p479 who came to Missouri at that time, all have now passed away except Father Felix Verreydt, aged eighty, and Brother Peter De Meyer, who is in the eighty-sixth year of his age. The successors of the original little colony that began near the Missouri river, seventeen miles northwest of St. Louis, now number more than three hundred members, who are engaged in various works of religion throughout most of the Western and Northwestern States, and in nearly all the great cities of the West.

The Author's Notes:

1 Father Gaitland wrote an elaborate dictionary and grammar of this Indian dialect, in which he became an adept.

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2 Father Van Quickenborne visited this place as early as 1829; but no permanent residence was there established before the year 1847.

Thayer's Notes:

a Properly, De Smet. For exhaustive details, see my note in chapter 26.

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b The Chicago foundations are still very much alive, although the church came within an ace of shutting down and being demolished in 1987: see the websites of Holy Family Parish and St. Ignatius College Preparatory School (still run by the Jesuits).

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