Kansas City Jesuits celebrate Missouri Province sesquicentennial

This reenactment photo makes it easy to imagine the travels and travails of the early 19th century Jesuit missionaries in Western Missouri. Jesuit Fathers Luke Larson and Pat Conroy urge their horses across a stream. (Photo: Brad Reynolds, S.J.)

This reenactment photo makes it easy to imagine the travels and travails of the early 19th century Jesuit missionaries in Western Missouri. Jesuit Fathers Luke Larson and Pat Conroy urge their horses across a stream. (Photo: Brad Reynolds, S.J.)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY — It’s been 150 years since a little band of Jesuits started a community in St. Louis and prepared to venture into Indian Territory. That community is now the second oldest U.S. Jesuit province. The Missouri Province governs communities in Missouri, Colorado and Belize, and the Grand Coteau, La., novitiate.

The province was founded in 1823 as a mission in Florissant, then about 15 miles from St. Louis. The founders weren’t dreaming of a future as educators and parish administrators, let alone as a province. The Jesuits, a missionary order, were eager to explore the lands of the Native Americans and bring the faith to the Indians.

Missouri, part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, was still a territory. The second Bishop of Louisiana, Louis Guillaume DuBourg, made St. Louis his diocesan See in 1817.

The following year, he invited Congregation of the Mission (Vincentian) priests to found a seminary college in Perry County at “The Barrens,” so called because of its open land. He opened St. Louis Latin Academy that same year.

Missouri became a state in 1821. St. Louis was its largest city, with about 4,000 people.

Bishop DuBourg returned the See to New Orleans in 1822, but continued to oversee St. Louis’s development. Having wanted for some time to start Native American missions in his diocese, which extended north to the Baltimore Diocese and encompassed the Louisiana Purchase to the west, he reached out to the Society of Jesus. Their mission — to go anywhere and do anything to “help souls,” especially where the needs were greatest — fit his hopes and plans.

Founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1540, the Jesuits had, over the years, gained influence and wealth, irritating several Catholic monarchies which, in 1759, began ousting them. To keep the peace, in 1773 Pope Clement XIV suppressed, but didn’t condemn, the Jesuits by his brief, Dominie ac Redemptor. In America, French and Spanish governors deported Jesuits within their territories.

In 1814, Pope Pius VII restored the Society of Jesus world-wide. In 1823, Bishop DuBourg wrote to Maryland’s Jesuit Provincial, inviting Jesuits to St. Louis. The superior accepted, seeing a way to reestablish, in St. Louis, the struggling novitiate.

In April 1823, 11 Belgian Jesuits — seven novices, two brothers and two priests — began walking from Baltimore to the Ohio River’s mouth at Pittsburgh, Penn. They obtained two rafts, tied them together and sailed downriver. The river seethed with traffic — barges, keelboats and skiffs — but the Jesuits placed their faith in God and a book called The Riverman’s Guide, and found their way to Shawneetown, Ill. They then walked 250 miles to the Mississippi River, and were probably ferried across. They trudged into St. Louis on May 31, tired and footsore after weeks of rough travel.

In a Concordant signed by Bishop DuBourg and their superior, Father Charles Neale S.J., the Jesuits were allotted a log cabin and 350 acres at Florissant, which they quickly turned into their new home. They then set to work re-establishing the novitiate. A few years later, those Jesuits would take over the Academy and rename it Saint Louis College, which later evolved into St. Louis University.

Several in that tiny community, especially Father Charles Van Quickenborne and novice Pierre de Smet, figure in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph’s early history.

The Missouri Jesuits’ story is of dreams and building. They dreamed of reaching and teaching native peoples, but they also responded to a need for churches and schools in settlements. Even so, they were often the first religious to venture into what would later become parishes, towns, cities and dioceses. They learned to speak and understand native languages and cultivated friendships.

Bishop DuBourg resigned his American responsibilities and returned to France in 1826.

He was succeeded by Joseph Rosati, founding bishop of the Diocese of St. Louis, who soon looked westward. Santa Fe trade routes opened near a bend in the Missouri River about 10 days horseback journey from St. Louis. Independence, Westport and Kawsmouth, near the confluence of the Kansas (Kaw) and Missouri rivers, were growing. Kawsmouth (now Kansas City) was predominately French and Catholic, led by Francois and Berenice Chouteau, who had arrived in 1819. The Chouteaus later helped finance the building of a log church at what is now 11th and Pennsylvania, soon known as Chouteau’s Church. The first baptisms at Kawsmouth were recorded by Father Charles de la Croix, whom Bishop DuBourg sent in 1822 to evangelize the area’s Osage Indians.

According to the Platte County Historical Society, Jesuit missionary explorer, Father Pierre de Smet, christened “Blackrobe” by the Indians, visited Weston in 1825 on his way up the Missouri to open a mission at Council Bluffs.

A decade later, Father Van Quickenborne arrived in Independence, the Jackson County seat and eastern terminus of the Santa Fe trade route. He stayed a few days, saying Mass for the “5 or 6 Catholic families in this place,” as he later wrote.

Westport soon replaced Independence as a trade center; a few years later, Westport was overshadowed by Kansas City. Father Benedict Roux was assigned to the area by Bishop Rosati in 1833, and stayed about 2 years. Jesuits at the Potawatomi mission at Centerville and later at St. Marys, Kan., visited Westport, Kawsmouth and Independence and other area towns three times a year.

In St. Louis, the Jesuit Mission became a “Vice-province” in 1840. That spring, his superiors sent Father Nicholas Point to Westport Landing to prepare for an expedition led by Father de Smet, to open a Flathead mission in Idaho. Father Point served as Westport Landing’s parish priest for seven months, shepherding 23 Frenchmen with Indian wives and children. An artist, he left detailed sketches of early Kansas City, its people and their ways of life.

Diocesan priests from St. Louis visited the area briefly and moved on. It wasn’t until 1845 that Father Bernard Donnelly arrived in Independence to serve Catholics there and in what was then called the Town of Kansas. He also served Liberty from 1845-47, taking over from the Jesuits.

By 1839 the Jesuits had mostly withdrawn from the Kickapoo Mission near Fort Leavenworth, opened by Father Van Quickenborne in 1836, and moved to the Potawatomi Mission at St. Marys, occasionally visiting the Town of Kansas.

In 1848, the Jesuits reestablished the mission school as St. Mary’s College.

Kansas City was incorporated in 1850. Jesuit visits gradually ceased, perhaps as Father Donnelly’s involvement in the development of his parish and his city increased.

By 1860, Kansas City had grown to about 4,400 residents. Its population would explode in 1869 when the Hannibal Bridge over the Missouri River opened.

The Missouri Vice-province was decreed a full Province in 1863, with 195 Jesuits in communities, parishes and schools in St. Louis, Denver, Detroit, Omaha and Milwaukee.

In 1885, after a long absence, the Jesuits returned to Kansas City. Provincial Father Leopold Bushart wrote Bishop John J. Hogan that the Father General had given the Province permission to acquire a site for a church and college in Kansas City. A committee arrived to inspect, and accept, the site the bishop recommended at 11th and Prospect. Bishop Hogan established St. Aloysius Parish in 1886. Jesuit Father Henry A. Schaapman was its first pastor.

A college was to be established within the new parish’s bounds. But, possibly due to neighborhood opposition, it took several years to open a grade school; then in 1888, the Provincial put the college on the back burner, and recommended the Kansas City Jesuits withdraw. They stayed, however.

By 1909, Kansas City’s growth and development to the south and east of the downtown business district was booming.

Jesuit Father Michael Dowling had been assigned in 1903 to the pastorate of St. Aloysius Parish and the establishment of the college. In 1909, he began negotiations with Bishop Hogan, who still supported the establishment of a Jesuit college within a parish, but not in St. Aloysius Parish, because of proximity to the new St. James Parish in Kansas City and the site of the new De LaSalle Academy. Father Dowling went exploring.

He found a hilly, 25-acre farm out in the country on Troost Avenue. Anti-Catholic mockery being common, Father Dowling decided on a secular name for the college. He chose Rockhurst, inspired by the rocky, tree-covered hills on the site.

The Jesuits and Bishop Hogan settled quickly and St. Francis Xavier Parish was established in 1909. St. Aloysius Parish remained Jesuit until 1945.

On Aug. 30, 1910, the State of Missouri officially established Rockhurst College as a degree granting institution.

St. Francis Xavier Church sits across Troost from Rockhurst University’s campus. Father Bill Oulvey, S.J., Rector of the Rockhurst Jesuit Community, said establishing a school and parish next to each other is common. “Linking spiritual ministries and education is very important to us, and we do it whenever possible.”

It took four years of start-and-stop construction before the first classroom building was completed, thanks to the generosity of Lee M. Sedgwick, who forbade recognition. It wasn’t until 1942 that the building was named Sedgwick Hall.

Rockhurst opened Sept. 15, 1914, and 42 youths registered for the first two years of high school, despite a thunderstorm.

In 1917, the College of Liberal Arts opened under Jesuit Father Alphonse M. Schwitalla’s direction. The college and high school educated side by side for 45 years.

In 1955, Kansas City philanthropists Robert and Virginia Greenlease enabled the Jesuits’ purchase of 23 acres at 93rd and State Line Road and funded the construction of a new Rockhurst High School, which opened in 1962. The separation allowed the college to utilize the former high school building on its campus.

Rockhurst wasn’t the first Jesuit college and high school to separate. In 1924, St. Louis University High School had moved to its current location in St. Louis. The university had relocated its campus in 1888.

In 1969 Rockhurst College became coeducational and in 1999, its name was officially changed to Rockhurst University, having earlier received a university charter. It now offers 45 undergraduate degree programs, 12 pre-professional degree programs and 10 graduate degree programs.

One of the Province’s five high schools, Rockhurst has grown, with now more than 1,100 students learning, along with academic requirements, how to be “men for others.”

The Missouri Jesuits established 14 colleges and universities and a community college in Belize, as well as schools in Chicago, Omaha, Detroit and Milwaukee — to carry on their founders’ work. They also opened parishes and retreat houses in a number of cities, including St. Louis and Kansas City, and missions in Central America and India.

The 23,000 men of the Society of Jesus comprise the world’s largest missionary order. The Missouri Province split over the years, forming the Chicago-Detroit and Milwaukee provinces. About 50 Missouri Jesuits are active on the SLU campus and the Rockhurst Community has 20 Jesuits in administration or teaching at the university, the high school or at St. Francis Xavier Parish.

Missouri Jesuit Provincial Father Douglas W. Marcouiller celebrates Mass Sept. 14 at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Kansas City to mark the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus. Joining him at the altar were Father James Blumeyer, left, who is celebrating 50 years as a Jesuit, and Father Bernard Barry, celebrating 25 years, along with the members of Kansas City’s Jesuit community. (Kevin Kelly/Key photo)

Missouri Jesuit Provincial Father Douglas W. Marcouiller celebrates Mass Sept. 14 at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Kansas City to mark the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus. Joining him at the altar were Father James Blumeyer, left, who is celebrating 50 years as a Jesuit, and Father Bernard Barry, celebrating 25 years, along with the members of Kansas City’s Jesuit community. (Kevin Kelly/Key photo)

The Rockhurst community celebrated the Province’s sesquicentennial with a Mass that also honored two Jubilarians — Father Jim Blumeyer (50 years of priesthood) and Kansas City native Father Bernard Barry (25 years in the Society of Jesus), Sept. 14 at St. Francis Xavier Church. Celebrations were also held in Belize and St. Louis. An upcoming celebration will mark Denver jubilees. In all, 29 Missouri Jesuits are celebrating jubilees.

In 2014, the Missouri and New Orleans provinces will merge to become the Central and Southern Province, governing 416 Jesuits in 13 states and Belize. Father Oulvey said the Jesuits of both provinces are aware that challenges can go hand in hand with change.

“The merger has been handled in a thoughtful, careful, prayerful manner,” he said. “I’m impressed. We will have a chance to experience a larger slice of Jesuit ministry in the United States, which is always to the good. Yes, the cultures of Missouri and New Orleans have differences but also similarities. It will be enriching — we will learn from them and they will learn from us.” He added that many province level activities, including ordinations, are already done jointly.

Father Ron Mercier has been chosen the new province’s first Provincial. He is a theology professor at Saint Louis University, specializing in bioethics, theological and social ethics. He begins his term as provincial July 31.


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October 01, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph