Catholic funeral reenactment links 1858 and 2018

In a reenactment of a Catholic funeral that might have taken place in 1858, Ralph Monaco II as ‘Fr. Bernard Donnelly,’ a priest of Kansas City, leads the procession from the deceased’s house to Missouri Town’s village graveyard, Sept. 22, 2018. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

MISSOURI TOWN — Father Bernard Donnelly never visited Missouri Town 1855. It was founded as a Living History museum in 1964, 84 years after his death.

But the 30-acre town depicts common Missouri lifestyles he would have known, with historical interpreters in period dress moving in and out of the 25 structures dating from 1820 to 1860 relocated from other Missouri towns to the site, and the crops and livestock would have been familiar to a visitor to a similar town in the mid-19th century.

Fr. Donnelly may never have been there, but living history interpreters work to make history come alive again. And that’s what Independence attorney Ralph A. Monaco II, who played Fr. Donnelly, and 17 members of the fledgling Historical Interpreters Program did.

They researched Jackson County history and folklore, and learned about nativism, xenophobia, anti-Catholicism and the biases against ‘papists’. Monaco wrote biographical sketches about all the characters in the First Person Living History event, ‘the Funeral of Sean Patrick Murphy, laid to rest by Fr. Donnelly on Sept. 22, 1858’.

It was a walk back in time to a crystalline Fall day 160 years ago. The scenario and all but two of the cast were imagined, but realistically portrayed.

The Catholic laborer Sean Patrick Murphy had emigrated from Kilnacrava, County Cavin, Ireland, with his mother, Vivian, to Boston, Mass., in 1848. He found work in a factory and a year later married Margaret “Maggie” Campbell O’Hare, a Boston lass from a Catholic family.

In 1856, Sean Patrick Murphy read an advertisement Fr. Donnelly posted in the Boston Pilot, recruiting laborers from the same regions of Ireland to relocate to Kansas City and assist in the grading and paving of the young city. Murphy was one of the 300 Irishmen recruited through ads in the Pilot and the New York Freemen’s Journal. He worked for Fr. Donnelly for about a year, then moved to a farm in the ‘Cracker Neck’ near Independence, so known because the first settlers to the area were Crackers (poor folks) from Georgia. Murphy’s farm went bust and he moved his family to Missouri Town, where he went to work for Col. Granville Street. The Colonel allowed the Murphy family to live in a house he owned in exchange for work. Then, in 1858, tragedy struck.

Murphy was hauling logs when he fell from the wagon and one of the wheels ran over his head, killing him. His death left his family almost penniless. An auction was scheduled to raise what money they could, to pay off Murphy’s debts and enable Maggie and their daughters to return to Boston.

Because Fr. Donnelly had recruited him, a notice was sent to the priest, who had established St. Mary’s Parish in Independence in 1845. By 1857, Fr. Donnelly was spending much of his time in Kansas City. When Archbishop Kenrick of St. Louis named him pastor of St. Mary’s and Fr. Denis Kennedy pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Kansas City, Fr. Donnelly arranged with the archbishop to trade places with Fr. Kennedy.

Even though he was further away from Missouri Town, he agreed to officiate and traveled there by horse the day before the service. In his saddlebags Fr. Donnelly carried his bible, a book of Catholic liturgical ceremonies, especially the Rite of Christian Burial, including the Office of the Dead, his rosary, a cross, votive candles, a vial of holy water, his lace-trimmed white alb, a black stole, and his never-left -behind black felt stove pipe hat.

Wanting to be as accurate as possible, Monaco had requested one of the Redemptorist priests at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church bless the vial of water, the rosary and cross, the antique Bible and the stole. The antique alb closely resembles the one worn by the real Father Bernard Donnelly in the illustrations and photographs still extant. The stove pipe hat is mentioned in the 1921 biography, ‘Pioneer Priest: the Life of Father Bernard Donnelly’ by Father William J. Dalton.

In the morning, there was an acrimonious discussion between local lawyer William Chrisman, played by Aaron Racine, and Rev. Winslow, the Baptist minister, portrayed by Dan Hadley.  Rev. Winslow, who “took to preaching and became a Baptist circuit rider. His disdain and concerns about Catholics and their popery, as well as with other immigrants; he is a nativist and proud of his American roots,” made him feel the small cemetery near the village church should not be defiled by burying a papist in or near it. While Fr. Donnelly was praying the rosary with the grieving widow Maggie, Murphy’s mother Vivian, a few friends and the decedent’s children in the Worker’s Home, Chrisman was negotiating with Rev. Winslow and getting nowhere.

It fell to Shadrach Ellijah Combs, played by David Bears, to resolve the dispute. Combs, a livery stable owner who started dabbling in the Santa Fe trade, had done very well. A widower, he married his first wife’s older sister when her husband died in Missouri Town. He was a Jacksonian Democrat, “sound on the goose,” in other words, loyal to the party line, and a nativist.

Combs, no matter how strong his nativism was, pitied the Irishman who had died and his destitute family. He offered Rev. Winslow a new chimney for the church and a cash payment to allow Murphy to be buried in land north of the village cemetery. His offer was accepted.

Fr. Donnelly arranged with two local laborers to dig the grave, offering them $5 out of his own pocket. They declined, saying their going wage was 15 cents a day. Combs agreed to pay them their daily wage and the two men took turns wielding the shovel. It took several hours to dig the grave, but they finished in time.

Back at the Workers house, the coffin sat on bricks in the main room of the two-room house.  Murphy’s wife and mother sat near the coffin, and other mourners, both costumed and park visitors, ringed the room and peered through the doors. Fr. Donnelly conducted the first part of the Rite of Christian Burial — the blessing of the coffin and prayers for the deceased to enter heaven — while Maggie wept, and Vivian sat stone-faced, biting her lower lip.

Fr. Donnelly asked everyone to leave the house to allow the family to say farewell. Several minutes passed, then he came into the yard to await the men hefting the plain pine coffin (which Monaco told The Key weighed several hundred pounds) and Rev. Winslow, Coombs and Col. Stuart all leant a hand to settle the coffin in the cart that two men would draw. The procession wound from the house to the grave site, where Fr. Donnelly blessed the grave and the coffin was lowered into it.

He conducted the Burial Rite with Latin and English prayers, and then, beginning with the deceased’s wife, mother and daughters then followed by friends and visitors, clumps of earth were tossed onto the coffin as Combs sang a dirge. A basket lunch awaited mourners and visitors at the Tavern.

Rev. Winslow said, as the mourners dispersed, that he had learned love, tolerance and understanding that day and he hoped others, even far into the future, would also.


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October 20, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph