Bishop John Baptist Miège

1815 - 1884
Appointed Vicar-Apostolic of the Indian Territory by Pope Pius IX, 1850

No history of St. Mary's would be complete without including a brief sketch of the life of missionary Bishop John Baptist Miège who made St. Mary's Mission his See from 1851-1855, and whose portrait graces the stained-glass window of the baptistry of Assumption Chapel.

John Miège, the twelfth of fourteen children, was born on September 18, 1815, at La Forêt in French-speaking Savoy. His family were honorable farmers and the boy John was a shepherd boy in the shadow of the Swiss Alps until he was ready for his secondary education. It is said that he was a pious lad who served Mass with angelic fervor. However, it seems he also had a streak of the prankster in his makeup, for when he was named a bishop in America, his former school companions thought it a tremendous joke that such a rascal should be honored!

When his elder brother Urban, already a priest, became a professor at the College of Conflans, he took John Baptist with him, and was like a father to him. At that time, John was not an especially great scholar and asked Urban if he could join the army. Urban gave permission with one condition - that John first finish his course in philosophy. Two years later he again appeared before Urban with a new request, to join the Society of Jesus. "What about the army?" asked Urban. "Oh well, that is entering the army," replied the young John Baptist. In 1836, John entered the Society of Jesus in Milan; in 1844, he was sent to the celebrated Roman college for his theological studies, where he did exceptionally well.

The political situation in Europe at the time was dangerous, and, as defenders of legitimate authority, the Jesuits were hated by liberals and revolutionaries. Now they became targets as anti-Jesuit demonstrations increased in Italy. Due to the unsettled conditions in Rome and elsewhere, John Miège's ordination was pushed forward, so that he received the subdiaconate, diaconate, and priesthood over just a few days, from September 5 through 12, 1847, in the private chapel of Cardinal Canali.

First Work in America

In consequence of the revolutionary troubles of 1847-48, many German and Swiss Jesuits had to leave Europe; it was too dangerous for them to remain. Thus, Fr. Miège arrived at the ship on which he and his brethren were to sail from Italy to Marseilles. Tall, stately, and handsome with an impressive beard, he was taken by the officers of the vessel to be a nobleman. He took advantage of the situation and assumed the role of protector of the exiles, and on the voyage no one dared to cross him.

In Marseilles, Father Miège visited Father Roothaan who gave him permission to go to the missions in North America. After a visit to his family, Fr. Miège and 43 fellow Jesuits (both priests and scholastics) boarded the sailing vessel Providence, which provided them with a rough 46-day voyage to America.  The future Bishop was a member of the Jesuit Province of Turin, while his fellow exiles were members of the Province of Upper Germany. They arrived in the New World on June 1, 1848.

Father Miège came to the New World in the hope of laboring among the Indians of the Oregon Missions. As it turned out, when he arrived at St. Louis in the autumn of 1848, he was appointed professor of moral theology in the Florissant seminary (near St. Louis) because of his ability to speak German to the refugee scholastics studying there. As French was the international language of the time, it is doubtful that Fr. Miège knew very much English when he arrived in America, but he would soon master that language as well.

In 1849, Fr. Miège and Fr. Ignatius Maes were sent out on an ill-fated mission to the Winnebago tribe who had been moved from Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin to Long Prairie Reservation in Minnesota.

The New Missionary Bishop

Then, at the Seventh Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1849, the "Indian Country" between the western border of Missouri and the Rocky Mountains was organized into a vicariate-apostolic -- an event that would bring the little mission outpost of St. Mary's on the Oregon Trail into importance in the ecclesiastical world. The names of three Missouri Jesuits were proposed for the choice of a new Bishop. Jesuits did not ordinarily accept ecclesiastical dignities, but a vicariate-apostolic and mission among native tribes was a different matter from an Episcopal see, and at last the Society agreed.

Fr. Miège was at St. Louis University when, on October 20, 1850, he received the brief of Pius IX appointing him Vicar-Apostolic of the Indian Territory. He was only 36 years old and had not yet taken his final vows as a Jesuit, felt himself insufficient to the requirements of the Episcopal office, and tried to decline. However, the Pope ordered him to accept, and he was consecrated by Archbishop Kenrick in St. Francis Xavier Church, St. Louis, on March 25, 1851.

Fr. Gailland wrote urging Bishop Miège to accept St. Mary's as his headquarters, explaining that the Indians were eager to receive the "great Black Robe." There were churches to be blessed and many Indians to be confirmed. Fr. Gailland hoped that St. Mary's humble log church of the Immaculate Conception with its beautiful altar made by Br. Mazzella would serve to be raised to the rank of Cathedral.

The new Bishop was accompanied on his westward journey by his long-time friend, the Italian Father Paul Ponziglione, S.J., who would spend more than 30 years at work among the Osage in southeast Kansas. At. St. Joseph, Missouri, they left the river boat, and proceeded on horseback. Accompanying them in a wagon were Brothers Sebastian Schlinger (who would finish his days at St. Mary's) and Patrick Phelan, and other lay helpers with supplies and furniture for the Mission.

Caught without shelter in one of Kansas's famous thunderstorms, the religious were praying the Memorarewhen lightning struck so close that it physically shook both them and their horses. The storm roared on, and in the evening the party had to camp in a high prairie where there was no place to tie their animals, nor even a stick of wood with which to make a fire.  They ate bread and dry meat, standing with staffs in hand like the Israelites of old. After a sleepless night, they greeted a clearing sky at dawn. Bishop Miège was startled when he heard a noise which he took for the cries of attacking wild Indians. When it proved to be the calls of many prairie chickens, the prelate took up his double-barreled shotgun and bagged four fat chickens which they somehow roasted for breakfast.

Father of the Potawatomi

Approaching St. Mary's on the 31st of May, the party was met by a large crowd of Potawatomi led by Frs. Duerinck and Gailland. The Bishop went to pray in his new cathedral, and then was escorted to the little log cabin that would be his episcopal palace.

Next day, June 1, all the Indians came in procession on foot and horseback to pay their respects to the Bishop and salute him with a triple volley of musketry. After the Mass they came up one by one to kiss the Bishop's ring. Fr. Gailland wrote, "Our little church is filled with pride and astonishment to see itself raised at a bound to the rank of a cathedral."

The Bishop reported that the Potawatomi comprised 3500 souls dispersed over the 30-square-mile reserve; 1500 were Catholics living in three villages, the largest being at St. Mary's where each family had a cabin and cultivated their fields. Here also were abiding the doctor, blacksmith, a few traders and some mixed-blood families. Most of the 600-700 Indians of St. Mary's heard Mass daily and received the sacraments regularly. The Bishop was impressed with their piety and charity among themselves. Two other villages were at a distance of about 20 miles from St. Mary's, one on Soldier Creek. With no priest to spare to live among them, it was more difficult for these Indians to remain Catholic.

Next, after a rest and a wait for the ground to dry out (for it had been a wet spring), the Bishop and Fr. Ponziglione set out on a horseback journey to the Osage Mission 160 miles to the south. No one knew the way, but Fr. Duerinck had had much experience with the Indians and accompanied them as a guide. They safely reached the Mission on July 4, where Fr. Schoenmakers, with all the school children, Sisters, and the tribe came in procession to meet the Bishop. A few days later Bishop Miège received an official visit from Chief George White Hair and all his braves wearing their best attire.

Bishop Miège loved the Indians and was much edified by their piety. In his description of the 1852 Corpus Christi procession at St. Mary's, he mentions the Indians who turned out in their finery at the hour announced by the bell of the country cathedral, the discharges of musketry that marked the beginning of the procession, the hundreds of horsemen and marchers on foot who bore their rifles in one hand and rosaries in the other, the little girls and boys of the schools who sang as they walked along ahead of the canopy under which the Holy Sacrament was carried, and the good Potawatomi women at the rear carrying their little ones on their backs. During the hour-long march there alternated singing and prayer, all with the utmost order and reverent decorum.

The Bishop concluded, "The blackrobes, on their part, cannot help experiencing a lively emotion at reflecting that St. Mary's is the only place in this immense desert where anything is done in reparation for the insults offered to our Divine Master in the Sacrament of His love." May we not reflect in turn that from the moment when Fr. Verreydt chose this spot 150 years ago, it has been, and remains, dedicated to the works of God and to His worship.

The Bishop and his See

In 1853, Bishop Miège and Fr. De Smet set out to represent the Vice-province of Missouri at the Order's general congregation held in Rome. They had a thrilling experience on the return voyage in December, when their ship, the Humboldt, was wrecked by hidden rocks a few miles off the coast of Nava Scotia. The captain was able to run the ship to shallow water near shore before she sank, and all the passengers were saved. The Jesuits saved all but one box of treasures they were bringing from Europe. When the Bishop reached St. Mary's in March, his flock was awed to see the chalices, vestments, and relics of the saints he had brought to adorn his little cathedral, together with many rosaries blessed by Pope Pius IX. The Indians were amazed to hear the new organ, and all treasured another gift to the log cathedral: a painting of its Patroness, the Immaculate Conceptions, reportedly by the Italian court painter Benito. Twenty years later this picture passed to the new parish church of the Immaculate Conception across the street, survived a fire, and was installed in the present parish church for the town of St. Mary's, built in 1882.

The passing of the Kansas-Nebraska bill threw open the western territory to settlers, foreshadowing the end of the Indian territory and the death sentence to the missions and diocese of Bishop Miège. Settlers - new souls to care for - would pour in and civilize the country, but it would be the end for the free-roaming Indian. In 1855, a civil war blazed throughout Kansas over the question of slavery, but the Mission property was left unharmed, and despite the violence, was able to continue its efforts in the cause of educaiton.

Bishop Miège looked toward the building of churches in the pioneer settlements and bought lots in the new communities for that purpose. Everywhere, the faithful were begging for priests; the good Bishop told the Father General in a letter that if the Jesuits do not come to his aid in this matter, he sees nothing else to do but take his mule and gun and go hide in some remote corner of the Rockies where no one can come to him with the wants of Kansas and Nebraska. His five priests had to labor up and down through 14 degrees of latitude, to say nothing of the longitude! Newly-born towns sprang up on the plains: Leavenworth, Atchison, Doniphan, Lawrence, Lecompton, Topeka, St. George, Manhattan, Iola, Nemaha, Fr. Scott, and many others. Confirmation records of the time show the varied complexion of the population around St. Mary's: Indians of various tribes, many French names, a variety of English and other European names.

Move to Leavenworth

In 1855, Bishop Miège moved his headquarters to Leavenworth, which was better located for visitation of Nebraska. Mass had been offered there in a private home in 1854, but there were only seven Catholic families when the Bishop arrived. He soon built a church in the rapidly growing town, and then another.

The visitation of his immense vicariate led Bishop Miège north into Nebraska Territory and west into the present state of Colorado. In 1860, when he met with Catholics in Denver, he crossed the plains in his famous old carriage. A former St. Louis milk wagon, it had been a gift from Fr. De Smet, and now had seen about 4500 miles of travel with the Bishop. Fearing it would not hold up for the return trip, the Bishop sold his remaining mule and bought a ticket on the stagecoach back to Leavenworth.

One Colorado story concerns an 1865 trip and a visit by the Bishop to the gold diggings in the Pike's Peak region. Some French-speaking miners were surprised at the arrival in their camp of a lonely bearded stranger carrying a gun over his shoulder. They were a bit afraid of the tall muscular newcomer until he began speaking to them in French. After they answered his many questions, he smiled and told them he was acquainted with their Bishop. Of course, the visitor was Bishop Miège himself. Because he was Vicar-Apostolic of the "Pike's Peak Country" that was subsequently turned over to Bishop Lamy's diocese of Sante Fe, Bishop Miège figures in Willa Cather's famous novel based on Lamy's life, Death Comes to the Archbishop.

Bishop Miège never had enough priests to cover the whole region, and often begged to be relieved of the Nebraska Territory with then included Wyoming, the Dakotas, and even eastern Montana. Finally, in 1859, a Vicar-Apostolic for Nebraska was consecrated.

The Bishop is described as a very handsome "large framed" man weighing 200 pounds. He edified all with his good spirits during the most difficult and uncomfortable journeys, where he might have to sleep out-of-doors, or, lacking beds, on the hard floor of some ramshackle building. He was respected and loved by all who knew him in Leavenworth. He liked people, and they gravitated to visit him when he sat out on the front porch of his house on summer evenings, sometimes smoking a cigar. He built his episcopal "palace" large so that priests could come to stay with him and recover from the fatigue of their missionary work. Then he could encourage them in their spirituality, and if they were ill, he kept them until they were well again.

The Cathedral of Leavenworth

In the late 1850's, Leavenworth was the largest town in Kansas with a population of 25,000. Bishop Miège decided it was time to build a cathedral in honor of the Immaculate Conception. (Remember that Pius IX had declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 1854.) In Europe, the Bishop solicited funds for the new church, and placed superintendence of its construction in the care of his fellow Jesuit, Father Francis De Coen, who was a good architect and financier.As Fr. Coen was suffering from asthma which had been wearing him down, the Bishop sent him to St. Mary's to recover, where he died suddenly on the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, 1864. It was a severe blow to the Bishop who had loved Fr. De Coen very much.

It was in the autumn of 1864 before the cornerstone of the new cathedral was laid; the contractor who saw the building to its completion was James Andrew McGonigle, a member of the parish who had come to Leavenworth from Northern Ireland in 1857. He would later contract to build the first College building in St. Mary's.

Bishop Meige possessed an artistic and architectural mind, reflected in beautiful proportions and fittings of his twin-towered cathedral. He designed it with a big sanctuary where the largest ceremonies could be performed in comfort, and embellished it with frescoes and stained glass windows. This magnificent church, 200 feet long with 190-foot towers, was dedicated by Archbishop Kenrick of St. Louis on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, 1868; and stood until December, 1961, when it was destroyed by fire.

When Leavenworth was outstripped by Kansas City and did not develop into the metropolis of the area, Bishop Miège was left with a crushing debt on the Cathedral.

At Vatican Council I

In 1869, the Bishop was called to attend the opening of Vatican Council I. En route to Rome, he visited his family who found him much aged from 20 years' labor in the mission fields. He suffered from asthma, a continual sore throat, so that his voice was weak. His weakened legs and gouty feet had difficulty supporting his large body.

Before the opening of the Council, Bishop Miège was received by Pope Pius IX, where he again earnestly begged to be relieved from at least some of his pastoral duties. Although Bishop Miège had accepted his high position as a missionary to help the Indians, he had never considered himself fitted to his duties, and often had asked to be relieved of it. Now his territory contained 500,000 persons, and his health was declining, so that he could no longer gravel the 600 miles from east to west and the 300 miles from north to south in his charge. The Pope postponed a decision, and the Bishop, ever resigned to God's will, submitted humbly to the delay and went about preparing for the opening of the Vatican Council.

His letters show that he was fully aware of the problems of the time on which the Council would speak, and also of the political motivations that prompted some of the Church fathers to act as they did. While most of the U.S. bishops opposed the definition of Papal Infallibility for various reasons, Bishop Miège was in favor of it. He felt, that when it came to a vote, most of the Americans would vote for papal infallibility.

Resigning his See

When in 1870, due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Vatican Council I had to be suspended indefinitely, Bishop Miège came home, but not for long. There was the problem of his debts on the Cathedral and other institutions he had provided for his people. With the post Civil War westward movement, Leavenworth was no longer booming, and the Catholic population was declining. Money the Bishop had expected was not coming in, and he could not resign his see until the debt he would leave to his successor was at least greatly reduced.

In 1871, Bishop Miège received a coadjutor, Bishop Louis Mary Fink, OSB. The Benedictine was so think and apparently frail that it seemed he would not last long, yet he served in Leavenworth until 1904. Now, leaving his diocese in good hands, Bishop Miège made a journey to Latin America to raise funds. Crossing the Andes on a mule was so dizzying that his guide blindfolded him. Although the trip was not highly successful, the Bishop raised a sufficient amount so that he could resign his post.

In 1874, Pius IX accepted Bishop Miège's resignation, and he happily made plans to return to the status of a simple member of the Jesuit province of Missouri. In midsummer he stole away from Leavenworth to make an eighty-day retreat which he had been forced to delay for four years, hiding himself for ten days at St. Mary's where the fathers had just built a fine new College. He begged Our Lord and His good Mother that it be his last retreat as a bishop. He said, "Mary always hears the poor who have recourse to her, and I trust that my request will be granted, if it is in the plans of God."

A New Career for an Old Pioneer

Amidst many accolades of praise, Bishop Miège left Leavenworth and went to St. Louis University for six months of well-merited rest. He was then sent to Woodstock College in Maryland where he was charged with giving spiritual direction to the students and missionary aspirants. Although still a bishop, he no longer exercised his episcopal powers, and once again was called simply "Father Miège." There his health improved somewhat.

The Bishop of Detroit needed to open an institution of higher learning in his city, and turned to the Jesuits for help. In return for directing the College, the Society of Jesus was given the Cathedral Church of Sts. Peter and Paul with its surrounding property. Thus, in 1877, Fr. Miège was sent to Detroit to become the first president of the new Detroit University, a tremendous job for the elderly priest. Towbridge House was remodeled into the first classroom building, and in September the College opened with a classical curriculum, sixty boys in attendance, and nine faculty members.

In one year in the parish, Fr. Miège and his four priests heard some 40,000 confessions, distributed more than 36,000 Communions, and in addition, gave sermons, retreats, triduums, and novenas. When as Irishman complained that it was a scandal that the only carillon in town was in the steeple of a Protestant church, Fr. Miège went out and bought a nine-bell carillon for Sts. Peter and Paul. In typical European Jesuit style - where they were famous for their magnificent liturgical ceremonies - Fr. Miège promoted a splendid choir and grand organ music. The parish's Requiem Mass for the deceased Pius IX was a liturgically splendid affair where Mozart's great Requiem was sung.

Towards the End

Fr. Miège's health was not good during the three years in Detroit, and his superiors at last sent him back to Woodstock. He loved the beautiful grounds where he visited the Lourdes grotto daily. Again he was the spiritual director and confessor to the students of philosophy and theology, who then numbered 125. His health improved and he managed his duties "with the help of Our Master and His very holy Mother.

With passing years, he grew more feeble, saying, "I do not weigh more than in 1870, but the machinery is growing weaker." On Septuagesima Sunday, 1883, he suffered a stroke which paralyzed his left side. He seldom left his room, and was grieved at being unable to celebrate Holy Mass. By December, however, the paralysis improved and he was able to say Mass and spend some time in the garden each day. His mind was still clear and his disposition joyful, although he longed to be dissolved and go to his Lord.

The old missionary was approaching his 69th birthday when in July, 1884, he developed complications due to his physical ailments. Having administered the Last Sacraments to the dying prelate, the Father Provincial asked if he would give some words of advice for the young Fathers who surrounded his bed. The good Bishop Miège, who had never ceased to edify one and all by his piety, answered, "Tell them to be charitable!"

He was conscious to the end, died at 4:30 a.m. on July 21, 1884, and was buried in the cemetery at Woodstock College. His old missionary companion, Fr. Ponziglione, wrote, "The world will never forget him. Kansas will remember him for years to come. The Cathedral, the Academy, the Hospital, and the schools he put up are standing monuments that speak for him more brilliantly than any tongue can do. But of all the monuments he leaves, the Christianity which he established in Kansas should be that which more eloquently than any other shall speak of him to future generations."