The Pioneer Sisters of St. Mary's Mission

by Mary E. Gentges, SMC ' 86
Taken from St. Mary's Magazine

On an open hilltop overlooking the campus and the valley of the Kaw the pioneers of St. Mary's sleep peacefully in the old Jesuit cemetery. In summer, the song of the ever present breeze is joined to the drone of cicadas and the calls of birds.

Plain headstones around a central obelisk mark the resting place of the Jesuits from all over the world who came here to labor for souls. Apart, in the shade of a tall old cedar, a large stone topped with a cross and engraved with the Sacred Heart bears seven names: Mother Lucille Mathevon, died 1876; Mother O'Connor, 1864; Sr. Amiotte, 1857; Madame Reegan, 1868; Sr. Layton, 1876; Mother Boyle, 1877; Mother Deagan, 1872. These are the heroic Ladies of the Sacred Heart, who worked with the fathers bringing faith and civilization to the prairie.

On the stone we read: "Expectamus donec veniat immutatio nostra." These words, "We are awaiting the coming of our immutability," are a commentary on Job: "Who cometh forth like a flower, and is destroyed, and fleeth as a shadow, and never continueth in the same state" (Job 14:2). These flowers, the self-effacing sisters, perfumed the work of St. Mary's, and fled away leaving little record of their lives.

Work in Missouri

Their story begins in France with two canonized saints: St. Madeleine Sophie Barat founded the Ladies of the Sacred Heart in the wake of the French Revolution. In 1804 she received into the congregation St. Philippine Duchesne, who had risked her life to help fugitive priests during the Terror. Philippine developed into an exemplary religious, reserved, kind and gentle, strong and patient in trials. Her great desire was to spend herself among American Indians. She was sent to St. Louis in 1818 to found the first Sacred Heart convent in America. The sisters were assigned by Bishop DuBourg to educate the daughters of pioneer white settlers who had no Catholic schools. Working with St. Philippine and formed by her, was Sr. Lucille Mathevon, future superior of St. Mary's. She too desired to educate the Indians, and also the poor colored children.

When the first Jesuits arrived in Missouri with no money whatever, the nuns, impoverished themselves, helped them with food, shelter, and even the loan of their only horse for missionary trips. Mother Barat sent Mother Duchesne 600 francs which Sr. Lucille Mathevon's family had given for the good fathers.

Father Van Quickenborne opened a school for Indian boys. "One evening," wrote Mother Mathevon, "while we were saying Office the Father Rector arrived....To Madame Duchesne's great surprise he produced two frightened Indian girls....So now we have begun our class for the natives." This school did not last long but it was the beginning of Mother Mathevon's and O'Connor's work among the Indians.

The Potawatomi

Meanwhile, the Jesuits began working among the tribes in eastern Kansas. The Potawatomi had originally lived on the borders of Indiana and Michigan, and were evangelized by Jesuits as early as 1712. Without priests for generations, they had kept the faith as best they could, and begged for another black-robe father. In 1830 they received Fr. Stephen Badin; at his death, a newly-ordained French priest, Benjamin Petit, came to them. When the government moved the Potawatomi to Kansas in 1838, Fr. Petit shared their hardships on the "trail of death," and himself died of exhaustion at the journey's end, after giving the care of his Potawatomi over to the Jesuit Father, Christian Hoecken.

In 1839 a large group of Catholic Potawatomi settled in Linn County on Sugar Creek, which the missionaries called "St. Mary's Creek." Many of them assisted at Mass daily in the chapel of the Immaculate Conception, received Communion regularly and faithfully prayed the Rosary.

The Sisters at Sugar Creek

The fathers set up a school for Indian boys; now they needed nuns to educate the girls, and urged the Ladies of the Sacred Heart to come. Permission was given, and Mother Lucille Mathevon, all eagerness to convert the Indians, was named superior. Mother O'Connor, was also to go, and the lay sister Louise Amyot. (If the latter is the "Sr. Amiotte" named on the stone, then all three of these sisters died and were buried at St. Mary's.) Accompanying them would be their faithful Negro helper Edmund.

It seemed that old Mother Duchesne, now a frail 72, must give up her dream of working among the Indians. But Fr. Verhaegen insisted, "We wish Mother Duchesne to come, even if we have to carry her all the way, for even if she cannot work, she will assure the success of the mission by her prayers."

They left St. Louis on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, 1841, and traveled by river steamer to Westport (Kansas City). From there they went by wagon to Sugar Creek, and Mother Duchesne suffered much on the rough journey. At the home of a French trader, 18 miles from their destination, they were met by two Indians who said that all the tribe was gathered to await the arrival of the "women of the Great Spirit." The priest told them not to be disappointed; by the first light of morning the sisters would be with them.

Next morning, Indians were posted every few miles to show the way; suddenly on the prairie there appeared a mounted escort of 150, in all their feathers and finery, led by Fr. Aelen. At Sugar Creek, Fr. Verhaegen presented Mother Duchesne to the assembled Indians, "My children, here is a lady who for thirty-five years has been asking God to let her come to you." One-by-one they all came forward to greet the sisters individually, a fatiguing ceremony for the tired, but willing, Saint.

While Edmund put up a house and school building, the nuns lived in the cabin of a generous Indian family, who moved into a tent. Immediately they opened a school and soon had 50 girls. Indian mothers came to learn the secrets of housekeeping. From the Indians the nuns learned Potawatomi, and soon could sing hymns to the Blessed Virgin with the children. Mother Mathevon wrote, "As soon as we could, we taught our Indians the prayers of the Church, and especially the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, as it is sung on Sundays after Vespers. Soon our cabin could not hold all our scholars and we made a large room with green branches. Our children are intelligent and understand easily..."

For Mother Duchesne, who never mastered the language, her ministry was one of prayer and good example. Calling her "the woman who prays always," the Indians revered her as a saint, and crept into the church to kiss the hem of her habit while she was motionless in prayer. She loved the Potawatomi, and wrote to St. Madeleine about the 50 First Communicants, the 70 adult converts, the 200 who received the Brown Scapular, and how they gathered for morning and evening prayers, Mass, and catechism. "They tell us there are many saints buried in the little cemetery.... I beg God the favor of being buried beside them."

But this was not to be. She was ill and greatly aged after the winter; Mother Mathevon feared for the Saint and their inability to provide for her in the primitive conditions. In 1842, Philippine was sent back to St. Charles, but her thoughts and prayers remained on the prairie.

In 1843 there were 61 pupils in each of the schools. The girls were taught spelling, reading, writing, and ciphering, and home skills including carding, spinning, sewing, knitting, embroidering, and even fancy-work and artificial flower making. They learned to make every article of apparel, to bake good bread, make butter, and do every kind of housework.

In the thriving parish were many confraternities and public devotions. By 1847 there were 1300 Christian Potawatomi coming to the mission. The work of the Jesuits was seriously hampered, however, when unscrupulous whites settlers began selling the tribe that demon for the Indians: liquor. A government proposal to transfer the Potawatomi to a new reserve farther west was welcomed by the fathers.

St. Mary's Mission

The Potawatomi gradually started making new settlements on their latest reserve, a 30-square-mile tract lying on both sides of the Kaw (Kansas) River. Fr. Verreydt, scouting the area seeking a central mission location, asked the Blessed Mother to help him find a good site which he would name after her. Early in June, 1848, he settled on the spot which is the St. Mary's campus today.

On August 16, 1848, the missionaries left Sugar Creek on their rigorous 90-mile move. They reached Wakarusa Creek where Fr. Hoecken was with the Indians, and on September 7, began the last stage of their journey. The party was composed of Father Verreydt and newly-arrived Swiss Father Maurice Gailland, Brother George Miles and Brother Patrick Ragan. The four sisters were Mother Mathevon and Mother O'Connor, Sister Mary, and Sister Louise. With them was also the French and Indian guide and interpreter Joseph Bertrand, as well as an Indian boy named Charlot. High water on the Kaw delayed them a day until they could ford the river on horseback and in wagons. On September 9, they stopped at noon for dinner at Cross Creek (Rossville), and at about four in the afternoon they arrived at the new St. Mary's.

Two half-finished log houses awaited them. The buildings were parallel, about 110 yards apart. The cabin to the west, near a small creek , was assigned to the nuns. It was two stories high, 21 by 61 feet, with five rooms. There were no windows, doors, floors or caulking between the logs, and no furniture excepting the little they had brought. Everyone was happy to see Brother Mazzella when he arrived on September 26, and began work on the buildings, putting up a temporary chapel and a barn. In time the sisters' building was lengthened to 100 feet. It contained an assembly hall and served as school house and residence until 1870.

Far from civilization, the pioneers faced the coming winter, which was extraordinarily severe, even for those days. Fr. Gailland ran out of Latin adjectives to describe in his diary the intense cold, leaden skies and deep snow-drifts. For eighty days the Kaw was ice bound and could be used as a wagon road.

Food ran low; at one point all they had was a bag of cornmeal. In February, the winter was moderating when a dread epidemic of cholera hit. It was impossible to conduct school. In July the epidemic abated and the boarding schools were re-opened; Indian children came from all over the reserve. In September, 1849, there were 57 boarders and 10 day students.

The Fathers educated the boys and trained them in farming. Of the sisters' school for girls Fr. Gailland wrote in 1852: "[The school] of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart excites the admiration of all; it is of the greatest service to the mission. The girls brought up therein are models of piety; [and excellent in] the management of domestic affairs. Two of the oldest pupils have been so much edified by the [sisters'] examples of humility, patience and devotedness that they also have expressed a wish to become Religious...and last spring they went down to St. Louis for their novitiate."

In 1852, the last year of her life, the old Saint Philippine wrote to Saint Madeleine: "Mother Lucille Mathevon wrote me that she has more than sixty pupils in her boarding school. There are four lay teachers (half-blood Indians) who help the nuns and who have religious vocations...Recently there was a scourge of smallpox, which is very terrible when it attacks the Indians. The vast majority of those who had it died like saints."

By now St. Mary's had been since 1850 the temporary seat of the young newly-appointed Bishop John Miége, S.J., and the humble wood chapel built in 1849 beside the Oregon trail had become the first cathedral in the vast territory between the Missouri border and the Rocky Mountains! 
The bishop described the piety of the Potawatomi during a Corpus Christi procession, concluding, "The blackrobes 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 of the insults offered to our Divine Master in the Sacrament of His love."

For over three decades the sisters continued their great educational work for Indian girls.

But their self-effacement was so complete that only two of their names occur in the mission annals, where it is recorded that Mother Lucille Mathevon was called by death in 1857 (a discrepancy from the date in the cemetery). The success of the nuns' school was due to her intelligent sympathy and administrative skill.

Mother Mary Anne O'Connor's death at St. Mary's is recorded as December 9, 1863. Fr. Gailland wrote that she was conspicuous for virtues of gravity, wisdom, humility, assiduity in labor however menial, and a burning zeal for souls. Women often came to the convent to seek her advice and never left without gain to their souls. Through her zeal entire families were converted to the Catholic faith.

By the end of the 1860's the Indians had gradually disappeared before the flood of white settlers. The Jesuit superiors, realizing St. Mary's must take a new direction, converted it to a boys' college, reasoning that its location on the transcontinental railroad in the center of the country would make it accessible to boarding students. Its rural situation would promote good morals and religious vocations. Fr. Gailland noted, "Wherefore, Mary Immaculate, through...the college to be built and the patronage of which she has undertaken, will undoubtedly through a long succession of years be the glory of the region and the honor of the Christian people, an issue which is the object of our prayers and hopes in God." Prophetic words!

The Jesuits gave over part of the property to the nuns, and in 1870 the sisters constructed a large four-story brick edifice to house their academy for girls. (We know it today as the College building.) It bristled with chimneys from its many fireplaces; its high ceilings were of molded metal; and tall windows let in much light. In this new and commodious home, with the same devotion that had marked their labors for the Indian children, the nuns pursued the work of the higher Christian education of women. Some writers have remarked that an aura of a sisters' school still hangs about the College building. One can almost hear the swish of habits along the polished wooden floors of its corridors.

In 1870, the Jesuits raised a large brick building for their new College. This edifice was completely destroyed by fire on the morning of February 3, 1879. That very afternoon the sisters vacated a large part of their building, so that the Jesuits could continue classes. Three days later the nuns transferred their academy to a house in town, leaving their convent and school to be occupied by the college faculty and students. Soon, the Jesuits bought the building. By July, 1879, the sisters had completely withdrawn from the campus of St. Mary's College, not to return, and there closed an impressive chapter of pioneer educational history in the West.

For the next century, as college and seminary, St. Mary's was a men's establishment. In 1889, on the site of the original log convent the Jesuits built a two-story brick Infirmary. Ninety years later, after the acquisition of the campus by the SSPX, that dignified old building was chosen as future convent for the sisters of the Society. On October 2, 1981, the first nuns of the new St. Mary's arrived from their motherhouse in France: American Sr. Mary Jude, now Mother General of the Order, French Sr. Mary Augustine, and Australian Sr. Mary Ste. Anne. Once again, they had come here from all over the world. Their convent is on the site of the first log house of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart, in whose footsteps they follow assisting the priests in St. Mary's work on the prairies, from where it continues to radiate light and grace to the entire continent.