St. Mary's story has many beginnings. One reaches back to 1641 at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, when St. Isaac Jogues and Fr. Charles Raymbaut met representatives of the Potawatomi tribe, those children of the forest who seem to have been specially marked by God to be receptive to the Faith. Of Algonquian stock, they were related to the Ottowa and Ojibway (or Chippewa). Fr. Jacquest Marquette also made early acquaintance with the Potawatomi during 1673 in his explorations of the Mississippi River.
In 1669, near the head of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Fr. Claude Allouez founded the Mission of St. Francis Xavier for the Potawatomi and neighboring tribes. He was probably also the founder of another mission, important for the Potawatomi, on the St. Joseph River near the Indiana-Michigan border where the Jesuits labored for decades; this mission is known to have been thriving in 1712. With the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773, the natives of the forests were left without priests, but the Faith did not perish altogether, for they passed to their descendants some rudiments of Catholic belief and prayers, along with a desire to receive the "blackrobes."
When in 1805 the ban was lifted on the Jesuits, Bishop Carroll encouraged old priests who were former Jesuits to begin a new mission and novitiate in Maryland. In that year also there arrived in America the great Belgian missionary Fr. Charles Nerinckx, who became the Apostle of Kentucky. Although a diocesan priest himself, Fr. Nerinckx encouraged many young men from Belgium to come assist the aging Jesuit fathers laboring in America. Among those who answered his call were John Felix Verreydt of Diest, who would be the founder of St. Mary's; and Peter de Smet of Termond, who became the great missionary of the Northwest and friend of St. Mary's. Fr. Charles Felix Van Quickenborne, S.J., was another Belgian who arrived in Maryland in 1817 with a great yearning to evangelize the Native Americans.
In 1823, at the invitation of Bishop DeBourge, Fr. Van Quickenborne and a little party made the arduous journey westward from Maryland, crossing the "Father of Waters" to found a Jesuit novitiate at Florissant, Missouri, near St. Louis. Already there were St. Philippine Duchesne and her Ladies of the Sacred Heart who befriended the impoverished Jesuits. The fathers' primary ministry was to the Catholic settlers of Missouri, but there were some missionaries who yearned especially to evangelize the native tribes. In this, Fr. Van Quickenborne and Mother Duchesne were kindred spirits; already in 1824 they made an attempt at opening schools for Indian boys and girls.
Among the first Jesuit novices at Florissant were Peter De Smet and Felix Verreydt, who was prefect in the short-lived Indian boys' school. After ordination, Fr. Verreydt's first work was in parishes along the Mississippi. Later he rode an arduous circuit ministering to scattered Catholics in central and northeast Missouri.
As part of our prologue it is necessary to see what had become of those Potawatomi on the Indiana-Michigan border. They were the children and grandchildren of those who had been Christianized by the Jesuits in the 1700's. At Detroit, Chief Pokegan visited the Catholic Vicar-General, Fr. Richard, and pleaded for a priest. Fr. Stephen Badin (the first priest ordained in the U.S.) was sent to them from Kentucky. The memory of the "holy fathers" who had instructed their ancestors was so precious that the Potawatomi came eagerly for instruction and baptism; in three years the flock numbered about 600 Catholics. At Fr. Badin's death in 1837, the Potawatomi received Fr. Benjamin Marie Petit, a native of Brittany. Young, newly-ordained, he had the passionate zeal for souls possessed by great saints. He worked among the white settlers and the Indians in the area of South Bend, Indiana, and Bertrand, Michigan, until the government moved the Indians to lands westward.
In the 1830's, due to pressure from westward expansion of white settlers, the government removal of the Indians east of the Mississippi to unoccupied lands in Indian Territory was in full operation. By continual government treaties the Indians were thus dispossessed of their old hunting grounds and moved westward. The Indians' friends, the missionaries, found themselves forced to accept this migration, because while the Indians remained in close proximity to white settlements, they were often cheated by the whites and corrupted by their influence. The missionaries had to agree that it was better to move the tribes to the west, where the fathers could set up missions for them. Over time, the Potawatomi of Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois emigrated westward in successive bands to the new reserved in eastern Kansas. Often they settled only temporarily in a spot before moving on, and sometimes mingled with other tribes such as the Kickapoo.
From the Jesuit house at Florissant, Missouri, 10 miles upstream from St. Louis, the Jesuit Fathers rode out on missionary circuits to serve the pioneer settlers. Our chronicle of St. Mary's begins with the first contacts made by these Jesuits with the Indians of Kansas...