The Mission Story
The Coming of the Black Robes to Southeast Kansas
Original log church
Osage Catholic Mission, now St. Paul was the most important and influential frontier settlement in Southeast Kansas. After its establishment in 1847, it rapidly grew into a gateway for commerce and exploration in the frontier territory. The influence of a handful of Jesuit Missionaries spread Christianity, and elements of the missionaries' diverse cultures, across more than 100 mission stations in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. The Mission also provided the Osage Indian Nation with an educational and financial foundation allowing it to become one of today's most affluent tribes.
Osage Catholic Mission was established in 1847, seven years before Kansas became a territory and 14 years prior to statehood. Its origins are easily traced to Osage and Jesuit activity during the early 1820's. The Osage, a proud, industrious and perceptive nation, accepted the fact that white civilization would come and realized their young people must be prepared to adapt. In 1820 the Chiefs of the Great Osage and Little Osage sent a delegation to St. Louis to meet with Bishop DuBourg. They requested that mission schools be established in Osage territory west of the Missouri frontier border and north of what would become Oklahoma Indian Territory. The Bishop of New Orleans was receptive to their request since he was considering the placement of one or more central missions in that territory. From these stations, missionaries could set up schools for Indians and settlers, establish convenient mission stations where settlers could gather to hear Mass and receive sacraments, and eventually build chapels and churches.
The plan was launched but it would take additional trips to St. Louis and Washington to gather government support and funding for the missions. During the early 1840's the Jesuits had identified several missionaries and established a mission seminary to train priests. Several young Osage were recruited to provide language and customs training for future mission leaders. The decision was made to locate a mission on a small hill near the convergence of Flat Rock Creek and the Neosho River; about 30 miles west of the frontier border and 40 miles north of the Indian Territory. In 1845 a contract was awarded for the first Mission buildings. In 1846 Fr. John Schoenmakers visited the site to meet and become familiar with the Osage people. On April 28, 1847 Jesuits, Fr. John Schoenmakers, Fr. John Bax and three lay brothers (Brother Thomas Coghlan, John De Bruyn, John Sheehan) arrived at what would be known as the Catholic Osage Mission. They immediately established the male department of Osage Manual Labor School. With the arrival of four Sisters of Loretto on October 10, 1847, the female department was established. The missionaries, both men and women, and many who followed were recent European immigrants. Most of them would spend the rest of their lives at the Mission.
It is often said "...and the rest is history." But this small site with its primitive beginning grew into one of the most influential locations in eastern Kansas and ultimately all of Kansas.
The Mission team, led by Fr. Schoenmakers, built and maintained a robust and long-standing mission presence in an area where several previous attempts had failed. Success is attributed to skills and interrelationships among this extraordinary group. Its success can also be attributed to Schoenmakers insight: 1) Previous missionaries had tried to civilize the Indians by stripping them of their culture. Schoenmakers allowed a blend of native customs integrated with Christianity. 2) Schoenmakers knew that in order to be successful he must educate the Osage girls, not just the boys. The ensuing Osage girls' school eventually grew into one of the most successful female educational institutions in the region.
The Mission schools would endure like no other in the State. St. Paul's existing public schools, including the new 2009 high school, sit on the site of the oldest, continually operating school system in the state of Kansas. At no time during this 165-year span has the school missed even part of a term.
Survival of Osage Mission through the Civil War was no small feat. The Mission was essentially located on the territorial North-South line. While Schoenmakers was morally opposed to slavery, he believed neutrality was in the best interest for preserving the Mission. Initially this was very unpopular with both the Union and bands of proslavery sympathizers who were ravaging eastern Kansas. The decision forced him to seek asylum at St. Mary's for eight months to avoid assassination by the likes of Oswego's John Mathews and others. As the war progressed, his decision proved to be correct. The Mission witnessed troop movements, occasional skirmishes and "mischief". Osage Mission eventually became safe-ground for both Union and Southern troops.
The Catholic Bishops could not have foreseen the role of a very small group of missionary priests in the rapid propagation of Christianity and civilization across the frontier region. Several more priests and Loretto Sisters followed Fr. Schoenmakers to the Mission, among whom were Fr. Paul Mary Ponziglione, John Bax, Philip Colleton, Mother Bridget Hayden and others. Collectively, the Jesuit Missionaries from the Osage Mission established well over 100 mission stations across Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. After Father Ponziglione left the mission he established three stations in Wyoming.
The Mission schools and the influence of Fr. Schoenmakers provided the Osage with the education and political savvy to deal with the white man. In 1869, after an intense political struggle with the L.L. & G. Railroad, the Osage ceded their Kansas lands to the government for $1.25/acre. They moved to their reservation in northern Oklahoma. The departure of the Osage was painful for the tribe and the Mission. However, this transaction left the Osage Nation with $8,536,000 (1869 $) in the U.S. Treasury paying interest to all members of the tribe. Rich Bluestem grass provided grazing for wildlife and stock. Oil, deep beneath the ground, added to the Osage wealth. Today, the Osage Nation is one of the most affluent and influential Native American tribes.
With the departure of the Indians, Fr. Schoenmakers realigned his strategy to focus the schools course of instruction to white students. The resulting St. Ann's Academy and St. Francis Institute campus covered a large area attracting students from many states and Mexico. The school encouraged settlement and the population grew to approximately 1,600. In 1895, the Kansas legislature approved the change of the name from Osage Mission to St. Paul.