On April 28, 1847, a small procession of ox-drawn wagons rolled onto the grounds of a newly built mission schools campus. The location was a remote eminence one mile north of the juncture of Flat Rock Creek with the Neosho River in present Neosho County, Kansas . Five weary men climbed down from the carts and were quickly surrounded by an enthusiastic group of Osage who had come to greet the Tapuska-Watanka (priest lords). The wagons carried furniture, equipment and supplies to start the new mission and sustain it for a few months.
The men were Jesuit Missionaries Father John Schoenmakers, his young assistant Father John Bax and three coadjutor brothers: John Sheehan, John De Bruyn and Thomas Coglan (Brother Thomas O’Donnell joined them in 1848). All of the men were immigrants to the United States. All would spend the rest of their lives here. One of them, Father Bax, lived slightly more than five years after his arrival. He might have worked himself to death trying to help his beloved Osage through the Black Measles epidemic of the early 50's. All of the founding Jesuits are buried in St. Francis Cemetery just one-quarter mile east of the mission site.
The Catholic Osage Mission served two purposes. It was an Osage Indian school operated by the Jesuits, with the Sisters of Loretto, under contract with the United States Government. It also served as the Jesuit headquarters for missionary activity south of the Santa Fe Trail.
1. Was the Mission Successful?
From the following, you can certainly sense frustration expressed by an Italian nobleman turned missionary.
"It is difficult at this Mission among the Osage to write annual letters for there are but few things worthy of notice. From the very beginning of this mission in 1847 to the present very little was accomplished among the aborigines and there is little hope of accomplishing anything in the future."
There were reasons to be discouraged — and many reasons to be proud.
1. The Osage Mission and Schools:
In spite of constant funding issues, the mission school was successful. The Jesuits and Lorettos found the young Osage to be smart, attentive and enthusiastic students. In fact, some Osage Mission students and their offspring did well in later life. Conversion to Catholicism met with mixed success. Among the half-breed Osage were some French Canadians who had been baptized young and showed cooperation with the priests — but many of them knew little about the faith. Some of the full-blood Osage were religious and, when treated fairly, were submissive to authority and the teachings of the church. But the mission's main drawback was time. Given the twenty-three year lifespan of the mission, early language barriers, constant funding issues, and the nomadic nature of the flock, there was not enough time to fully influence a people who already had deep religious beliefs. Today, many Osage embrace a strong Catholic faith that is blended with their early religious culture.
2. Jesuit Missionary Work:
As a missionary headquarters, the mission was very successful. In fact, the Osage Mission Jesuits played an important part in the settlement of southern Kansas, southwest Missouri, northwest Arkansas and northern Oklahoma. In addition to spreading and nurturing their faith; the missionary priests gave several fledgling settlements an important component for growth — a church. In some cases they also started schools. To date we have accounted for more than 150 mission stations in the four states listed above and Father Philip Colleton traveled as far as Pueblo, Colorado. Some stations were temporary but many evolved into churches. Father Paul Ponziglione said the first Mass in Wichita at a location only blocks from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
As part of his missionary work, Father Schoenmakers served as a counselor to the Osage in matters of legal and government affairs as well as spiritual needs. In this capacity, Father John's word was often final. His influence with the Osage and the government played an important part in the settlement of treaty disputes among the government, the Osage and the settlers. His intervention into the controversial Sturgis Treaty negotiations likely prevented a serious disservice to the tribe, the southern Kansas settlers and the state of Kansas.
Overall, the mission and it's missionaries left a pretty important mark on the Osage people and the state of Kansas.
Some Reference Information.
Thoughts 'n Things
Some 'Thoughts' and short articles about past and present-day St. Paul and the Southern Kansas - 4 State Region.