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Saint Peter's Parish
A History
Part 1

Dedicated To: The Right Reverend Monsignor
James W. Gillespie, D.P., V.F.
October 27, 1929

By C. F. Griffith
St. Ambrose College

 The Iowa Catholic Historical Society Collections
Number Two

Our First Catholics, Rat Row, Half-Breed Tract, French Traders

A CURIOUS medley indeed those three symbols are! And yet they are the important factors in Keokuk's early history. As we gaze upon them, Rat Row, Half-Breed Tract, French Traders, they become well nigh mysterious. Is it possible that they have any meaning or connection? Yes, it is quite possible. Here it is.

In 1712, a long time ago, two Indian tribes, the Sacs and the Foxes, became allies. They found their way to southeastern Iowa and were there seen by the Lewis and Clark Expedition as it went up the Mississippi River in 1804. The Sacs, for instance, had a village at Montrose, “at the head of the rapids”. By the Treaty of 1802 these Sac and Fox Indians had been divested of their Illinois lands; henceforth the Iowa Country became their chief hunting grounds. That statement brings us face to face with “Rat Row.”

At the water’s edge, between what are now Main and Blondeau Streets in our city, stood a long, rambling structure, two stories in height, with a crude stairway on the outside leading to the second story. It was made of round logs chiefly. And Rat Row was the not very complimentary nickname of it. A dignified title it had, of course,­ “Headquarters of the American Fur Company”. It was a fur-trading post. There Frenchman and Indian met to bargain. There, too, we may conjecture, in the late after­noon shadow of that rambling structure, the rambling Frenchman met the dusky squaw of the Sac or Fox tribe. And there, a romance began. Frenchman, Indian, business, romance, surely that old building teemed with those things. The fur trade and its later social derivatives made possible the “Half-Breed Tract.”

To begin with, that term, it is an historical one, is not at all flattering to the, official inhabitants of the southeastern corner of Iowa. It was meant to be descriptive of them. Again, not very flattering. Be that as it may, here is the story.

In 1824 some Sac and Fox chiefs went to see President Monroe at Washington, and expressed willingness to give up their lands in the new State of Missouri provided a tract of land be set aside for the half-breeds. Their wishes were complied with and ratified by the Senate of the United States on January 18, 1825. The Half-Breed Tract was the result; a tract of some 120,000 acres above the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers. Obviously Keokuk, the “capital” of the Half-Breed Tract, was included in it, as was also all the land lying between Keokuk and Fort Madison. No stingy gift, one would say, from our generous United States Government! The Indians guarded the interests of those half-breeds because their mothers were squaws of the Sac and Fox tribes. Their fathers, “squaw-men”, were fur traders, mostly Frenchmen or American soldiers. We say they were “mostly Frenchmen” on the word of Thomas Forsyth, who, in 1831, sent a petition to the United States Government. He urged upon the government “the employ­ment of a Catholic priest, to teach a school, and instruct the half-breeds in religion”. Then he added: “This would be pleasing to the Indians, and might, at no great distance of time, entice some of the Indians to embrace civilized life”. And his reason for this petition is even more significant and more to the point, namely, that nine-tenths of the fathers of the half-breeds were French Catholics. As we see it today, that petition was the birth of twilight Catholicity in and about Keokuk. To be sure the Frenchmen were Catholic, at least traditionally. As a matter of fact their religion was scarcely more than a bundle of traditions, and vague ones at that. It was a fading memory held to as a benefactor in the past. Squaw marriages, savage life, and Indian stand­ards of conduct would not produce a fine brand of Cathol­icity in the Frenchmen, or in their French-Indian offspring, whose number probably did not exceed fifty.

Some Onward-Bound Priests

Now for a lesson in historical geography, the Missis­sippi River, first. Not many words will be needed.

It is a plain and oft mentioned fact in historical writing that the tide of immigration followed the only highways of travel then to be found-rivers and other streams. In con­sonance with that statement we find that to the pioneer bent on reaching the Iowa Country, the Father of Waters ex­tended its best hospitality. On its bosom, priest and layman alike, journeyed to his destination. Gracious host, indeed, it was, and uncomplaining when the guests left unceremoni­ously. Keokuk was one place where "French leave" was taken. Fur traders, soldiers, explorers, missionary priests ­all used that kindly stream for conveyance. This is true of Marquette, Jolliet, LaSalle, and Hennepin, for they were the first to use the bosom of the Mississippi as a prie dieu when their God was remembered at nightfall. After their time (towards the end of the seventeenth century) there is an aching void in historical records for more than a century. About 1800 the “white-man's history” again opened. And again the Mississippi River was pressed into service. From the north and south its travelers began to come. We shall have to pass over laymen, be they land-grantee, trader, or soldier, since the purview of this sketch does not allow much space for secular history, important though it is. Our pres­ent interest centers in “Some Onward-Bound Priests” who passed Keokuk, north and south, during the period 1817-1832. But first a word about the lay of the land from the viewpoint of ecclesiastical jurisdictions.

Saint Louis is a very old city, old as time is reckoned in these parts. Founded in the year 1764 by Pierre Liguest Laclede, a French nobleman, it became the See City of a Catholic diocese on July 2, 1826. Passing over illustrious names to hasten our story, we come to the second bishop of the Diocese of Saint Louis, the Right Reverend Joseph A. Rosati, an Italian Vincentian in other days. Extensive to a degree hard to comprehend was his diocese. Jurisdiction, civil and ecclesiastical, was a rather cheap commodity in those days. The Law of Supply and Demand was at work. Un­der date of June 17, 1834, the Holy See sent a communica­tion to Bishop Rosati describing the limits of his diocese in this way. “The diocese of St. Louis comprises the state of Missouri, together with the territory called Arkansas, and until the Holy See decrees otherwise, it shall include the territory also on the west side of the Mississippi (Iowa)”. As if the above territory were not sufficiently extensive, the west­ern half of Illinois was officially placed within his jurisdiction also; for some years before, however, he had cared for it. Substantially the same content had come to Rosati in 1832 from Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget of the Diocese of Bards­town. His letter bore the statement that the Diocese of Saint Louis “comprised all of Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa, and the Indian tribes beyond the Missouri line”. Hence­forth Saint Louis will be considered one terminus, the "terminus a quo."

Far above Keokuk, in the Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, Galena region no little activity on the part of the Catholic Church was being manifested about this time, the early decades of the nineteenth century. Both from the north and from the south priests had gone to that region and were con­tinuing to do so. That region was the “terminus ad quem” for priests from Saint Louis and Green Bay. At one time or another not a few of them passed by Keokuk as they jour­neyed to and fro. Briefly we shall see something of them.

As early as 1817 (when the Iowa Country fell within the jurisdiction of the Diocese of New Orleans) a Trap­pist priest, Father Joseph Mary Dunand, went by Keokuk on his way from Saint Louis to Prairie du Chien. His diary, however, makes no record of his having given spiritual min­istration in this vicinity. That journey was made three years before Dr. Samuel Muir, the city's first white settler, crossed the Mississippi River from Illinois. Ten years later, Father Francis Vincent Badin might have looked upon this settle­ment as he passed by on his way to Saint Louis (1827). Once the thirties opened, priests in numbers passed up and down. Two of them were Fathers Joseph Lutz (1830) and John McMahon (1832). The only tangible evidence that these priests lingered in the vicinity of Keokuk is the record that Father McMahon sent a letter to Bishop Rosati from Keokuk.

Nothing is to be gained by multiplying words and statements about these hidden years, 1817-1832. Conjec­tures and shadowy probabilities are better left unwritten. This is the sum total regarding the situation: we simply do not know with certainty that any of these priests cared for the Frenchmen, the Indians, and the French-Indians in and around Keokuk. An heroic priest of God now comes by way of the same friendly Mississippi to make religion in the Half-Breed Tract something more than a few vague tradi­tions and sentiments, Father Charles Felix Van Quicken­borne, a member of the Society of Jesus.

Keokuk's Proto-Priest

FATHER Felix Van Quickenborne, the Founder of the Missouri Province of the Society [of Jesus], will live on in history as one of our great men.

-John A. Rothensteiner.

In a host of instances Jesuits, with their chosen mis­sionary career, blazed the trail for the Catholic Church in America. Two such instances, and striking ones at that, may be given for the State of Iowa. The first priest ever to set foot on the soil of our commonwealth was a Jesuit mission­ary, Father James Marquette. And Father Charles Felix Van Quickenborne, also of the Company of Ignatius, was the first priest in the nineteenth century to minister to the Cath­olics and traditional Catholics in Iowa. Strange to say, too, Keokuk, the “capital” of the lowly Half-Breed Tract, was the locality first to receive ministrations at his hands. French­men, Indians, Half-Indians, Negro Slaves, and Americans had a share one way or another in that Flemish black-robe's work. But, first a brief word in a biographical way.

Charles Felix Van Quickenborne was a Flemish priest, born in the village of Peteghen in the Diocese of Ghent, Belgium, and ordained a diocesan priest in 1812. It was some years later that he entered the Society of Jesus. At­tracted to the missions of America during his noviceship in that Society Father Van Quickenborne received permission to follow his attraction. During the period 1817-1822 his field of labor was at Whitemarsh, Maryland. Early in 1823 a band of Jesuits under his leadership made a long journey to Florissant, Missouri, intent upon establishing a Jesuit Mission and laboring among the Indians. Then in 1824 Bishop Louis Dubourg, the Ordinary of the Diocese of New Orleans, appointed Father Van Quickenborne “Vicar Gen­eral of Upper Louisiana”. It was that appointment which authorized him to make three arduous journeys into the Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa countries, during the years 1832 and 1833. The first and third journeys do not im­mediately concern us. Of supreme importance to the history of South-eastern Iowa, however, is the second journey of Father Van Quickenborne.

He attracts our attention as we see him crossing the Mississippi River to Keokuk, Iowa, from the “Head of the Rapids”, Hancock County, Illinois. Fortunately “Father Charles F. Van Quickenborne’s Baptismal and Marriage Record Book, 1832-1833” has come down to us. With that precious document as our guide, Iowa’s First Priest of the nineteenth century is located definitely at Keokuk on October the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth, eighteen hundred and thirty-two. On every one of those days Father Van Ouick­enborne's Record reveals that he either conferred the Sacra­ment of Baptism in “Keokuck” or was the Catholic Church's official witness for the Sacrament of Matrimony. It may be of interest to note that he was “near Keokuk” on October 10, 1832, and was also at Fort Edwards (the present Warsaw in Illinois, about seven miles below Keokuk on October 12, 1832. For Keokuk record of three baptisms and five mar­riages has been left us. 

Since a unique historical interest attaches to this visita­tion, the first fully recorded one in Iowa, we shall include here the names of the principals. The baptisms: October 6, 1832, Marie Louise, one year old, daughter of Joseph Frasier and Margaret, a Folle Avoine (Menominee) In­dian, with Marie LaPaumerai as sponsor; October 8, 1832, Mary Jane, about 3 years old, and Andrew Jackson, about 6 months old, children of a slave who was the property of Isaac Camel. For Mary Jane the sponsor was Mrs. La­Pomerai and for Andrew Jackson, Margaret LaPomerai. The marriages: October 7, 1832, John Baptiste Louis For­cier and Marie LeBeau, and as witnesses Augustus LaPom­erai, Charpentier, and others; Jessoi Pellen (a non-Catholic) and Archange St. Jean Laperche (renewed consent); October 9, 1832, Paul Bisette and Marie Louise Bolon, with Pierre Riche Blondeau and M. La Pomerai and others as witnesses; Peter Brusseau and Mary Louise Courville, with Edward Brichinelle and Mrs. LaPomerai as witnesses. Of interest, too, is another marriage “near Keokuk”: Andrew St. Amand and Mary Louise Blondeau, with two Catholic Sauk Indians, Charlotte and Virginia, as witnesses. From Father Van Quickenborne's record as here given it is noticed that many of the names are distinctively French. This is in keeping with the traditional understanding of the nationality of many inhabitants of the “Half-Breed Tract”. It is worthy of note, too, that Father Van Quickenborne included “the lower rapids” as one of the places where a church should be built, and he gives one reason, “as the funds can be raised very easily”. This notation was made presumably on July 16, 1833, about nine months after his visitation to this sec­tion of Iowa. 

How colorful these ceremonies must have been, and how replete with the unique and the primitive! The black­robed Jesuit in the midst of representatives of many nations and races and civilizations pouring the water of regeneration, caught perhaps a short time before as it dashed upon “Mechanic Rocks” at the Foot of the Rapids on the head of a dusky tot who had been presented by a Frenchman or a Yankee, with Indians, Half-Indians, Negroes, and traders, as a miniature “League of Nations” audience! Truly was the pioneer priest's religious effort liberally dashed with the quaint and the chivalrous.

In order to obviate confusion in the matter it should be noted that Father Van Quickenborne has left no record of his having attended the Catholics of Iowa at any place other than Keokuk until July 10, 1833. Even at that later date more than nine months after his Keokuk visitation, the sole recorded place of his ministrations in the State of Iowa is Dubuque.

In an earlier section of this sketch, attention has been of Catholicity in South-eastern Iowa", attention has been given to “Some Onward-Bound Priests”. The important thing to remember is that they were “onward-bound”. His­torical research has not brought to light any record of their having lingered at Keokuk or, as a matter of fact, in any locality of Iowa.

This one conclusion is certain: Keokuk was the first locality in Iowa visited by Father Charles F. Van Quickenborne, S. J. His Record Book plainly shows that he lingered here on the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth, of October 1832. Consequently whatever priority resulted from this heroic black-robe's efforts in Iowa, that priority naturally enriches the glory of Catholicity in South-eastern Iowa. Father John A. Rothensteiner's prophecy that the name of “Father Felix Van Quickenborne, the Founder of the Mis­souri Province of the Society [of Jesus], will live on in history as one of our great men”, finds fond hopes of real­ization in the hearts of Keokuk Catholics.

Father Mazzuchelli

“IN THOSE days there came to the territory to preach to the rough and uneducated, a man of the highest education and refinement, the Reverend Samuel Charles Mazzu­chelli, one of the most remarkable men connected with the early church history of Iowa.” In these words an Iowa his­torian, Cyrenus Cole, pays glowing tribute to another priest of South-eastern Iowa.

Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli, an Italian born, 1806, came to America in 1828. Blessed with a vocation to the religious life, already he was garbed in the Dominican habit upon his arrival. After two years of study here in America, this romantic, chivalrous priest of God was elevated to the priesthood. “And a few weeks later, he was setting foot on the Island of Mackinac, the most remote spot of the Diocese of Cincinnati”. Zealous man that he was, his efforts could not be confined within such compass. Travel­ing, ministering, and building were to be his lot for many a year. As early as 1835 his presence thrilled the Catholics of Iowa. The eastern portion of our state he made one of his major fields. He liked to linger on and travel over the Iowa prairies. “His parish was the whole Mississippi Val­ley for two hundred miles or more.”

To anyone reading his Memoirs, the following descrip­tion of Father Mazzuchelli is sober truth couched in terms bespeaking affectionate regard: “The story of Father Maz­zuchelli's work in Iowa reads like a romance. He went to many places; he labored unceasingly. He traveled on foot and on horseback, in ox-wagon and on boats. A stranger in a strange land, he slept on the floors of cabins and he ate often the food of savages.”

With joy does the writer connect this spotless Domin­ican priest with the Keokuk mission. The Catholic Directory for the year 1841 supplies the information, as our trust­ worthy authority. “Burlington, Des Moines Co., St. Paul’s, a brick church erected in the year 1840, with convenient rooms for schools. Very Rev. S. Mazzuchelli. Sermon in English. There are four stations attached to this parish: 1st, Madison, Lee Co.; 2nd, Half Breed Tract, same county; 3rd, Iowa City, Johnson Co.; 4th, Bloomington [called Muscatine since 1841], Muscatine Co. The number of Catholics in this parish and its stations is about twelve hundred.”

In another section of this sketch the historical signif­icance of the term “Half-Breed Tract” has been explained. Without doubt Keokuk is the station meant, for at the time referred to-1840-the importance of all other settlements, which possibly could have been meant had declined. Not for long, apparently, was Father Mazzuchelli assigned to this district. Only in one volume of the Catholic Directory, that of 1841, is his name linked with the Half-Breed Tract. Further than this connection we do not know anything of his activities in Keokuk. Negatively we know, great church ­builder that he was (churches at Burlington, Muscatine, Davenport and Iowa City in the Diocese of Davenport are his hand work) he did not see fit to build even a little church for slumbering Catholicity here. Certainly, though, this much loved pioneer priest included within his circuit the spir­itual care of the Catholics of ancient Keokuk, the “capital” of the Half-Breed Tract. That was late in 1840 or early in 1841.

A Pause

NOT A LITTLE early history of the Catholic Church in and about Keokuk has already been given. Yet all activities discussed so far have been of a kind: intermittent visits and probable visits of pioneer priests during the period 1832-1840. There has been no word of a resident pastor, no word of a permanent sanctuary where Christ dwelt and the faithful worshipped. But should we be surprised? Let us see.

Take the year 1834, when Father Lefevre first visited Keokuk, “the Foot of the Rapids”. The Iowa Country had been without any general government whatsoever from 1821 until that year 1 834. Then it was made an adjunct to Michigan Territory. It was not until October 1835 that a general election was held. Then Michigan took its place among the states of the Union in 1836, a new territory, the Territory of Wisconsin, was created. Iowa was in the west­ern part of that territory. Then, two years later, 1838, the Territory of Iowa was formed. It was 1846 before the United States Government considered it proper to admit Iowa to statehood.

Our story of Catholicity has advanced only to 1840. Bishop Mathias Loras had been in Iowa since April 19, 1839, although the Diocese of Dubuque was erected in 1837. There had been but two priests within the confines of the present State of Iowa during the few years immedi­ately preceding his coming. They were Father Peter Paul Lefevre and Father Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli. In 1839 there were but two Catholic Churches in all Iowa, St. Raphael’s, Dubuque, and Saint Anthony’s, Davenport. A third church, St. James’s, on Sugar Creek, Lee County, was built probably later in that year, 1839.

During the period already traversed in this sketch, Iowa was, indeed, an untouched country. Its “white man's his­tory” was scarcely begun. Should we be surprised, then, that a fully organized Catholic Church did not yet exist in Keokuk as late as 1840!

Father Alleman

 “FATHER Alleman carried his church in his saddlebags".-Father John Larmer.

It is 1840 or thereabout. Burlington is no longer the home address of Keokuk’s pastor of souls. Fort Madison has replaced it; and the Dominican Father Mazzuchelli is replaced by the Dominican Father John George Alleman. Why did he prefer Fort Madison to Keokuk? Father John Larmer, writing in the nineties, gave answer. “After look­ing over northeastern Missouri, and the adjacent portions of Illinois and Iowa, Father Alleman resolved to establish his permanent mission at Fort Madison, a beautiful site above the first rapids on the Upper Mississippi. His object in settling, so to speak, at this point, was to have a perma­nent 'shanty' in a central location, whence he could the more effectively perform the great work, which his former ex­perience as a missionary, told him lay before him.”

That he attended Keokuk from Burlington and later from Fort Madison is certain. The only extant baptismal register for those days, that of St. Paul's, Burlington,    rec­ords his attending Keokuk in 1841 and 1842. During that period Father Alleman’s signature included “Priest of Bur­lington”. The reassuring work of Father Kempker has also been given. “When Father Alleman assumed charge of Lee County, he made Keokuk one of these stations, which he attended regularly and ministered faithfully to the wants of the people, but could make no effort for material progress”. And the Catholic Directory of 1843 gives this information: “Fort Madison, Lee Co., St. Joseph's, a small temporary brick building, Rev. J. C. Alleman. West Point, Keokuk Station, Farmington, Lee Co., a station (Farmington is in Van Buren County).”

Concerning Father Alleman’s activities in Keokuk, the writer has been able to gather information of only a very general nature. “Keokuk he attended regularly and min­istered faithfully to the wants of the people, but could make no effort for material progress.” The latter part of that statement amounts to this: he was not able to build a church here. And it was not until 1844 that Keokuk’s first Catholic Church was erected, but that in a later section. Except for a rather brief period during 1844, Father Alleman was in charge of Keokuk from about 1840 until 1848.

For Keokuk specifically Father Larmer has left some interesting observations. “From Fort Madison, he (Father Alleman) usually traveled on foot, as I saw him for years having under his arm a pair of saddlebags which contained all his church, all a missionary’s conveniences to celebrate Mass. Being of high stature and splendid health, he could cover in a morning on foot, without great fatigue, as much ground as an average horse”. Old settlers of Fort Madison used to recall Father Alleman “with his saddlebags strapped over his shoulders, carrying his mass vestments, altar stone, chalice and so forth, as he started on a tramp to West Point, Keokuk, and other Missions much farther dis­tant.”

An anecdote that has passed current in Keokuk for a long time has been put in writing by Father Larmer. “His (Father Alleman’s) untiring zeal and faithful labors so won the affections of the Indians that the Chiefs and their council offered him what is now the northern half of the City of Keokuk. . . But the good priest replied: ‘No, I am a poor Dominican Friar, I made a vow of poverty, and another to establish missions; with God's grace I will keep them both’.” No one has explained just what right “the Chiefs and their council” had to offer that generous gift to Father Alleman.

One more priest is now added to our growing list of those who served the Catholics of Keokuk during the form­ative period. For eight years, 1840 to 1848, Keokuk was one of Father Alleman’s interests. An untiring worker, an establisher of missions far and near, a man in whom the spirit of poverty and charity were deeply ingrained (many humorous incidents are told and written about those two qualities in him), a courageous man in the cause of Christ, all these Father Alleman was, not only for Keokuk but for Ohio, Iowa and Illinois.
Father Galtier, Keokuk's First Resident Pastor

“YESTERDAY [January 5, 1840] for the first time, I conferred priesthood on three of our young levites, in the presence of an immense crowd of Protestants and Catholics”. So wrote Bishop Loras, January 6, 1840, to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. For Keokuk the item has a significance. In this ordination ceremony, the first in the Northwest, one of Keokuk’s priests, Father Lucien Galtier, was a principal. It was his ordination day. Not immediately was he sent to Keokuk, for from 1840 to 1844 he was located where is now the great metropolis of Saint Paul, Minnesota.

And how did Lucien Galtier, a Frenchman, happen to be in America? Very briefly this is the story. The Very Reverend Mathias Loras, a native of France and Vicar Gen­eral of the Diocese of Mobile, Alabama, was appointed the first bishop of the Diocese of Dubuque. At the time of his consecration, December 10, 1 837, there were but one priest and one unfinished church in his diocese. To his native and lovely France he naturally turned. His first quest for priestly help brought to the shores of America in the fall of 1838 two priests and four seminarians. One of the latter was Lucien Galtier, a subdeacon, who, on January 5, 1840, was ordained a priest for the diocese of Dubuque. His studies had been completed at the well-known St. Mary's College, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

On June 23, 1839, Bishop Loras went from Dubuque to St. Peter’s, Minnesota. He there found 185 Catholics and for thirteen days remained with them. “The next spring (1840) he was reminded, one day when an up-bound steamer whistled for the landing, of his promise to send a priest there. He selected the Rev. Lucien Galtier for the work, and, in one hour, that clergyman was enroute to his new field of labor.” The date was April 26, 1840.

The high mark of interest in his work at St. Paul, Min­nesota, was reached when, on November 1, 1841, Father Galtier dedicated his “new basilica” under the patronage of Saint Paul. And these words of his are important. “I ex­pressed a wish, at the same time, that the settlement would be known by the same name, and my desires were ob­tained.” This statement of fact was penned in 1861 at the request of Bishop Thomas Grace. The city of Saint Paul should be thankful for the suggestion, for up to that time­1841, the settlement had been known as “Pig's Eye”. And the significance of the change in name was caught at all early date, for in 1850, Governor Goodhue, said: “Pig's Eye, converted thou shalt be, like Saul; Arise, and be, henceforth, Saint Paul.”

Then, in 1844, Father Galtier was transferred to Keo­kuk. “On the 25th of May, 1844, he left Saint Peter's, and went to Keokuk, Iowa”. To corroborate the fact that it was not later than May the twenty-fifth, 1844, we have the Baptismal Register of Saint Raphael’s Dubuque, con­taining record of a baptism conferred by Father Galtier on May 26, 1844. Later in this sketch, significance will be attached to that baptism as the only one recorded in the register by him.

Up to the present there has been general agreement that Father Galtier was located in Keokuk only one month: August, 1844. In these words Father Kempker has it. “During this time of his (Father Alleman’s) charge, how­ever, there was one exception, and that was in the month of August, 1844, when Rt. Rev. Dr. Loras, Bishop of Dubuque, sent Keokuk a resident pastor in the person of Rev. Lucien Galtier, whom he transferred from St. Peter’s River. . .” Likely the following statements in Father A. J. Zaiser’s volume Diamond Jubilee of St. Joseph's Church (Fort Madison, Iowa) are based on Father Kempker’s article. Father Zaiser writes: “Father Galtier remained just long enough to erect a log church.” That space of time is more accurately determined by him in the following words: “the edifice was completed within one month from the date the building was commenced”. In other words, Father Galtier was stationed in Keokuk only one month. Now, before proceeding further with the discussion of how long Father Galtier was resident in Keokuk, let us digress to an account of the building of the Saint John the Evangelist Church. The account as given by Father Kempker is substantially the content of an interview given by H. V. Gildea, a Davenport builder, in 1885. It appeared first in 1886, and then in an enlarged form in 1887.

“In 1844, Rt. Rev. Bishop Loras sent Father Galtier there (Keokuk) to build a church. He took with him J. M. Gildea, a builder, and securing logs six miles north of town from the timber claim of Mr. Tanning (Fanning is the name), they erected a log church, twenty feet by thirty feet in size, and twelve feet high; the building being completed in the space of a month, and dedicated in honor of St. John the Evangelist.  The location of St. John’s Church was on the corner of Second and Blondeau streets, on the brow of the Bluff, with a commanding view of the Mississippi River and the Des Moines Rapids.”

The account as given in 1887 is richer in details. “At Keokuk this most exemplary priest (Father Galtier) engaged H. V. Gildea to build the church, which he superintended in person. The site was on Second and Blondeau streets, on the brow of the hill over­looking the rapids, with a magnificent view of Illinois and Missouri; the building material was stone and logs; the size 20 by 30 feet, and 12 feet high. The stones for the founda­tion, rudely formed, were taken from the building site.  T. Fanning, from Dubuque, owned a timber claim a few miles up the stream, and gave unlimited privilege of taking the logs. Thither the priest wended his way, and with the aid of two or three French settlers, hewed the timber and rafted it to the building site. In the fatigue of the first day’s labor it was found that no one had provided a hamper for appeasing the hunger, but fishing in the river proved to be good. The roof of the church was made of clap­boards, and within one month the building was completed, and dedicated in honor of St. John the Evangelist. There were at this time only very few Catholics in Keokuk, and the Bishop, much in need of priests, recalled Father Galtier with an appointment to Prairie du Chien”. With that de­scription we can visualize Keokuk's first church, a log struc­ture, under the patronge of St. John the Evangelist.

Now to return to the question of Father Galtier's tenure in Keokuk. The writer has at hand some evidence rather convincing him that Father Galtier was stationed there for a period longer than one month. That evidence will now be presented.

With meticulous care Bishop Loras kept a Memoran­dum Book, which was in reality a daily ledger. The fol­lowing data, located in an abstract of that ledger by Father Kempker, and up to this time unpublished, are illuminating:

1844 Keokuk St. John the Ev. Church
May 27
Paid to M. Galtier for Anderson house, etc. $100.00

Paid previously to the same 50.00

Paid lumber $13.00: $7

Paid for building the church 200.00
Aug. 3
Paid $25: 11th $24. M. Gildea $20 70.00

Paid by M. Galtier $22.62. Support $45, $25 92.62

Paid M. Gildea $15.75 Paid $50 65.75


In the above account of the St. John the Evangelist Church, Keokuk, there is contained much pertinent informa­tion. Let us put down in tabular form just what is con­tained in it.

1. Previous to May 27, 1844, Bishop Loras had paid $50.00 towards the acquiring of the Anderson property. The only reference to an Anderson family prior to 1845 is found in Pen Pictures of Early Western Days by Virginia Wilcox Ivins. “There were few advantages here aside from the dis­trict school. Meantime, I had attended one of these taught by Mrs. Morgan Anderson, the wife of the Sheriff, on Main near Third.” Probably the family referred to here is the one from whom the Second and Blondeau property was pur­chased in 1844.

2. On May 27, 1844, the sum of $370.00 was paid to Father Galtier for the building of the St. John the Evan­gelist Church.

3. Again on August 3 and 11, 1844, more money was expended by Bishop Loras for this enterprise.

4. A Mr. Gildea is mentioned. Father Kempker re­fers to him in this way: “At Keokuk this most exemplary priest [Father Galtier] engaged H. V. Gildea to build the church which he superintended in person.”

5. An item of August 3, 1844, states Father Galtier expended for support $70.00.

What conclusions are to be drawn from these plain statements? Three separate questions are involved; one by one we shall discuss them.

First, was Father Galtier resident in Keokuk only dur­ing the month of August, 1844? To begin with, it should be remembered that on May 25, 1844, he left Saint Paul. On May twenty-sixth the Sacrament of Baptism was con­ferred by him at St. Raphael’s, Dubuque. Especially significant if the fact that during the period following May twenty-sixth the same Baptismal Record fails to disclose Father Galtier's presence in Dubuque. Further, in a daily ledger kept by Bishop Loras a new account was started on May twenty-seventh. It reads: “Keokuk St. John the Ev. Church, May 27, 1844, paid to M. Galtier for Anderson house, etc., $100.00.” In view of these facts, and they are telling in their almost necessary implications, the writer is quite convinced that Father Galtier was appointed to Keokuk on May 27, 1844, or thereabout.

Now, another point about his tenure: how long did he remain in Keokuk? Already in this section the words of Fathers Kempker and Zaiser have been cited. They locate him in Keokuk during the month of August, and, as it will be remembered, only during that month. A very likely substantiation for his presence there at least in August comes from two other sources. Quoting Bishop Loras' ledger again, we find this opposite information: August 3, 1844, Paid by M. Galtier $22.62, Support $45 and $25.” Ob­viously that record associates Father Galtier with Saint John the Evangelist Church during the month of August. There is yet one other word bearing on this point. It comes from a volume of reminiscences entitled Pen Pictures of Early Western Days by Virginia Wilcox Ivins, a Keokuk Pioneer of 1840. Couched in terms so quaint, vivified with tell­ing details, and altogether breathing out so fresh a remem­brance of days and events long gone, her account, the writer feels, should be given in full.

“The pioneer church of the village was of course Roman Catholic. A lot had been given on the corner of Blondeau and Second streets, upon which to build a church; meantime a house of two rooms was put up on the corner of the lot at the rear and here masses were said, one of the rooms being fitted up as a chapel, the priest living in the other. Weddings were also solemnized in the small chapel, one of which I attended, that of Elizabeth Hunt and Henry Louis [De Louis], my cousin and myself being the only witnesses. . . .

“The lots surrounding the Church were used as a cem­etery. On one occasion twenty-five men were buried there who were killed by the explosion of the steamboat Mechanic in their endeavors to get off a large rock in the first chain of the rapids, from which circumstance it took the name of Mechanic rock.

“The priest was an elegant man, a native Frenchman, most zealous in his work, preaching in both French and English, and was building the church with his own hands. I well remember seeing him at work on the roof in hot July days with his long coat closely buttoned to his chin. My uncle and he were warm friends. He was a frequent visitor at our house and a most welcome guest.”

By this time the point under discussion has been lost sight of perhaps: how long did Father Galtier remain in Keokuk? Not a little light is shed on the question by the reminiscence just given. Close inspection of it together with the context makes the writer convinced that the priest referred to is Father Galtier.

In another volume by the same writer titled Yesterdays, Reminiscences of Long Ago, the pioneer resident priest is described in this way: “He was a native Frenchman, a most devout man, very much be­loved by his parishioners and greatly respected by all the community. After the church was completed, or at least within a very short time, he returned to France.” Again the writer is convinced that Father Galtier is the priest referred to. By no means do the details given refer to either Father C. J. Alleman, O. P. or Father J. B. Villars. Remembering that three reliable sources have been given, locating Father Galtier in Keokuk during the month of August, 1844, and one source, a volume in reminiscent mood with its reference to “hot July days” and “at work on the roof”, the writer feels safe in taking up with the tradition that Father Galtier was pastor of Saint John the Evangelist Church until some time in August 1844.

Bringing together both ends of the discussion, we reach this conclusion: Father Galtier was in Keokuk from about May 27, 1844, until about August 11, 1844.

The second question, the length of the time the Saint John the Evangelist Church was in the process of construction, may be disposed of more readily. Sometime before May 27, 1844, Bishop Loras had taken some steps to acquire “the Anderson house”. From May twenty-sev­enth to August third Father Galtier, and from August third to August eleventh H. V. Gildea, a contractor, were the instruments of Bishop Loras in furthering the enterprise. In view of payments made to Father Galtier on May twenty-­seventh for “building the church”, the writer feels there must have been a miscarriage of plans, which made it im­perative that Bishop Loras employ an experienced builder two months after Father Galtier had received those funds to build the church. It may well be that the church was under actual construction only one month, as tradition has it. Bishop Loras' ledger does not indicate fully that August was the month. So far as funds for the enterprise were concerned the transaction was a completed one on August 11, 1844.

Most readily may the third and last question be an­swered: who supplied the funds for the building of Saint John the Evangelist Church in 1844, Bishop Loras' ledger removes all doubt about it. That ledger, already quoted, gives an itemized account of this transaction.

To conclude, Keokuk's first Catholic Church, Saint John the Evangelist, was built by Father Lucien Galtier and Mr. H. V. Gildea in the year 1844; from May twen­ty-seventh at least until August eleventh Bishop Loras was the source of funds. Without doubt he in turn received the funds from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

Compiled and contributed by Ernie Braida,  Pastor of St. Peter's in Keokuk from 1978-1984

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