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Saint Peter's Parish
A History
Part 2

Saint John the Evangelist Parish
Church of Keokuk, 1844-1857
Father Villars

WE HAVE seen the center of interest shift from Rat Row to the Catholic Church. Yet, when it was scarcely completed, Saint John's became something like the overlooked guest in the parlor. To France Father Galtier, its builder, had gone. The church was without a resident pastor; the flock, without a shepherd.

At this late date we may inquire about Father Galtier's departure. Well, to begin with, a very unpleasant and discouraging condition had arisen among the Half-Indians. Their social status was most uncertain, rejected by the Indians and yet not received by the white man. Fortunate exceptions there were, we know of a few, yet they were exceptions. For the most part, white men, some of them degenerate, imposed upon the Half-Indians. They allowed it, either because of apparent benefits received or favors expected. Not easily would strong Catholic life rise out of that social condition. So, strange as it may seem, the very people that made Keokuk's first priest-visitor of the nineteenth century linger here for a few days was very likely one of the contributing causes of Keokuk’s first resident priest's leaving twelve years later. Then, other con­gregations in Bishop Loras’ vast diocese were c1amoring loudly and insistently for priests. The diocese was large and the priests were few. Dire need of priests elsewhere was another contributing cause to Father Galtier’s departure. An occasional visit horn Father Alleman, his circuit was an extensive one, provided the only consolation extended the Catholics here from the latter part of 1844 until 1848. The story of his work has already been given. Now for his successor.

It is 1848. A young Frenchman, Jean Baptist Villars, by name, had just received ordination at the hands of Bishop Loras. The year before, five young men, among them Louis Decailly and George Reffe, had come to America with Father Joseph Cretin. One, Father Villars, is now ready to serve. Apparently his first appointment brought him to Keokuk. Likely it came in May or June 1848. However the very earliest written record we have of him in Keokuk is dated March 1849. Be that as it may, here is his story briefly told.

Soon after his coming we find him domiciled not in a private house he could call his own, but in a two-room “apartment” in the Kilbourne building now occupied by the Keokuk Medicine Company. Later he was at home under the same roof with his Eucharistic Christ. It may be that he lived there until probably about 1855 when a rectory was built by him just south of, but near to, the present con­vent building. That building is no longer in existence. A few years before its destruction it was labeled “Catholic Boys' Club.”

Various sources, written and oral, tell of Father Vil­lars’ work. A missionary character, for instance, is dis­closed by his baptismal register. The year 1849 witnessed his presence “three miles from Francisville.” We recog­nize the locality today as Saint Francisville, Missouri. Eddyville, a town near Ottumwa, was visited by him the same year. And at Ottumwa the first church, a small brick one, could claim him for its builder. In Keokuk, he seems to have been busily engaged during the first few years of his pastorate. The number of Baptisms would indicate a rather thriving parish for the early days. One hundred and one baptisms for the period April 1849, to September 1852, are recorded. Then, too, in the first few years of his Pastorate Father Villars placed several additions to the original Saint John’s. All of them were of frame construc­tion. But no other material improvements in the parochial plant can be pointed out during the rest of the period. Absorption in the success of the Visitation Sisters made parochial progress secondary it seems. The “wooden” age for the Catholic Church in Keokuk lasted until late in 1856. It may be said to have lasted too long. Certainly Bishop Loras thought so.

Really the period in which Saint John’s was the only Catholic parish cannot be spoken of as a progressive one; at least not for the parish. An elongated wooden structure was not in keeping with the traditional dignity of the Catholic Church in a community that could number a fairly large body of Catholics. Plainly the Catholic Church in Keokuk was lagging. A change had to come. It was inevitable. The historic Saint John's went. The First Saint Peter's came.

Once the new church was erected, the old one rapidly became an historical memory. Not all is clear about its sub­sequent history. Probably in 1857 it was still in use. The Keokuk City Directory for 1857 mentioned Saint John’s as a place of Catholic worship. “It still fought on, nor knew that it was dead”. Its dissolution must have come soon after. At least one addition was moved to the southwest­ern corner of Ninth and Johnson streets. There it was used for Church socials, catechism classes, and for the Living Rosary meetings. (The Rosary Society was founded in Keokuk by Bishop Loras in 1857). Later it became an or­dinary dwelling house and at times a not very graceful one at that. That old structure whose walls carry an echo of the promise of marriage of many an "elite affair" in the early French days is now a derelict, a “res nullius” so far as the Catholic Church is concerned. Our Lord's words, though they do not demand much, can scarcely be applied: Gather up the fragments, lest they be lost. Because of a much-changed appearance only an honorable destruction awaits it. To do that would be making a fine act of faith. We do not like to see a holy thing, especially one that held the august presence of Christ, revert to secular uses.

The First Saint Peter's
Father Emonds

BISHOP LORAS was visibly distressed that a fine progress did not attend the advancing years of Cathol­icity in Keokuk. From his failing hand $2,600 in gold was given to Father William Emonds in 1856. “We have nothing in Keokuk,” the Bishop sadly remarked at the time. “Go and redeem the property and build a Church”, he added. These directions Father Emonds followed, but it was too late. The property had gone beyond recall. Once more the diocese had to start the up-building of the Cath­olic Church in Keokuk.

Near Tenth and Exchange streets a new location was chosen for the First Saint Peter's. Bishop Loras gave his approval. From that moment the project was a destined reality. Excavations were made; building operations be­gun. On April 20, 1856, a corner stone bearing this inscription was placed. “Rt. Rev. Matth. Loras, D. D., First R. Catholic Bishop of Dubuque laid this Stone on the 20th of April A. D. 1856”. Well might Bishop Loras' name have appeared for, as a study of his ledger reveals $2,­794.43 was paid by him to further the enterprise. The writer feels certain that the $2,600 in gold referred to above was included in that amount. Father Emonds is authority for the statement that the First Saint Peter's cost about $5,000. Evidently, that amount, less the Loras contribu­tion, was supplied by the parish. Ability to pay on the part of the parish must have been had, for in 1857 its number of families was large.

Completed the First Saint Peter's measured thirty-­four feet in width by seventy feet in length. Pioneers tell us there was a balcony along both sides of the church. It was located on the lot where now stands the Chester Schou­ten home. In 1856 the property to the west of that lot was vacant as the accompanying photograph reveals.

Before long, within the space of two years, an addi­tion had to be built. That was done by Father George Reffe, successor to Father Emonds. The latter had gone to Europe with the hope of regaining his health. The photo­graph of the First Saint Peter's makes plain the addition. It was built on both sides of the original structure at the rear. The corner stone, still extant, gives this information: “Addition erected under Right Rev. C. Smith by Rev. J. G. Reffe, 1858.”

Only a hurried word will be said in this place about the other building, located east of the church. Built by Father Louis Decailly (a nephew of Bishop Loras) in 1863 at a cost of from six to seven thousand dollars, that two story, brick structure was originally intended for a Boys' School to be conducted by the Christian Brothers. Then as now it was extremely difficult to induce the Broth­ers to accept new missions. Father Decailly failed. In another section the share of that building in Catholic Edu­cation will be touched upon. Briefly in this place it may be said that its history includes at least three uses: Education, priests' home, and club rooms.

The Visitations

CERTAINLY religious consecration makes possible the most generous impulses. If it does not, the pres­ence in Keokuk of the Visitation Sisters cannot be ade­quately explained. Appeals from Bishop Loras and Father Villars had reached a convent at Montuel in France. They could not be refused. Whether it was solely a deep religious sense that inspired their coming to Keokuk or that together with romantic high hearts visioning a chivalrous, heroic, and perhaps pleasant, service on the “foreign mission”, a con­secration to the full was made by three French Visitations in 1852. They ventured forth from the security and comforts of well-established convent life into a lot the destiny of which only God Himself knew. At Saint Louis three other Visitations, well versed in the English language, joined them. How novel a scene was presented to the curious as that lit­tle band, six strangely clad women, wended their way to that newly found home on Seventh Street. Once before strange, even fantastic, images filled the retinas of pioneer eyes. On the side of the bluffs from Main to Timea streets were drawn fantastic pictures of men, presumably by the mound-builders ages before. The pioneers saw and remem­bered them. Now as flesh and blood appeared clothed in strange garments the old scenes must have been called up.

The cynosure of all eyes our first nuns must have been. It is 1852 and the Visitations are in Keokuk to make the first efforts in Catholic education.

A “little yellow building” close to and just south of the present convent received their tired spirits. It became their first convent home. Then and there a life of sacrifice began. Up to this time they could look forward with ex­pectancy. Now the dread reality had come. That was their destiny when they accepted the “foreign mission” call.

Before long the need of larger quarters was apparent. Energetically the project of a new convent was started. This we know from several sources. First, the Bishop of Belley in France, the Visitations' first protector, advanced 2,000 francs. He also wrote to the Society for the Propa­gation of the Faith about the needs of the Keokuk mission. Secondly, Bishop Loras was appealed to by Father Villars. Here is an excerpt of his letter, dated March 22, 1854. “Within a radius of about 100 leagues (300 miles), sur­rounded by a population of 200,000 souls of all religions, with 15 to 20,000 Catholics, there is not a single school held by Sisters, except ours at Keokuk opened on the first of September 1853. [Bishop Loras here added: “With the exception of that of the Sisters of Dubuque.”]

“Your Highness [meaning Bishop Loras] has given them ground evaluated at 8 to 10,000 francs but we have had to build a house to lodge 10 or 12 Sisters and 150 or 200 pupils, Protestants and Catholics from the city and suburbs. As everything is at high price, especially manual work, the money put to our disposition is far from being sufficient for our needs”. To that letter Bishop Loras ap­pended this approval. “Kindly take into consideration the demand of Mr. L' Abbe Villars in favor of his new com­munity of the Ladies of the Visitation in Keokuk.”

Space at our disposal does not permit reproduction of other letters in our possession. Suffice here to say, the appeals were not without effect. An account of Bishop Loras's help has been left us.

1853 Keokuk Convent:
August 10
Given 18 town lots worth at least $1200.00

Sundry gifts 8.00
August 23 Paid a debt of M. Villars to M. Trevis 190.00
June 9 Paid in full $500 at 10% 2 years 600.00

Total $1998.00

The Bishop of Belley contributed 2000 francs. The Catholics of Keokuk generously helped out also as we learn from Father Villars' 1854 letter: “Our Catholics of Keo­kuk, although very poor, have generously contributed to this work the extraordinary sum of 6000 francs, not in­cluding many gifts of goods of all sorts”. And so the southern half of the present Convent was built. A writer of 1856 described it as a three-story structure, eighty-five by thirty-Five feet in dimensions. 

The Educational Work of the Visitations

For the first year, which began September 1, 1853, the following is the story. “They [the Visitations] could on1y receive 30 pupils, 5 of whom are Protestants, and they have been obliged to teach in a room where there are 8 beds. One of the Sisters has been obliged to lie down on the floor. All the other demands are inevitably refused until “we can go into the new house”. So wrote Father Villars, March 22, 1854. In order to hasten our story, we shall quote a source belonging to the year 1865. “The number of schol­ars entered in the academic part of the convent since it first started has been in all between 7 and 800 of all denomina­tions, who, while taught the ordinary duties and graces of Christians, will bear witness that their religious belief has never been tampered with by their teachers, The aca­demic part of the Convent was the "Select School”. It was a boarding and day school, supported by tuition, and sepa­rate from the “Common School”. About the latter the same source, 1856, tells us. “Besides their ordinary duties as teachers in the convent, the Sisters for six years had charge of the Catholic Benevolent School of this city, dur­ing which time between one and two hundred children of the laboring class received without charge a good common school education”. During the period 1852-1864 the number of Visitation Sisters increased from six to thirty-one. The writer would like to add much more information about that first Catholic educational venture in Keokuk, but space simply does not permit. Here are the pertinent facts. The Visitations came to Keokuk in 1852. On September 1, 1851, in the “little yellow building” their school opened.

Unti1 1864 a fine progress attended their efforts. A Select School (both boarding and day) and a Catholic Benevolent School comprised their educational endeavors.

Now a word about the history of the Visitations subsequent to 1864.

In 1864 a new enterprise was initiated by the Visita­tions. We shall have to be brief about it. They started the erection of a new convent on Timea Street between Sixth and Seventh streets. On July 6, 1864, the corner­stone was laid, with the Honorable D. F. Miller as the speaker. Here are just a few specifications of many that the writer has. The authority for them is a contempo­raneous account. The chapel was to be built of brown lime­stone and would measure 100 feet by 60 feet. A tower 250 feet in height would surmount everything else and catch the eye of visitors to Keokuk. Provision was made for two stories and “battlements to be extended along its roof, so that at times it may be used for an astronomical observatory”. An ambitious plan! But alas, untoward happenings marred the venture. Bishop Clement Smyth considered it a “temple of folly”. Before long the ideal­istic venture of the Visitations came to an end. The gen­erous impulses of the foundation with all the sacrifice and chivalry and romance involved ended abruptly most likely in 1866. Their convent home, the first Catholic educational institution in Keokuk passed, pioneers tell us, into the hands of the Presbyterians. Father Decailly was not ashamed to weep over it. Because of his entreaties fifty men walked up the aisle of the First Saint Peter's church pledging twenty-five dollars each for its redemption. Bishop Loras in heaven must have rejoiced. About ten years before he sent $2600 in gold to Keokuk to redeem church property. And he failed. This time all is saved. Within two years another religious order, most dear to the parishioners of Saint Peter's, will bless that same convent with their pres­ence. That order of Sisters is still carrying the educational burden in the parish-the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vin­cent de Paul. But before their story comes the one of edu­cational endeavors at the First Saint Peter's.

The Beginning of Education at the First Saint Peter 's

IT CANNOT be said with a consciousness of full cer­tainty just when education in the First Saint Peter's started. Records are not in existence and pioneer accounts are not exact. Father Kempker wrote that the first pastor, Father Emonds, taught school here. In this connection it should be remembered that only the church with an unfin­ished basement was in existence then, 1856. Perhaps, though, he held school in the body of the church proper.

Then came Father Reffe as pastor during 1857 and 1858. It was he who completed the basement. Likely, then, school was held during his pastorate. At this jun­cture we approach historical certainty. In 1859 there actu­ally was a school in the First Saint Peter's. The follow­ing notice takes the question out of the realm of probabil­ities. “St. Peter's School, Northeast corner Exchange and Tenth, Charles Buckingham, teacher”. For how long a period Charles Buckingham remained or what layman or laywoman succeeded him at Saint Peter's is not known. The next sure data about Catholic Education there bring us to the period of the Notre Dame Sisters. A separate sec­tion now follows on their educational efforts in the early sixties.
The School Sisters of Notre Dame

THE PAROCHIAL school of the First Saint Peter's was placed in charge of the Notre Dame Sisters on October 24, 1861. Father Decailly, pastor there from 1858 to 1868, had become acquainted with those Sisters at Fort Madison. He had observed their work. An ardent wish to obtain Notre Dame Sisters then and there took hold of him.

In order to be assured of a favorable reply to his re­quest for Sisters he approached the local Superior at Fort Madison as to the best plan of procedure. “Oh, Reverend Father”, she answered, “tell Mother Caroline that your children are poor and very neglected, and you may be cer­tain your request will be granted”. That advice Father Decailly followed. The petition was granted.

Three Sisters made the beginning with one hundred children distributed in three classrooms. These rooms, as also the ones alloted to the Sisters as a place of residence, were in the basement of the First Saint Peter's. Sister  Mary Augustine was the Superior of the new foundation, assisted by Sister Sophia and Sister Innocence. Later in the year (1861) their number was augmented by a candidate, Mary Myler. At the end of the scholastic year, 1862, Sister Sophia and Innocence were called to Milwaukee and in September they were replaced on the teaching staff by Sisters Bertha and Mary Capistram, respectively. By this time, the September of 1862, the number of pupils had so increased that it was found necessary to open a fourth room. This necessitated the removal of the Sisters to a home on Exchange Street near Sixth. A photograph of that house is here given. But in September 1863, the new school building (just east of the church) having been completed, the Sisters were transferred to it, occupying as a dwelling place, strange to say, the garret and basement.

For three years everything went well. The school flourished; parish, pupils, and sisters were content with the work and the conditions under which it was carried on. A Common School education, presumably of eight grades or their equivalent, was being imparted. Then a change came. Father Decailly insisted that a high school for girls be opened. Such a procedure the Notre Dame Sisters felt would be detrimental to the Visitations who were conduct­ing such a school and had conducted one for many years. As a consequence the Notre Dame Sisters were withdrawn to their Motherhouse.

Three years at Saint Peter's, 1861 to 1864, and yet those Sisters are well remembered in Saint Peter's today. Pioneers speak of untoward happenings. Although there has been maintained a certain equilibrium in the various changes of this kind, yet the writer feels that the boys of Saint Peter's Parish were, in this one change involving re­moval, robbed of a precious heritage that might well have been theirs: the receiving of an education at the hands of learned, pious, consecrated women. Not until 1902 will the boys of Saint Peter's be again privileged to learn by word and action the full import of a Catholic Education.

Later Education at Saint Peter's 1864-1899

HAPPY, indeed, would the writer feel could he here present an orderly historical account of later educa­tion at the First Saint Peter's. Without a doubt such a presentation would call up from the past a fine chapter in the history of Catholic education in this parish. Better still, it would bespeak the fulfillment in actual life of the Lay Apostolate in one of its finest forms: instructing boys on the verge of manhood in the ways of God. But, alas, our knowledge is fragmentary. And not always is it based on contemporaneous accounts, for we have had to rest content with “word of mouth” recitals. Such information, though precious, does not always evidence the fullest accuracy. Then our story will be only a catalog of names, but names that should not be lost to posterity. They should be en­shrined in our memories as great benefactors to education at a time when education was not as generally diffused as now.

After the Notre Dame Sisters were withdrawn from Saint Peter's in 1864, laywomen apparently took up the work where those consecrated hands left it. The names of three young women, Miss Logan, Miss Myers, and Miss Sarah Batty (a convert), have come down to us from that period. The school's success must not have been an indif­ferent one, since, as the Catholic Directory for 1870 informs us, there were three lay teachers instructing 180 pupils.

If we may judge from a notice of 1876 Saint Peter's Parish made quite an “advance” about that time. A cer­tain Jerome M. Campbell, A. M., was then conducting a “Classical Academy” for pupils desiring to enter a “Select School”. Quite formidable, too, was the course of studies offered by him, embracing “Latin, Greek, French, German, and Phonography”. We know that it was a Saint Peter's institution for plainly the word was given that “pupils will present themselves for examination and classification at the School adjoining St. Peter's Catholic Church”. Those who remember it say that it was a rather short-lived venture.

At the same time that fine old democratic institution of those days, the Common School, was in existence. This we know from the Catholic Directory of that year. One of the teachers about that time was Miss ("Sis") Rellihan. It seems likely that the Rellihans had conducted a private school before 1876. Matt Phelan was another teacher of the late seventies. During the school year 1877-1878 Miss Ellen Daugherty and Miss Rose Cosgrove, both of Dubuque, conducted school for Father O'Rielly. Records show that those two teachers made their home with Mrs. Mary McNamara. For that year the writer has a list of the students. He thinks that the list carries enough interest at this time to reproduce it here in full. The names of many of the stalwart fathers of the parish today will be recognized. Other names will be interesting for other reasons. Here is the student roll call for 1877-1 878 at Saint Peter's: Richard Morrissy, John Griffith, James Gro­gan, Thomas Ward, James Conners, Patrick Fitzgerald, Martin McGinty, John Burk, John Gray, John Finnerty, John McAndrew, John Keeffe, John Dunn, James Dun­nigan, John O'Keeffe, James O'Keeffe, Stephen O'Keefe, Martin Foley, Charles McDowel, Willie Lafeber, Patrick Brennan, H. Bermingham, P. Rellahan, James McEvitt, Charles McNamara, Michael McGrath, Thomas McKam­ara, James Brennan, Bernard Deiling, Nicholas Wieringa, James Brerton, Willie Loftis, John Lafeber, John Burns, Robert Fruin, James Alton, John Powers, Felix Kelly, Anthony Carroll, Simon Walsh, Michael O'Sullivan, Thomas Dolan, James Rochford, Patrick Walsh, Joseph Walte, James Kilker, Willie Thompson, Thomas Tigue, Willie Graly, Michael Cunniff, James Fruin, John McDer­mott, Matthew Gavin, Thomas Torpey, Eugene Kilker, Michael Canty, Thomas Canty, Joseph Alton, Daniel Har­rington, James Harrington, Dennis Harrington, and Jere­miah Harrington. Incidentally the monthly tuition charge was then one dollar and fifty cents. The writer knows of one student who did not pay his tuition in cash. (He has been paying ever since however). The old bell which rested between the church and the priest’s rectory was rung reg­ularly for his schooling.

Following Miss Daugherty and Miss Cosgrove as teachers at the First Saint Peter's were the following in order: Miss Connelly, Miss O'Shea, John T. Powers, Thomas Conroy (the writer's god father), and Miss Josephine Gorman of Dubuque. And so ends our fragmentary information on Catholic Education for boys at the First Saint Peter's from 1864 to 1899. Once more the center of interest has shifted. In 1898 the finest parochial school then in Iowa was erected for the boys of Saint Peter's Parish.

In the New Saint Peter's School

When the new St. Peter's School was ready in 1899 there were three teachers employed for the teaching of boys. They were Miss Gorman, Miss Mary E. Connelly, and Miss Ida McCarthy. Miss Connelly remained only one year in the new school. Here is the teaching staff for about that time: Minims and first two grades, the Sisters of Charity; third and fourth grades, Miss Ida McCarthy, fifth and sixth, Miss Gorman; the eighth and ninth (at least nine grades in the school), Miss Connelly. Kate Col­lins of Keokuk taught for one year. Then came Miss Gor­man's sister, Katherine, who taught for two years. Then in 1902 the Sisters of Charity took over the boys' school, and for two years conducted it as a separate institution from St. Vincent's. This arrangement making for the Sister's teaching of boys was a more economical one for the Sisters in those days received a salary of $20.00 per month, whereas the lay teachers had received from $50.00 to $65.00 per month. The Boys' School was called the “Church School”, likely to distinguish it from the Convent. Boys in those days were taught along with other subjects, Algebra, Geometry, and History. Former teachers assure us that the school did some work pertaining to the Ninth and Tenth grades. Since 1893 the Boy's School had been sup­ported by a school fund of the parish. In other words at that date it became a free school.

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

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