|Saint John the
Church of Keokuk, 1844-1857
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
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:
Given 18 town lots worth at
||Paid a debt of M. Villars to M.
||Paid in full
$500 at 10% 2
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
The Educational Work of
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
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
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
Later Education at Saint
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
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