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Monday, April 29, 2019

Fr. Bernard Donnelly: "The Builder" of Kansas City


The scene was nothing like he had seen on the east coast. It certainly didn’t look anything like the emerald green of his native Ireland or like the eastern cities he had taught in just a few years before.

He had adjusted to riding horseback as best he could, but his legs and back ached from the arduous journey. As he bundled himself more snugly in his jacket, he took one hand and adjusted the collar to cover his barren neck and tipped his black hat, coated by the dust of the earth, down over his eyes.

The view was incredible as he took that trail closer and closer to an unending horizon. He had crossed the entire span of the state, set to arrive on the edge of the western frontier. Traveling over the rolling prairie, he could sense signs of life somewhere in the distance. As he approached the crest of a hill, he laid eyes on it for the first time.

There, in the distance, was this just-shy of twenty year-old town. Smoke rose from stone chimneys as small shacks resonated noises of hammers and blacksmithing. His horse guided him reluctantly forward as he let out a deep sigh mixed with relief and concern. Wagons pushed past him and persevered forward to their next stop. Women and children, faces covered with a layer of grime, gathered near their possessions as men tended to business in nearby stores.
Early depiction of Independence, Mo. 

There was a semblance of a town – there was hope filtering through the atmosphere. Even from a distance he could see trappers and traders managing their business ventures before heading back into the western frontier for more product.

For now, this would be home. He was sent here to establish a place of worship. Independence, Mo. didn’t feel very freeing, but it was his opportunity to show the Catholic church that he was willing to construct something out of nothing.

He wasn’t just a priest- he was a builder.

* * * * * * * * * *
Kansas City wouldn’t even begin to look the way it does today without the remarkable contributions of one Irish-born man with visions that stretched across the sea. Often referred to as Kansas City’s first historian and “the builder,” Father Bernard Donnelly’s appointment to the edge of the frontier changed the course of one fledgling city that wished to grow from the bluffs. This man played an indispensable and pivotal role in developing the town as it rose from the rocky landscape.

Born in Kilnacreeva, Co. Cavan, Ireland, Bernard’s early upbringing was on a small rented farm. In a biography written by Bishop Thomas Lillis in 1921, Lillis declares, “When asked his age he would make a calculation by saying he could recall such and such an historic event and so must have been five or six at the time.”

Yes, people didn’t know when they were
born. That’s a real thing. Today, his age is a guesstimate based on what he said and what we can muster up in documents.

Likely born around 1810, Fr. Donnelly’s intelligence allotted him more opportunities than the generations before him. He studied algebra, trigonometry and geometry and later took up training in English, Latin, Greek and civil engineering. He moved up the ranks and became a teacher in his native land. But he was so talented in his engineering classes, he was given the rare opportunity to work for the Civil Engineering Corps in Dublin and later in Liverpool, England.

Even through his travels in Europe, he would return home to help his aging father on his rented farm. Those in Co. Cavan knew Donnelly was a smart guy; when the day’s duties were completed, “he worked in stores and helped merchants in balancing their books.”

He never abandoned his parents back in Co. Cavan, but Bernard’s future wasn’t to be in the Emerald Isle. Donnelly was able to save his money to send back to his parents and tuck away enough for passage to America. He believed his talents could be used better than in his homeland. His plan was to teach in a town friendly to Irish immigrants.

His plans would quickly change.

In June 1839, Bernard Donnelly arrived at the port of New York and quickly mapped out his next move. Because of his background as an educator,  it was suggested he go to Philadelphia where positions were available. After a brief stint there, he received an offer in Pittsburgh to teach at a better school.
An early photo of St. Mary of the Barrons Seminary
Courtesy of National Archives

As fate would have it, Bernard kept moving west.

The Dominican Fathers in Ohio asked him to move to Lancaster, Ohio and he was backed by none other than Sen. Thomas Ewing (1789-1871)- the future Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Taylor and Fillmore. Lancaster was home to many influential families; this relationship would come into play as paths would later cross in a little frontier town called Kansas City.

He felt drawn at this point to pursue what he believed was his life’s calling- he wished to become a priest.

Around 1842, Donnelly traveled further west to St. Louis, Mo. where he was sent 80 miles south to Perry Co. to St. Mary’s Seminary in the Barrens. Now in the town of Perryville, the Barrens (nicknamed this because the area was covered in timber minus some places with “barren” prairie) is today a 34-acre tract on the National Register.

Ret. Rev. Joseph Rosati, first Bishop of
St. Louis 1827-1843
Three years were spent in the Barrens studying theology while he taught Greek and mathematics at the seminary. In 1845, he was ordained as a priest. Just hours later, Fr. Donnelly was appointed pastor of Independence, Mo. by Bishop Joseph Rosati.

For a man of such education and experience, why would they send this man to the edge of the frontier?

One can only guess, but thank God they did.

Colleagues were surprised to see that Fr. Donnelly’s talents would be sent “outside of civilization.” Fr. Wheeler in his “Recollections of Twenty-Five Years in St. Louis” wrote of Donnelly, “In my letters about a western town in 1847 I wrote that Father Donnelly was intellectually and socially too refined a priest for work among Indians and trappers. I now say of him that, like St. Paul, he is all things to all men.”

Fr. Donnelly, unlike many of his predecessors, was able to adjust to all conditions and use his ingenious to generate support among so many. In a book titled The Life of Father Donnelly by Rev. William A. Dalton, he wrote, “[Donnelly] would prefer the prairies or the mountains for health and labor” away “from the confines of civilization.”

Well, he certainly got what he asked for.

His appointment included “the missions of Westport Landing (Chouteau’s Town), Independence, Westport, Liberty, Clay County and about a hundred places.”

Cyprian Chouteau (1802-1879)
Taken from a ferrotype 
In May of that same year, Fr. Donnelly arrived at St. Mary’s in Independence- the Parish that the Bishop had handed to him. There was not much waiting for him but a bustling town full of taverns, hotels, boarding houses and stables that sprang up along the Santa Fe Trail. Since 1841, the Jesuits had tended to the church in Independence as they had stationed in newly-formed Westport, Mo.

Fr. Donnelly knew there was more to the west. Westport was platted six years before his arrival when Westport Landing, three miles north on the Missouri River, was established in the late 1830s as the westernmost point of docking boats between current-day Grand Ave. and Main St.

The Jesuits didn’t see much point in staying too long in Independence when Westport seemed to be the new gateway to the west. Westport Landing was slowly stealing riverboat traffic from Independence.

The Catholic diocese out of St. Louis had seen the importance of sending priests west as settlement moved that direction. Bishop of St. Louis from 1826 to 1843, Joseph Rosati had sent the first resident priest of the area, Rev. Benedict Roux to the western Missouri frontier in 1831. Roux called himself “the Parish priest of the Kansas River.” When he arrived in what would later become Kansas City, he reported only nine Catholic families living in all of western Missouri.

These Catholics were none other than the French Canadians that largely came from St. Louis and were led by Francois Chouteau in the mid 1820s in order to establish a fur trading post on the bank of the river. Called “Chouteau’s Town” by the early settlers, they had settled in the West Bottoms. Slowly through the 1830s, pioneers mainly from Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia began to move to the area because of the promise of cheap land.
Scene of St. Francis Regis- "Chouteau's Church"- and the rectory cabin. The cemetery can be seen behind the church
surrounded by fencing. Called "Depart de Westport" and drawn by Nicholas Point, S.J. in 1840.

At its earliest beginnings, Fr. Roux reported to Bishop Rosati from Chouteau’s Town  “that the Catholics of [western Missouri] are incapable of supporting a priest decently, being so few in number.” Regardless, his orders were clear: he was to build a church.

Crucifix of Gabriel Prudhomme, who entered land (1831)
where the original Town of Kansas was laid out.
Photo published in Catholic Beginnings in Kansas City
Fr. Roux was able to raise money for the area’s first school and church on ten acres of donated land. Completed for $500 and built by James McGee, the little log church was 20x30 ft. and sat on a bluff overlooking the Missouri and Kaw Rivers. The church, named St. John Francis Regis, sat at modern-day 11th and Pennsylvania in the heart of what we now call Quality Hill and included a small graveyard for the families of the community to use.

The St. Louis News Letter reported in 1847, “The residence of the pastor immediately adjoins the church; both of these are constructed of firmly joined logs, and, to the rear, a large wooden cross, erected in the middle of a square enclosure, denotes the spot where rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”

By 1835, Fr. Roux left to return to St. Louis and it is said he went back to his home country of France. The little St. John Francis Regis Church sat practically unattended for years, the Jesuits placing their bets on Westport as the more important town.

But Fr. Donnelly had other ideas.

He could see the future peeking its head above the bluffs that engulfed the riverfront.

The rectory at St. John Francis Regis shortly before it was torn down
In November 1846, Fr. Donnelly moved his primary residence from Independence, Mo. to the little log church overlooking the Missouri River. Kansas City had been officially platted in 1838 by John McCoy even though the town was slow to grow due to its elevation. The French settlement was still thriving in the West and East Bottoms. When he arrived, “The people were healthy, happy, hardy, industrious and well-developed and he found them not lacking in social culture and refinement. . . always he found them courageous, courteous and hospitable.”

When Fr. Donnelly would travel to the area, he would stay with the Chouteau and Guinotte families and say Mass inside the log church built by Roux. The inhabitants of this area, only numbering a few hundred, were mainly traders, trappers, fisherman and merchants.

His time at St. John Francis Regis in what is now Kansas City was short-lived at first. For brief time in 1848, the Bishop placed Fr. August Saunier in Kansas- originally part of Donnelly’s coverage. While Fr. Donnelly was perfectly fine with a one-room cabin, Fr. Saunier rented a four room cottage near the river landing.

That didn’t last too long.
Westport Landing in 1848

The community wasn’t fond of Fr. Saunier, so by 1849, he was gone and Fr. Donnelly was back in the Kansas City Catholic circuit.

Fr. Bernard Donnelly settled into the little cabin near the log church and school. He had a way with all the cultures in the area and apparently had a knack for languages that would come in handy. Mrs. Dillon wrote in 1878 to the Catholic Banner, “From his arrival, Fr. Donnelly accommodated himself in many ways to the needs of the congregation. He preached a sermon in English. He was quick in picking up a language, and was here only a few Sundays when his knowledge of French justified him in delivering a short sermon in French.”

If that isn’t impressive enough….

Fr. Bernard Donnelly (1810-1880)
When Fr. Donnelly found out that the Osage were coming through the area on their way to Washington, he called upon the Shawnee Indian Mission to teach him the Osage language. After his sermon in English, “he addressed the Indians for fully fifteen minutes in the Osage.”

I only wish I had that gift.

In 1853, Kansas City drew its boundary lines, elected government and drew up a charter. The boundaries bordered Broadway to the west, Troost Ave. to the east, the Missouri River to the north and Independence Avenue to the south. It was said that “Fr. Donnelly had been one of the first to advocate an organization of a city.”

Leaders of the area knew the bluffs along the south and west of the platted town were a problem for long-term planning. That was the objection to building a city here- the “physical condition” of the land was a pretty major problem. Minus a small strip of land skirting the river (which developed as the epicenter of trade in the early days and was known as levee), “bluffs as high as little mountains” were straight south and west of the business district. The topography of these limestone bluffs made it impossible to build any permanent city.

Corner of 4th and Grand looking west in 1868. Courtesy of John Dawson
In that same year, Col. Thomas Hart Benton, senator of Missouri, visited Kansas City to meet the leaders of the town. In his speech near the bluffs, he proclaimed, “There, Gentlemen, where the rocky bluff meets and turns aside the current of this mighty river; there, where Missouri, after running its southward course for near two thousand miles, turns eastward into the Mississippi, a large commercial manufacturing community will congregate, and less than a generation will see a great city on these hills.”

Sen. Benton seems to have known what was up!

City leaders had the money to throw at this problem, but they didn’t know how to tackle this pretty intense issue.

Fr. Donnelly’s experience as a civil engineer and stone cutting would be well-served. They would need laborers to help tear down the bluffs and fill in the valleys. Donnelly promised to bring Irishmen from the east to dig and level off streets and add curbing. He contacted friends in St. Louis that could help build a gas factory and promised to lay gas pipes to bring light to streets and homes.

With the blessing of city leaders, Fr. Donnelly wrote to Irish newspapers, the Boston Pilot and Freeman’s Journal of New York asking for the aid of Irish immigrants. He commissioned for 150 people from Boston and 150 from New York be sent to the area, offering to pay their passage and provide better wages than offered in the East.

The French settlers may have not known much about the Irish, but Fr. Donnelly certainly did.

The Boston Pilot newspaper
The Irish were stereotyped as rowdy. Passionate. Fighters. Drunk.

He insisted these men all come from the province of Connaught to hopefully eliminate any of the internal Irish warfare settled in fist fights. He also made them abstain from liquor and attend Mass regularly.

A sober Irish Catholic? 

Just kidding.

Well, they had to remain alcohol-free while working in Kansas City.

Fr. Donnelly’s plea was answered even with all these ground rules. The Irish answered his call. Temporary one-story buildings, comfortably furnished, facing 6th St. running from Broadway to Bluff St. were constructed to house the Irish laborers. Aptly named, the area became known as Connaught Town.

These Irishmen, under the watchful eye of Fr. Donnelly, carved out the streets of Kansas City, virtually eliminating the bluffs and creating more land to settle south of the riverfront. These men were the first large population of Irish in Kansas City. Even though most moved on, some did stay. They started by carving out about 47 feet of earth in 1856 four streets back from the levee on Wyandotte, Main, Delaware and Market (Grand) Streets. The work would continue for years to come but greatly changed the topography and settlement of the city.

Immaculate Conception, built by Fr. Donnelly in 1857
Now the home of the Cathedral. 
In 1857, Fr. Donnelly took the ten acres where Fr. Roux’s log church, rectory and small cemetery stood and constructed the very first brick church in Kansas City. He used the labor of the Irishmen and the brickyard to make it happen along with the contributions of some of Kansas City's most prominent families to make it happen. It stood between 11th and 12th on Broadway and was 30x70 ft. The new church needed a new name; Immaculate Conception was chosen. Nearby, Donnelly’s modest four-room home stood, built irregularly- one room at a time. There was also a sexton’s cottage, two-stories high, one room on top of the other. 

The area was certainly growing, but peace and harmony was short-lived. History tells us that the Border Wars preceded the Civil War, and Kansas City was far from safe of its evil grasp.

Ironically, in 1862-63, Union Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing, Jr. was in charge of the District of the Border and had offices at Pacific House Hotel in Kansas City (and infamously put the area through hell in August 1863 when he evacuated most of the counties- read more about this here!) Fr. Donnelly had a personal connection to this family, as he taught in his hometown of Lancaster, Oh. and was friends with his father.

Mural of the Battle of Westport at the Missouri State Capital
Earlier in 1858, Thomas Ewing, Jr., his brother, Hugh and his brother-in-law, William Tecumseh Sherman moved to Ft. Leavenworth and practiced law.  It is said that William Tecumseh Sherman and Hugh Boyle Ewing, Thomas’ younger brother, would visit their old teacher, Fr. Donnelly in Kansas City.

Even though Thomas Ewing, Jr. was stationed in Kansas City, there is no evidence to suggest they were ever “friendly.”

Already dividing the area in half, the war waged on. As the war crept closer to the city, townspeople became nervous about their money and property. It was said that Confederate Gen. Sterling Price had taken the funds from banks in other places, and it was feared he would do the same as he approached Kansas City.

When an impending battle nearby, people rushed to the banks to gather their money and wished to conceal it in a safe spot. Feeling their homes could be looted, they went to someone they trusted.

Alter inside Immaculate Conception, built 1857
On the eve of the Battle of Westport in October 1864, a large number of men brought their fortunes to Fr. Donnelly. According to Bishop Lillis they were “bringing money in cans and jars and purses, asking Fr. Donnelly to take care of it for them until the trouble was over.”

He opened up a book to record what each person gave him, but he couldn’t keep up because so many showed up. That night, he contemplated where he should hide the loot trusted to him when the answer seemed clear. “Dead men rest untouched in the graveyard,” Fr. Donnelly concluded, “I will bury the people’s money in the cemetery.”

The cemetery ran along Pennsylvania Ave. from 11th to 12th St. In the dead of night, Fr. Donnelly awoke the sexton to help him bury the treasures of some of Kansas City's leading families. He found a plot of grass running along a pathway and removed the sod gingerly. He placed the treasure in the hole, hoping it would remain incognito.

Unfortunately, the sexton wasn’t as good at keeping secrets. Drunk at a local tavern, the sexton blabbered on about the buried treasure. Fr. Donnelly became concerned and went out before dawn to dig up the treasure once again and move it. After the Battle of Westport, he went to retrieve the buried box; however, no matter where he dug, he couldn’t find it. Hole after hole, he searched to no avail.

Distraught, Fr. Donnelly went to a local banker and borrowed money to pay back the people who had trusted him to keep their fortunes safe. For the rest of his life, it bothered him that he was unable to find the money he had buried.

The school, later known as St. Teresa's Academy as the first addition was
being built. Photo cir. 1869
Bishop Lillis wrote, “If it still remained in the earth perhaps by this time it has moldered into dust, or perhaps some digger’s spadeful of earth will yet reveal the secret.”

Fr. Donnelly continued to be a proponent for his Parish and for Kansas City. As the city progressed, he found the graveyard near the church, oftentimes referred to as "the old French cemetery" due to the early burials of those that settled in Chouteau's Town, were being infringed upon.

Starting in 1873, graves from this cemetery  were slowly moved to land Fr. Donnelly had purchased near current-day 22nd and Cleveland outside the city limits. Fr. Donnelly sold 40 acres of prime real estate in the Quality Hill neighborhood in order to make it happen. Today, this graveyard is named Mount St. Mary's Cemetery.

Photo showing the bones discovered
in 1986. Courtesy Kansas City Times
In June 1986, a surprise was about to be found under a parking lot in Quality Hill.

After the demolition of a building at the southwest corner of 11th and Jefferson, an employee noticed some bones emerging from the earth.

It turns out when Fr. Donnelly had all those graves moved- and many were already unmarked- he missed a few pieces. When the remains were discovered, the Diocese was quick to claim responsibility and reinterred the remains with the others at St. Mary’s.

When those bones popped up, treasure hunters’ eyes got wide. If that was leftover, maybe- just maybe- they’d find the old treasure Fr. Donnelly was unable to ever locate. Monsignor Arthur Tighe, history lover and local priest, told the Kansas City Star, “Maybe, just maybe, we’re going to uncover that. I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”

The treasure remains a mystery.

Besides building the very foundations of the Catholic church in Kansas City and carving out the bluffs, Fr. Donnelly spent the end of the Civil War calling out to the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet. These nuns were well-known for teaching school throughout the country. He took some of the money from the sale of the acreage in Quality Hill to ensure he could build a quality school. 
The bell that originally hung in the first Catholic
Church in Kansas City, a gift from Fr. Roux and
gifted by Donnelly to St. Teresa's where it remains today.

On August 4, 1866, six sisters came to Kansas City and organized a school called St. Joseph’s Academy at 12th and Washington. One year later, it was renamed St. Teresa’s Academy and moved to its current location at 5600 Main in 1909. The original bell from the church Fr. Roux built for Chouteau’s Town is today on display at St. Teresa’s.

In addition to civic duties and the help of organizing St. Teresa’s, Fr. Donnelly also started two orphanages, a school in the West Bottoms and helped with funding and planning for the Hannibal Bridge.

On December 14, 1880, Fr. Donnelly took his last breath. His decades-long legacy in Kansas City helped establish more than just the Catholic church in the area; he was an engineer whose visions brought the Irish to the city in order to carve out the future.

The Kansas City Star reported upon his death, “Simple, unaffected, charitable, tolerant, brave, patient, devoted. . . Fr. Donnelly’s life was a blessing to the community, and at once an example and an inspiration to the busy people among whom he had lived and toiled. . . [His] life work was a noble one, and its blessings will be experienced in the city for years to come.”

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception today
In 1882, Bishop Hogan laid the cornerstone for a new cathedral just to the west of Fr. Donnelly’s church at 11th and Broadway. He had selected this location to be the future site for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception named in honor of Fr. Donnelly’s first brick church in Kansas City. It was completed in 1883.

Today, in a small parking lot next to the Cathedral, Fr. Donnelly’s contributions to the city are showcased on a black marker missed by most everyone as they speed down Broadway and blast past the Quality Hill neighborhood. In part, it reads, “He was universally respected as a religious and civic leader, and as a friend to all, regardless of creed or color.”

Fr. Bernard Donnelly’s legacy in Kansas City is past the priesthood. He connected the pioneer beginnings to the modern era – with an eye on development that forever changed the landscape of the city we all love and cherish.

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