Old Jesuit Mission

Taken from “The Old Jesuit Mission in Council Bluffs,” written in 1916

The location of the mission buildings and attached graveyard was mainly in the two blocks now bounded by Broadway on the north, Voorhis Street on the south, Union Street on the east and Franklin Avenue and State Street on the west.   Pierce Street now intersects the site.  No doubt the graveyard, which is mentioned by Father De Smet in his correspondence, and which continued in use after the abandonment of the mission, overlapped these boundaries, as the finding of bodies indicates.  On the northern block, the Clausen residence, an old-time building, stand approximately on the spot of the old mission church; the rear block is now occupied by the Pierce public school.  The missionary hill has been cut through by two intersecting streets and graded down considerably for streets and building sites.

The mission came to be founded in this way:  In 1837, the United States Goverment removed the Pottawatomie Indians from Illinois and Indiana to the new territory assigned to them in and about Council Bluffs.  The Jesuit fathers of St. Louis, having been asked to assist in the civilizing and Christianizing of the Indians, Fathers Peter De Smet and Felix Verreydt, accompanied by Brother Andrew Mazzelli, plowed their way up the silty Missouri River and, on May 31, 1838, reached the boat landing of Council Bluffs.  The landing at that time was situated to the west of Council Bluffs, but almost directly south in or about Lake Manawa, which was then only a big bend in the channel of the river.

From a letter of Father De Smet written in June 1838, to his superior in St. Louis we learn that on arriving at the Council Bluffs landing the missionaries found assembled some two thousand Indians and a number of French half-breeds, who had gathered to see the boat come in, but their welcome was cold – only two coming forward to shake hands.  The missionaries were at once escorted four miles from the river to the camp of the Irish half-breed chief, Billy Caldwell.  The distance of four miles given by Father De Smet corresponds very closely to the distance of the landing from the verified site, according to the map prepared from surveys made in 1851-1852 by the government and published by Charles H. Babbitt.  Father De Smet adds: “The Chief has given us possession of three cabins and we have changed the fort which Colonel Kearney has given us into a church.”

The mention of this fort, which was not a fort but a blockhouse, is interesting, and around it many legends more orless unreliable have gathered.  The true story of it, as appears from official documents in Early Days in Council Bluffs, is as follows:  In 1837, Colonel Kearney of Fort Leavenworth directed Captain Moore to march Company C, First U. S. Dragoons, to the Pottawatomie country and “throw up a blockhouse of one story, about twenty-five feet square…with a sufficient number of loopholes” the main object being to give confidence to the migrating Indians and afford them protection.  Captain Moore afterwards reported officially that he had arrived on August 4, 1837, at a point near Belle-View on the esat side of the Missouri River, erected the blockhouse and remained until November first, when he broke camp and marched back to Fort Leavenworth.

After the departure of the troops, there was apparently no further need of the blockhouse and Colonel Kearney turned it over to the Jesuit missionaries, who converted it into a church.  This modest church edifice was the sole place of Catholic worship in Council Bluffs for many years.  it was still in existence in 1855 when Father William Edmonds was resident pastor, as he afterwards related to Father Kempker.  Father De Smet mentions that the drinking of spring water at first made the community ill.  The spring which was probably used, still exists at the foot of the hill a few feet southwest from the corner of Broadway and Union Street.

The two priests, with the help of two lay brothers, for in addition to Brother Mazzelli, Brother George Miles had come upon the scene in the capacity of gardener, had good success for a time in putting a semblance of Christianity into the wild frontier outpost.  They had their church “twenty-four feet square, surmounted with a little belfry,” and four poor log cabins “fourteen feet each way with roofs of rude rafters which protect us from neither rain nor hail and still less from the snow in winter time.”  Immediately a school was opened and thirty children were received, there being no accommodation for more.  On the feast of the Assumption, August 15th, a grand ceremony took place and “twelve young neophytes, who three months before had no idea of the law of God, sang mass in a manner truly edifying.”

However, in the midst of their success, the missionaries suffered a bitter disappointment, which is thus related by Father De Smet: “Our Superior sent us from St. Louis goods to the amount of five hundred dollars, in ornaments for the church, a tabernacle, a bell, and provisions and clothes for a year.  I had been for a long time without shoes and from Easter (March 31st) we were destitute of supplies.   All the Pottawatomie nation were suffering from scarcity, having only acorns and a few wild roots for their whole stock of food.  At last, about the 20th of April, they announced to us that the much-desired boat was approaching.  Already we saw it from the highest of our hills.  I procured without delay two carts to go for our baggage.   I reached there in time to witness a very sad sight.  The vessell had struck on a sawyer, was pierced and was rapidly sinking in the waves.  The confusion that reigned in the boat was great, but happily no lives were lost.***Of our effects, four articles were saved:  a plow, a saw, a pair of boots and some wine.  Providence was still favorable to us.  With the help of the plow, we were enabled to plant a large field of corn; it was the season for furrowing.  We are using the saw to build a better house and enlarge our church, already too small.  With my boots, I can walk in the woods and prairies without fear of being bitten by the snakes which throng there.   And the wine permits us to offer to God every day the most holy sacrifice of the Mass, a privilege that had been denied to us during a long time.  We therefore returned with courage and resignation to the acorns and roots until the 30th of May.”

The terrible effects of drunkenness are graphically described in Father De Smet’s diary of Augsut 19th and 20th, 1839:  “Annuities $90,000.   Divided to the Indians.  Great gala.  Wonderful scrapings of traders to obtain their Indian credits.  Since the day of payment, drunkards are seen and heard in all places.  Liquor is rolled out to the Indians by whole barrels; sold even by whites even in the presence of the agent.  Wagon loads of the abominable stuff arrive daily daily from the settlements and along with it the very dregs of our white neighbors and voageurs of the mountains, drunkards, gamblers, etc.  Three horses have been brought to the ground and killed with axes.  Two more noses were bitten off and a score of other horrible mutilations have taken place.  One has been murdered.   Two women are dangerously ill of bad usage.”  This account of crime embraced only two days; the orgy continued as long as whiskey was to be had.  Thus it may be said the settlement became a hell on earth.  It is to Father De Smet’s credit that he wrote a strong letter to the government authorities depicting the terrible effects of the whiskey on the red man, and protesting against official inaction in the matter.   That no efficient measure was taken to stop the horrible abuse until years later was certainly not attributable to him, and had his advice been followed, the Indians would have been saved terrible suffering and injury.

However, notwithstanding all the obstacles, the mission prospered and did good work for the uplift of humanity.  It was the one saving influence in a community which recognized the law of neither God nor man, and where trader and savage vied with each other in indulging the vilest passions of the human heart.  The mission and its activities stood as a breakwater for good against utter license.   Conversions were made and hundreds were received into the chruch.  Among those baptized was the boy, Logan Fontenelle, who afterwards became chief of the Omahas, and died fighting against the Sioux.

Father De Smet made several trips from Council Bluffs to distant Indian nations.  He paints the return journey from one of them in vivid colors which give us some idea of the apostolic hardships and dangers which fell to the lot of the brave missionaries.  “The 14th of November (1840) I embarked upon the Missouri in a canoe, for my horse was worn out with fatigue and was unable to carry me farther.   The snow and the cold that followed filled the stream with ice-cakes, which, striking upon the snags of which the river is full, rendered navigation double dangerous.   We were still three hundred miles from Council Bluffs; ***five times we were at the point of perishing by being overturned among the numerous snags upon which the ice floes dragged us despite all our efforts.  We passed ten days in this dangerous and disquieting navigation, sleeping on sandbars at night and taking only two meals, evening and morning; besides, we had nothing in the way of food but frozen potatoes and a little fresh meat.  The very night of our arrival at Council Bluffs the river closed.”

Reaching Council Bluffs on November 24th, our missionary was disheartened at the ravages which during his absence had overtaken the mission, from drunkenness on the one hand and the hostile invasion of the Sioux on the other.  The mission Indians were almost entirely dispersed.  At the same time he notes, Fathers Verreydt and Christian Hoecken were busying themselves with the care of fifty families which still remained faithful.

The mission was continued until the following summer, when to supply the demands from tmore promising fields of labor it was abandoned as a permanent residence.  In a letter to the writer, dated January 5th, 1916, the Reverend Gilbert Garraghan, of the St. Louis University, says:  “The last entry in the baptismal register of the Council Bluffs mission bears date July 17th, 1841.  Hence the mission must have been closed in the summer of 1841, when the Fathers in charge were moved to Sugar Creek in Kansas.”

The Reverend Michael A. Shine is authority for the statement that Father Christian Hoecken after that time made annual visits to the old mission until the Pottawatomies were removed to Kansas in 1847.

St. Joseph’s Mission in Council Bluffs was the first appointment of Father De Smet to a missionary post; and thus Omaha and its environs can claim the distinction of having harbored at the beginning of his career the greatest and most successful blackrobe that the United States has ever known – a man whose name in his lifetime was a household word in every Indian wigwam from the Mississippi to the northern Pacific, in American Catholic homes, in government circles and army posts and throught a great portion of Europe.  Time and again, he was called upon by army officers, Indian agents and even by the president himself to help straighten out the Indian tangles and wars into which the government so often blundered.

Some unknown writer in the Creighton University Reminiscences says:  “Fear, Father De Smet was not acquainted with, whether danger confronted him in the form of small-pox, Indians or starvation.  Enmity he did not know.   He hated sin, but not a sinner of the camp was too ignoble for him to love.   As friend, as pioneer, as physician, as teacher, as priest, he was loved.”

Nineteen times the Council Bluffs missionary crossed the stormy Atlantic and in all he made twenty-four long sea voyages.  The distance traveled by him in his apostolic journeys from 1821 to 1872 is said to have been 260,929 miles.    The people of Termonde in Belgium have erected a beautiful statue to his memory, and is it too much to hope that some historical society or similar body will soon mark the ite of the first church and school of western Iowa by a suitable memorial before its memory be obliterated by the hand of time?

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