475 Years of Catholicism in Kansas
The Catholic Church is the longest active religion (outside of Native American faiths) in Kansas. Priests were present on the very earliest journeys of European exploration in the area, followed by longer-lasting and more organized missions. Euroamerican immigration swelled the ranks of Catholics in the area over the 19th century, and gradually new mission stations, and then parishes, spread throughout the state. Over the past 475 years, the Catholic Church has grown to become the religion with the largest membership in Kansas.
Martyrs, Missionaries, and Saints
Catholisim arrived in Kansas with a Spanish Franciscan priest, Father Juan de Padilla. De Padillia accompanied Coronado on his Quivira expedition of 1542 (1). Father Padilla became the first Catholic martyr in the nation when he left Coronado's expedition to work among the Native populations as was subsequently killed (2).
The Catholic faith was prominent among missionaries in the West, and they were as active on the Kansas frontier as anywhere. Catholics sent missionaries into what is now Kansas as early as 1822. A number of mission outposts and Catholic schools were opened in subsequent decades, reaching out to the Kaw, Osage, Kickapoo, and Pottawatomi nations.
In the 1830s, a group of Potawatomi who survived the Trail of Death, a forced march from Indiana, settled in Sugar Creek near Mound City, Kansas. The Potawatomi had been exposed to Christianity previously and were receptive to the Jesuits, who opened a school for Native American boys in 1840. The Religious of the Sacred Heart opened a school for girls a year later.
Among the Religious of the Sacred Heart who evangelized the area was Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne, now a saint. She could not speak the Potawatomi language but made a lasting impression through her example of nursing the sick and praying. She was known among the Potawatomi as “the woman who prays always” (3).
In 1849, the Catholic Church decided that a more vigorous missionary effort was required and in 1850 Pope Pius IX established the Vicariate Apostolic East of the Rocky Mountains – more than one million square miles from the Missouri River to the Rockies and from Canada to Texas. Father John Baptist Miege, SJ, was assigned to lead the vicariate. He was consecrated a bishop on March 25, 1851, in St. Louis as the first bishop of the new vicariate (4).
Kansas-Nebraska Act and Increasing Immigration
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 altered the nature of Catholicism in the state. Originally establishing a presence for the sole purpose of providing missionaries to Native Americans, the Catholic Church now had to contend with rapid and dispersed settlement of the area by Euroamericans. Parishes grew quickly, and a new center for the Church in the state was located in Leavenworth. Bishop Miege soon established stations to accommodate itinerant priests. The time between missionary visits to various communities ranged from weeks in the far eastern part of the territory to once or twice a year farther west and south. Among the towns that managed to grow enough to earn settled priests were Wyandotte Village (1858) and Lawrence (1859).
The Civil War and Boom Years of Kansas Immigration
During the years of the Civil War, Kansas doubled the number of priests within its boundaries and expanded social services. Catholic immigrants moved into areas served by missionary stations, allowing for the establishment of churches and resident priests. Growth in the Atchison Catholic community demanded parochial schools, with St. Benedict's College founded to prepare men for the priesthood and Benedictine sisters staffing a day and boarding school for children of parishoners. An orphanage, St. Vincent's Home, and the first non-military hospital, St. John's Hospital, were opened by sisters in the Leavenworth area. Other areas, like the new capital city of Topeka, as well as the German community of Eudora, became towns with established Catholic churches and resident priests.
The Homestead Act, passed during the Civil War, attracted large numbers of immigrants to Kansas, bolstered by the expansion of the railroads. As Catholic immigrants arrived in large numbers, more priests were required to establish missions to serve settlers. Emporia was ideally located a railroad crossroads, and Wichita and Solomon received resident priests. A popular phrase of the day had it that, "There is no Sunday west of Junction City and no God west of Salina" (5). Once a priest was established at Solomon, however, conditions of the Catholic settlers slowly began to improve. By 1874 the vicariate had 48 priests serving 55 churches. The influx of settlers also altered the Church's original missions. Many original American Indian missions, like St. Mary's and the Osage Mission, became almost exclusively devoted to non-Native Americans.
The rapid population growth of Catholic immigrants soon could not be matched by religious orders and priests. As a result, Bishop Fink attempted to organize the Catholic immigration by proposing national colonies, settlements of specific ethnic groups of Catholics. Settlements in specific areas, Fink believed, could be served by resident priests more easily than scattered settlements could. National colonies could also reduce the number of languages any one priest needed to know to serve his parishioners properly, thus solving another challenge to the staff of the vicariate (6).
The Volga-German settlement in Ellis County (Victoria, Kansas) and the Irish colony of St. Coumbkille's (Blaine) in Potawatomi County are examples of the national settlements that Bishop Fink sought to encourage. Schools and monastic institutions soon followed in these enclaves, and the new immigrant community populations grew. By 1874, Bishop Fink reported that the Kansas vicariate's Catholic population was 45,000 and growing daily, with more than 60 priests serving over 80 new churches.
The 1890s brought another wave of immigration as southern and eastern Europeans came to Kansas City seeking employment in the meat-packing industry. These immigrants differed from those that had previously arrived, as they remained in the urban centers. Croatians began arriving in 1888 and moved into "The Patch" located in the Kansas City Bottoms area near the railroad tracks. A major flood inundated the area the following year and many of the Catholic Croatians moved to what is now known as Strawberry Hill (7). St. John the Baptist Catholic Church was constructed in 1905, and within two years a Croatian Catholic School, the first in the US, was established. Strawberry Hill remains an area well known for maintaining many ways of the Croatian "old country," though the construction of the intercity viaduct in 1957 split the neighborhood in half and resulted in the demolition of many homes on the hill (8).
Innovations for and Growth of Faith Communities
By the late 1870s Kansas had many strong Catholic communities, along with a good variety of support institions -- parochial schools, religious communities, a hospital, and an orphanage among them. By 1887 the Catholic population was substantial enough to merti the division of the Leavenworth Diocese into three dioceses, the new ones being headquartered at Wichita and Concordia.
Though the number of churches rapidly increased in the more settled parts of Kansas, many Catholics in the western area of the state remained priestess. This situation inspired the establishment of the national Catholic Church Extension Society of the United States of America (CCES). CCES debuted its St. Anthony's Chapel Car in June of 1907. St. Anthony's was a custom built railroad car complete with a chapel seating 50 people, living space for missionaries and staff, a library, and a full kitchen as well as its own electric generator (9). The chapel car toured towns along the railroad lines in the Wichita diocese and many parishes were later developed in areas where the car generated large turnouts (10).
20th Century and Present-Day Catholism in Kansas
The 20th century heralded many changes for Catholicism in Kansas. Parochial schools were a major focus of many parishes, and by 1933 the three Kansas diocese had over 200 parochial elementary and high schools, and the number of parochial schools and students attending them continued to increase through the middle of the century. The 1950s marked the transition of Catholic diocesan geography into its current format, with the creation of a fourth diocese based in Dodge City. The Diocese of Leavenworth was elevated to Archdiocesan status and moved to Kansas City, Kansas in 1952 (11). In 1968, the Archdiocese of Kansas City reported to the Kansas Council of Churches that there were 316,295 Catholics in the state's 352 parishes (12). As options began to multiply for young women in the 1950s and 60s, however, fewer chose to become nuns and the number of initiates into female orders began to rapidly decrease. As women's orders were the primary source of staffing for parochial education systems, schools were forced to rely on more expensive lay teachers. As a result, school tuition rose and fewer families were able to afford a parochial education. Simultaneously, the active Catholic population in general was beginning to decline.
Catholicism in Kansas and elsewhere has undergone major changes in the last few decades as the church works to update and renew itself in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and as controversies over ecclesiastical and social issues take their toll on what once was a unified and orderly community. Oral histories on this exhibit page tell the stories of several Catholic Kansans, sharing their individual and varied experiences with the Catholic faith, churches, and communities. Catholicism is still strong in Kansas, however, and has seen a resurgence in several areas.
The original boys and girls' schools established in Atchison in the 1850s and 60s would merge in 1971 to form Benedictine College, an accredited liberal arts college. The college serves to educate young men and women, with a focus on peace, faith, and stewardship. Recent efforts, including the Benedictine 2020 campagin, saw the endowment double and the college become "one of the great American Catholic Colleges" (13). The college continues sponsorship by the original orders which founded the two schools in Atchison, the monks of St. Benedict's Abbey and the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica.
St. Marys, Kansas is home to a chapter of the Society of St. Pius X, or SSPX. Named for the early-20th-century pope who railed against some forces of modernism, the international order of priests formed in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Though not fully recognized by the Vatican, the priests of SSPX see themselves as defenders of true practices of Roman Catholicism, including traditional Latin Mass, celebrated each day in St. Marys. In their four decades in St. Marys, the followers of SSPX have more than doubled the town’s size. Even with six Masses on Sundays, parishioners fill the Society’s chapel to capacity, so overflow services are held in the gym of the Society’s academy (14).
The Catholic Church remains the largest religious organization in the state. It has adapted to serve the needs of parishioners through the decades, changing and growing with Kansas and her citizens. Though it has faced declining numbers in the past sixty years, communities like St. Marys, Kansas and educational institutions like Benedictine College show that Catholicism continues to maintain a strong and devoted presence in Kansas.
Parts of this exhibit page were adapted from "450 Years of Catholicism in Kansas" by Mercedes Taylor-Puckett in "Religious Kansas: Chapters in a History." Read the entire chapter on Catholicism in Kansas by clicking on the link.
1. "Catholic First Things in Kansas." Kansas Historical Quarterly 8:2 (May 1939), 208-12.
2. Evangeline Thomas, CSJ. "The Catholic Church in Kansas." Kansas: the First Century. ed. John D. Bright. v 2 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1956), 327.
3. "A Brief History." The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. (2017. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://www.archkck.org/history.
5. Peter Beckman, OSB. "The Catholic Church on the Kansas Frontier 1850-1877" (Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, 1943), 105.
6. Ibid., 134.
7. Susan Greenbaum. Strawberry Hill: A Neighborhood Study. (Kansas City, Kansas: Wyandotte County Community Development Project, 1987), 8.
8. Ibid., 12.
9. Timothy F. Wenzel. The Centennial of Sacred Heart Parish, 1882-1982: Mission to Cathedral. (Dodge City: Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish, 1982), 26.
10. Ibid., 24-26.
11. Evangeline Thomas, CSJ. "The Catholic Church in Kansas." Kansas: the First Century. ed. John D. Bright. v 2 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1956), 346.
12. Handbook of Kansas Churches. (Topeka: Division of Church Planning of the Kansas Council of Churches, 1968), inside cover.
13. "Lists and Rankings." Benedictine College. (2020). Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.benedictine.edu/about/rankings/index.
14. Emma Green. "The Christian Withdrawl Experiment." The Atlantic. (January/February 2020). Accessed October 13, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/01/retreat-christian-soldiers/603043/.