March 27, 2017
Sometimes once is not enough. That’s the conclusion after a second day in small-town Erie, Kansas. I would have ridden on after a single night, but the National Weather Service originally predicted a 90 percent chance of rain. Over the course of the evening and night, however, that was reduced to 80, 70 and finally to 50 percent. In fact, only blustery winds and occasional brief periods of raindrops actually occurred. I believe the meteorologists would call it a lack of upper level support, but to the layperson it was simply a matter of the forecast being mostly wrong.
In the end it mattered little. I had an appointment at the library at 9:30 to speak with someone from the local newspaper, who turned out to be a young intern rather baffled by the nature of my trip. The interview was short and polite. I turned to leave, and there again was my Erie guardian angel, Bill Lock. “You know, I got to thinking,” he said. “You didn’t get the whole picture yesterday. You need to look at what was here before the settlers.”
And so we were off again in the car, this time to the neighboring town of St. Paul nine miles to the southeast. And as usual, Bill was right. While Erie is a good example of the history of European settlement of Southeast Kansas, St. Paul provides a sort of prequel. Originally known as Osage Mission, it was one of the first permanent settlements, founded in 1847 by Jesuit priests seven years before there was an organized Kansas Territory. They were soon followed by nuns, members of the Sisters of Loretto. Not long afterward, they opened the Osage Manual Labor School, for the express purpose of educating the native population of both genders.
Local resident and former school principal Felix Diskin, volunteer at the Osage Mission Museum, related the remarkable story of the Osage tribal leaders, who as early as 1820 sent a delegation to St. Louis seeking a school for their people. As Felix put it, “They were extremely proud and tied to their traditional ways, but they realized that the world was changihng for the children.”
The boarding schools, one for boys, the other for girls, but sharing a common setting, survived almost into the 20th century, by which time the natives had mostly been relocated to neighboring Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Times were hard. Kansas was a largely lawless region that suffered frequent raids by partisans and irregulars on both sides of the Civil War, and the Osage, whose loyalties were divided as well, were a frequent target. White settlers tried, and sometimes succeeded, at cheating the natives out of land that had been promised to them. Yet the good fathers and sisters persevered, becoming the nucleus for a close-knit Catholic community that eventually was majority-European. They dreamed of erecting a magnificent church of native sandstone, which took a total of 12 years to construct, with a wooden steeple added in 1905. Today the spire of St. Francis de Hieronymo can be seen on the horizon from lower-lying ground at a distance of seven or eight miles.
The museum is a treasure trove of source material waiting for Native American scholars and history buffs. A curious addition houses a collection of stuffed and mounted big game animals from all over the world, the legacy of a resident who grew up in the area and later founded a successful business in Wichita, and a reminder of the days when such hunting was allowed and even celebrated.
As for the church, it remains ornately decorated and carefully maintained, a testament to the generosity and craftsmanship of European immigrants who wanted a permanent monument that would proclaim their faith for the ages. It’s surprisingly large for a community of such small size, holding nearly the entire population of St. Paul. Felix mentioned that for Christmas Eve mass it fills to overflowing with residents and visitors who return from some distance to their roots. His pride was not at all overblown.
I finally left Erie the next morning for the long (for me) 58-mile ride to Garnett, Kansas. Again the weather forecasters got it wrong. They promised a cloudy and somewhat chilly but dry day. Instead the second half of my ride (I only got off the bike a total of three times) was marked by a long, light steady rain that, even if I stayed relatively dry in my rain gear, made me grateful to arrive at my destination.
An 1880s log cabin at the Osage Mission Museum. It was found inside a collapsing grain storage building at an abandoned farm.
The magnificent St. Francis de Hieronymo Catholic Church in St. Paul, Kansas:
The ornately decorated and lovingly preserved interior of the church:
Stuffed and mounted African big game at the Osage Mission Museum annex:
Today this would never be allowed, but it remains as a historical artifact:
A view of the Kansas prairie from the Prairie Spirit Rail Trail, slow riding for me but so much a part of nature and the region: