The roots of Catholicism in western Missouri go back to French fur traders and trappers who ventured along the rivers to make their fortunes. As early as 1723, Father Jean Baptiste Mercier established a Catholic presence at Ft. Orleans, located along the Missouri River in what is now Carroll County. Because of a hostile environment, the French abandoned the fort in 1729. Diocesan archives confirm that by 1822 another Catholic community took root in Papinsville, in the southeastern part of Bates County.
Newlyweds Fransois and Berenice Chouteau left their St. Louis home in 1819 to extend the supply lines of the family's fur-trading business. Traveling the Missouri River by boat, the young French couple selected a site for their trading post at the mouth of the Kaw River in what would become Missouri.
As other French families arrived and settled near the Chouteaus, the compound grew into a small village. Francois and Berenice were resolute Catholics and kept their traditions alive. The Chouteaus also established warm relations with the native peoples and, in fact, during a cholera epidemic, Berenice took up residence with the Indians to provide respite care. She sewed burial shrouds and brought comfort to survivors.
Periodically, traveling missionaries stopped in the village and ministered to the people in the Chouteaus' warehouse at Second and Cherry Streets. Historical markers along the Missouri River bluffs and on the grounds at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, at 11th and Broadway, in downtown Kansas City, testify to the origins of the church in the region.
The area that is now the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph originally was part of the Diocese of Quebec. After the Louisiana Purchase and the beginning of the Westward expansion, church authority transferred to the then-Diocese of St. Louis in 1826. By 1828, the first priest arrived in what is now Kansas City. Father Joseph Lutz came to establish a mission for the Kansa Indians. Additionally, Father Lutz established a school and used his Bible as the classroom text. He taught students in his Kawsmouth congregation to read and solve basic arithmetic problems.
Signatures of many Jesuit priests appear in the sacramental records from the region. In 1823, Jesuits came to Missouri and established missions among the Indians. They learned native dialects and cultivated friendships. Notable among these missionaries was Father Pierre DeSmet, christened "Blackrobe" by the native people. According to the Platte County Historical Society, Father DeSmet visited Weston in 1825. When Holy Trinity Parish opened in 1842, it served Catholics along an 80 mile strip from Easton to Weston -- literally named for being on the west end of United States territory.
A Permanent Parish
In 1833, a French missionary priest, Father Benedict Roux, arrived with instructions to form a permanent parish. For $6, Roux purchased 40 acres of land at what is now 11th and Broadway. On this site, the community built a log cabin church in 1835. Historians refer to this as Chouteau's Church and, later, St. John Francis Regis Church. Also during this period, Catholic communities took root in Liberty, Plattsburg, St. Joseph and Weston.
Marked by the California Gold Rush, the Irish Potato Famine, and political turmoil in Europe, the 1840s saw European immigrants move across the plains. Waves of trappers, fur traders and homesteaders laid the foundation of the westward expansion. Even with towns in place and a robust economy, very few of the early Catholic settlers came from the merchant class.
Noteworthy among early priests was Father Bernard Donnelly. Born in County Cavan, Ireland, but ordained in 1845 in St. Louis, Father Donnelly began as a circuit-riding priest. Until his death in 1880, he tirelessly served the Catholic people of the region. Considered a civic visionary, Donnelly saw the future of the city rising above the river. Toward that end, he spearheaded the building of a permanent brick structure at 11th and Broadway in 1857. To accomplish this, he recruited 300 Irish day laborers from the East Coast. Together, they cut away the bluffs, leveled the ground and established a brick works. The brick yard produced building material for the cathedral, paved surrounding streets, and also supplied other developers with needed material.
Roubidoux' Trading Post
Just six years after the Chouteaus arrived, another fur trader floated up the Missouri. A merchant by trade, Joseph Roubidoux unloaded his first boatload of goods at Black Snake Hills in 1825. Roubidoux settled alongside Native American people who had for centuries made the river their trade route. By 1843, Roubidoux' trading post had become St. Joseph, Missouri, named for his patron saint.
Another Irish-born priest, Father Thomas Scanlan, arrived in St. Joseph in 1845. He took his pulpit at St. Joseph Parish, which later became the Cathedral of St. Joseph. A circuit-rider, Father Scanlan ministered to railroad construction workers, trail crews and small farming communities across northwestern Missouri.
In 1860, St. Joseph was in the right place at the right time. With the completion of the rail line to St. Joseph, a plan emerged to bring messages from the East by rail to St. Joseph; the message then went to Sacramento by riders on fleet horses. This "Pony Express" was the link from the center of commerce in the east to the boom towns of the west.
As the memory of the Civil War faded, hardships gave way to rapid development. Warehouses and packing houses sprang up in St. Joseph to accommodate wholesalers, and Kansas City became the destination for livestock.
Diocese of St. Joseph a Gateway to the West
As the region made its mark as the gateway to the West, the Vatican created the Diocese of St. Joseph in 1868, appointing Father John Joseph Hogan as founding bishop. When he arrived in St. Joseph, he inspected the brick church built by Father Scanlan and philanthropist John Corby and pronounced it inadequate for use as a cathedral. With a floor built below street level, the church was in the path of rainwater run-off and periodically filled with mud. A nearby creek flooded routinely and attracted a herd of wild hogs to stake claim to nearby woods. The hogs had staked claim to the church's exterior walls as a scratching post, and the new bishop remarked, "We should give the hogs a prize for church attendance."
Civic booster John Corby led the drive to fund a fitting cathedral at 10th and Isadore, in St. Joseph. On March 17, 1871, the Feast of St. Patrick, the community gathered to dedicate the newly built, Romanesque cathedral.
Bishop Hogan, Founding Bishop of Second Diocese
With the opening of the first railroad bridge across the Missouri River in 1869, Kansas City became a hub for transportation and the booming livestock market. In 1880, the Vatican formed the Diocese of Kansas City and named Bishop Hogan founding bishop. In 1882, he laid the cornerstone for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, at 11th and Broadway. Bishop Hogan continued to administer the Diocese of St. Joseph until the installation of Bishop Maurice F. Burke in July 1893.
The profile of the Catholic Church in northwestern Missouri continued to change with massive immigration in the early 19th century. Catholic parishes, schools, hospitals and homes expanded the growing city directories of Kansas City, St. Joseph and surrounding communities.
In the first half of the 20th Century, Catholic population in the two dioceses grew considerably. In 1955, the Diocese of Kansas City reported 85,000 Catholics in 103 parishes, and the Diocese of St. Joseph served more than 37,500, who attended 64 parishes. Catholic schools in the combined region educated more than 24,700 students.
Vatican Creates the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph
On August 29, 1956, the Vatican announced a total reorganization of the Missouri dioceses.
In addition to carving out new Sees in Jefferson City and Springfield-Cape Girardeau, the restructuring joined the Dioceses of St. Joseph and Kansas City. Archbishop Edwin V. O'Hara, third bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City, took the helm of the newly formed diocese as its first bishop.
At the time of the merger, Bishop Charles LeBlond led the Diocese of St. Joseph. Owing to LeBlond's failing health, Coadjutor Bishop John P. Cody already was managing day-to-day operation of church business. The Vatican named him to succeed Archbishop O'Hara as bishop of the new Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph. The untimely death of Archbishop O'Hara on September 11, 1956, left the task of unifying the two dioceses to Bishop Cody.
The new diocese encompassed 15,429 square miles in 27 counties in the northwest portion of Missouri. Today, the Catholic people of the diocese number 135,966. Their spiritual homes consist of 97 parishes and missions.