Christianity Comes to Pawnee County Area Part 1
Thirty –nine years after Columbus discovered America, Spanish missionaries came to plant the cross on Pawnee Rock. History remembers the coming of Father Juan de Padilla OSF who with the help of Quivera Indians was the first to erect a cross in Kansas territory in 1541. Father Padilla had accompanied Coronado through New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The first Mass was celebrated along Highway 154, a few miles east of the present Dodge City.
Fast forward to the 19th century when Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy traveled Kansas over the Santa Fe trail eleven times between 1850 and 1880. He served as Archbishop of Santa Fe from 1875 to 1885 and would have administered the sacraments at a stop at Fort Larned.
Twenty-eight counties in south west Kansas formed the Apostolic Vicariate of Indian Territory east of the Rockies, measuring 1250 miles from north to south and 60 miles east and west; this included the area which came to be known as Kansas. The first Vicar Apostolic appointed was Father John Baptiste Miege who served from July 23, 1850 to 1874. The Vicariate became known as the Leavenworth diocese in 1877 and Bishop Louis Mary Fink O.S.B. became the first bishop of this vast territory.
A missionary station was established at Fort Larned by Father Philip Colleton S.J. in 1868. He served the needs of Catholics along the Santa Fe Trail, especially soldiers and railroad workers. He built nine small churches in what was to become the Wichita diocese and helped to settle 840 Catholic families. A circuit station was established at Fort Larned and was served by Father Paul Ponziglione S.J. in the late 1800’s. When his friend Bishop Miege travelled to Kansas in 1851, Father Ponziglione accompanied him to begin his own work among Indians at the Osage Mission.
A youthful graduate of the Colonial Seminary of the Holy Ghost in Paris, Felix Prosper Swembergh was recruited for service for the Vicariate Apostolic of Kansas. He was ordained by Bishop John Baptiste Meige in 1868, and soon began his missionary journeys into areas along the Arkansas River in Kansas, especially to Fort Zarah of Larned. His earliest sacramental record within the territorial boundaries of the Diocese of Dodge City was the baptism of Anna Ryan, daughter of Jacob and Marie Ryan on February 7, 1873 at Larned City. Father Swemburgh resided In Great Bend and ministered in Pawnee Rock and Fort Larned from 1873 to 1877. When soldiers were withdrawn from the fort in 1878, Father Swembergh established a station six miles east of Larned. Father Swembergh worked tirelessly with the Santa Fe Railroad to encourage Catholic colonies to locate in western Kansas. From 1878 to 1912, Larned was served by missionary priests from Windhorst, Olmitz, Great Bend, and Seward.
In 1887, the Leavenworth Diocese was divided into the Wichita diocese and the diocese of Concordia. Pawnee County was included in the diocese of Wichita and Bishop J. J.Hennessey was appointed the first bishop of the thirty-seven counties in the diocese.
Part 2 And now the building of the first place of worship for the people of this area…
Part 2 Christianity Comes to Pawnee County Area
The first Catholic church built in Pawnee County was built under the tutelage of Father Bernard Vonderlage, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church of Windhorst. In the mid 1880’s, as part of the Homestead Act, a group of Irish and German settlers had moved to an area between Larned and Belpre. The church was located five miles east of what is now the abandoned town of Zook. This church was a simple frame building and dedicated to St. Agnes, but was usually called “The Dublin Church.” In the late 1890’s, a storm damaged the building and it was abandoned. St. Agnes then became a station, that is, it was located on a priest’s itinerary but had no church; Mass was usually celebrated in a family home. The station was served by priests from St. Rose of Lima Church in Great Bend from 1898 to 1912.
But the little church of St. Agnes had a second and even a third life. In the fall of 1899, the church was taken apart in sections and reassembled on donated land in the northwest part of Belpre. It was rededicated in April of 1901. St. Agnes served as the Belpre church until a new building, St. Bernard Church, was constructed and dedicated in 1906. Fire completely destroyed this church; again the little St. Agnes served as a temporary place of worship until a new building was dedicated in 1927.
With the encouragement of Father Dennis Healy, pastor of Seward, the parishioners of Larned constructed their first place of worship in the town of Larned in 1912. Dedication took place on October 24, 1912. The new red brick building located on the corner of State and 11th Street was called Sacred Heart Church. Still a mission church, the Catholics were served by the pastors from Seward and Kinsley.
In 1923, Father John F. Kraemer was named the first resident pastor of Sacred Heart Parish. A parish school was opened in 1936 while Father Thomas O’Brien was pastor. The Dominican Sisters who staffed the school shared a large two- story building where the first floor was used for classrooms and the upper floor was the Sisters’ residence.
While Msgr. A.F. Preisner was pastor from 1949 to 1966, the parish had made considerable growth and several building projects were initiated. A new school and temporary chapel combination was blessed in 1950. The temporary chapel served the parish until the completion of the 520-seat church and rectory was constructed and dedicated on December 11, 1960.
At various times the pastor(s) at Sacred Heart also ministered in St. Joseph Memorial Hospital, in the State Hospital facilities, in local health care centers, and in the Belpre parish. The present pastor, Father Warren Stecklein serves the parishes in Larned and Belpre, State Hospital facilities, the local hospital, and the health care center.