From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.
Catholic Place of Worship Reached Its Present Commanding Position in Religious Life of Garrison Through Many Early Struggles and Vicissitudes.
St. Ignatius Chapel at Fort Leavenworth occupies an unique place, among the edifices of Christian worship throughout the army, in that it is used exclusively by the Catholics of the garrison and for its pastor, it has an army chaplain of the Catholic faith. At the same time, it is owned by the diocese of Leavenworth and not the government. Few understand this unusual condition, the like of which I do not believe exists elsewhere in the army.
The sending of Colonel Henry Leavenworth and his troops to establish Fort Leavenworth as a military post in May, 1827, was the result of an appeal to Washington for military protection for the great wagon trains and caravans of the merchant traders who were building a profitable business with Mexico. Indian depredations on these wagon trains and caravans were jeopardizing the success of their ventures along the Santa Fe Trail.
Unmindful of the spiritual welfare of its soldiers and their families, Congress failed in providing chaplains to accompany troops to these isolated posts, destitute of religious worship. Catholics and Protestants alike, suffered from this neglect.
Had it not been for the occasional visits to the post by the Jesuit missionaries, Catholics among the garrison would have had no divine services. The first of these good fathers was Father DeSmet, a distinguished and well known Indian missionary, who on his visit to the Fort in 1831, conducted divine services and ministered to the spiritual needs of the Catholics. Whether he returned to Fort Leavenworth, and the frequency of those visits are unknown, but it is quite likely that he did return.
Father Charles van Quickenborne, a distinguished Jesuit missionary and founder of St. Louis University, founded a Catholic mission in 1835, among the Kickapoo Indians, whose reservation was some four miles north of the Fort. He was a frequent and welcome visitor to Fort Leavenworth, where he conducted religious services and gave spiritual comfort where needed.
Catholic services at the post became more regular in March, 1851, following the establishment of residence in Leavenworth of Bishop John B. Miege, S. J., first bishop of Kansas. Bishop Miege was quick to see and appreciate the spiritual needs of the Catholics, and he was sympathetic and aided to the fullest extent of his ability. Occasionally, he visited the post and personally conducted Catholic services, giving spiritual comfort to the Catholics among the garrison.
The first pastor of Fort Leavenworth was Father Aloysius Largnell, S. J., who was appointed in 1869. During this time, a one story frame building was allotted to the Catholics, as chapel. On week days, the room was used by the regimental band as a practice room. The musicians frequently spilled their beer over the altar, and the Catholics realized the necessity of having a building that could be used exclusively for Catholic services. This was the beginning of an effort that ended in the erection of a Catholic chapel on the military reservation. The idea originated with army officers and enlisted men, who, knowing Bishops Miege's sympathy and friendship for the post, appealed to him for his influence in obtaining permission from the secretary of war to erect a Catholic church at Fort Leavenworth. The request was granted with the proviso that in event the land occupied by the church be needed for future development of the post, the church would vacate.
An energetic campaign for a building fund was instituted by General Michael R. Morgan and Ordinance Sergeant Cornelius Kelley, and largely through their ceaseless and untiring efforts, the erection of the chapel was made possible. The cornerstone was laid in 1871 and after many delays the church was finally completed, and on dedication was named St. Ignatius Chapel in honor of Saint Ignatius de Loyola the soldier-saint and founder of the Jesuit.
Bishop Meige resigned his episcopate in 1874 and was succeeded by Right Reverend Louis M. Fink, D. D., O. S. B., as bishop of Leavenworth.
Leavenworth contributed one of her sons, Father John Hurley, as pastor of Fort Leavenworth. He did much to improve the parish and reduce the chapel debt.
In Father Thomas A. Kinsella, we find the most outstanding figure in the history of St. Ignatius Chapel. His devotion and self-sacrifice to his charges, excites the deepest admiration and respect.
Ordained by Bishop Fink in Leavenworth, July 17, 1884, he was assigned to Fort Leavenworth in less than a month. As resident pastor, and was told that he had to "shift" for himself, which meant that he must reside on the post. For seven and a half years, Father Kinsella "shifted" for himself, subjected to endless hardships.
Through the intersession of the sterling character and staunch Catholic, Sergeant Kelley, so prominent in the history of St. Ignatius chapel, Father Kinsella was permitted to board at the post hotel for fifteen dollars a month, and was given a room, which could be occupied by him, unless otherwise needed; but it was always needed for other purposes, and the good priest was obliged to vacate. In his necessity and desperation, he secured a barber's chair, placing it in his vestry, he used it for a bed for over a year.
Fort Leavenworth mission was but a fractional part of Father Kinsella's duties. In addition he had the United States Military prison, Kickapoo mission, Delaware township, Lansing State Penitentiary, county poor house, St. John's hospital and such other duties at the Cathedral, as he was called upon to do, a vast area for one priest to cover, handicapped as he was, by lack of transportation, weather and roads.
Later in his work, Kickapoo mission contributed $150 a year; Delaware township, $100 and Fort Leavenworth, $300. These amounts were given at irregular intervals, rarely in the amounts promised, but of great help to him. He was relieved of the missions and institutions south of Leavenworth, which left him with Fort Leavenworth, United States Military prison and Kickapoo.
Somewhat apprehensive for his health because of this deplorable living conditions, and with the oncoming winter, Father Kinsella appealed to the bishop for permission to reside at the Cathedral rectory; he was refused, but the Bishop directed him to erect an additional room to the church and make himself comfortable. The post commander refused permission for the addition, and from this refusal, negotiations were started from which the original St. Ignatius Chapel and its buildings were purchased by the government for the sum of $11,000 and permission granted, under a revokable lease, a site for the erection of a new church on the northwest corner of Pope and McCellan avenues, the present St. Ignatius Chapel. The lease was finally approved by the bishop of Leavenworth and the secretary of war on June 27, 1889. The cornerstone was laid August 18, 1889, and the chapel was dedicated December 22 of the same year.
The last pastor of the diocese of Leavenworth was Father J. M. Dougherty, O. S. B. He had a long and honored service; respected and admired by all and beloved by his parishioners.
It was not until 1921 that a Catholic chaplain became pastor, and relieved Father Dougherty; he was Chaplain Julius J. Babst, U. S. army. Through the generosity of the bishop of Leavenworth, St. Ignatius Chapel was loaned too the army the custodian of which was the army chaplain on duty at Fort Leavenworth. Chaplain William Arnold succeeded Chaplain Babst, and after several years of duty, was succeeded by Chaplain Thomas Lennan, the present pastor.
Catholicism at Fort Leavenworth was confronted by an almost endless chain of discouraging problems, struggling heroically against overwhelming odds, fighting for its very existence, handicapped severely by inadequate finances, a non-participant of any government allowance.
There is nothing so vital, so comforting and so essential an element in the individual life of a Catholic, as his church. It is a real sustaining influence. Its benefits and importance are best known and appreciated by the Catholic, who looks upon his church as his spiritual mother, whose love is universal, understanding and everlasting--like a true mother, she never deserts her child.
To those Catholic priests who dedicated their lives in the service of God, lasting honor and credit be given. They were men of high character and nobleness of purpose, motivated by the highest ideals--service of God.