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.
On Nov. 11, 1858, just four years after the founding of the city of Leavenworth, eight Sisters landed from the steamboat Ryland after an eight-day journey from St. Louis. A few days later five more Sisters arrived by ox cart, their river trip having been interrupted by an ice jam.
This humble arrival 96 years ago marked the beginning of a great order and the Sisters and Leavenworth have grown together, each leaving its mark on the other and both contributors to the development of this country from the Missouri to the Pacific, The Sisters and Leavenworth have shared mutual hardships and rejoiced together in mutual success.
On Nov. 12, 1933, The Leavenworth Times commented editorially: "Leavenworth extends felicitations to the Sisters of Charity, who yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of their coming to Leavenworth. No greater day marks the history of this city. In the three quarters of a century . . . the Sisters have formed a work comparable only to that of the Carpenter of Nazareth. Leavenworth owes much to them both in spiritual and temporal comforts . . . they have witnessed the expansion of the educational system they founded. . . Theirs is a brilliant record of achievement. Leavenworth thanks its Sister of Charity for all they have done."
The first home of the Sisters in Leavenworth was "eight tiny bits of rooms" in a house on Kickapoo just west of Fifth. Their household possessions, brought with them, consisted of two pianos, bedding, tableware, a small, round, one-legged, marble topped table several chairs, two guitars, 14 pictures and a small plaster image of the Blessed Virgin. For several days until a dining table could be made, the Sisters ate standing up. Their first cupboard was one of the crates in which the pianos had been shipped. The floor was the only bed they had.
A few days after their arrival a friend of the Sisters raffled his own small Bible, richly bound, in downtown Leavenworth, for $20 and that same evening a large load of wood was driven into the convent yard. It was just in time because there was none left and the night promised to be bitterly cold. In a few weeks there were chairs enough for all, a table, and beds to sleep in although there was no such luxury as springs.
By February, 1859, the Sisters were established in their new home, and formed a religious community and had a day school in operation. They chose the name, Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, and probably it is the only time in history that the name of a military man has appeared in the name of a community of Catholic nuns. This choice of a name indicated their intention of staying in Leavenworth.
Six days after their arrival the Daily Ledger carried a news item and an advertisement to the effect that an academy was being opened to "combine what is useful and necessary with what is solid and ornamental in education, that too much care and attention cannot be devoted to the development and training of those faculties which constitute the moral character, and that upon success in this particular depends much of that which constitutes the hope of families, the happiness of individuals, and the attaining of those more extensive benefits which are the crown and ornament of society." The academy offered a primary, a medium, and a more advanced department with extra music, French, drawing and embroidery.
The spirit of cheerfulness always prevailed among the Sisters. They never lost their happy-hearted gaiety during their early trials and they have never ceased to spread this atmosphere among all with whom they have come in contact. Life was rough as it always is on every frontier but within a few years the Sisters had spread their influence into the Rockies.
Seven years after the arrival in Leavenworth a mission was established in Lawrence. Four years later five of the Sisters arrived at Helena, Mont., and before the turn of the century, two academies three orphanages and five hospitals had been established in Montana. One of the academies, one of the orphanages and all five of the hospitals survive today.
In the same period, in Colorado, they established three hospitals, one academy and one orphanage. Only the academy has since closed. In Leavenworth, St. John's Hospital established in 1864 was the first hospital in Kansas.
The first patients to enter St. John's were five refugee members of a family from Alabama. Later, five victims of a snow storm were unceremoniously removed from a lumber wagon on the street in front of the hospital. The quasi-Samaritan driver figured he had done his share and the rest could be left to the Sisters. The first hospital in Montana didn't last too long. Most of their patients were victims of six-shooters which were too deadly that hospital care was not needed.
The first Saint Mary Academy, a boarding school, was opened in February of 1859 in the home of Gen. Thomas Ewing at 6th and Kickapoo, later the site of the James Stanton home. Mrs. Ewing had met the Sisters on the boat on the way to Leavenworth. General Ewing's sister had married Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, then a Leavenworth lawyer. The Ewing home was bought from the Sisters by Major Hunt whose daughter became Mrs. Edward Carroll. The Carroll's later gave the home away and it was moved to 6th and Pottawatomie where it stands today, a frame structure on the second lot from the northeast corner.
The second Saint Mary Academy was occupied in 1860 and today is the building on Kickapoo that houses the convent for the Sisters at the Old Cathedral. The letters "SMA" may still be seen on the portico over the front door.
In 1870 the third Saint Mary Academy was opened on the present campus south of the city. The selection of the site was no easy task. An extended search for suitable grounds occupied many weeks. The site of Ft. Leavenworth was ideal but already occupied. In the forest south of the city now occupied by the Veterans Administration Center, was a beautiful spot but it was considered too close to the river and its traffic was considered too distracting for a "female institute" and also the "girls might fall into the river."
In a buggy pulled by Billy, an ex-war horse, the search continued day after day, sometimes in the company of the Rt. Rev. J. B. Miege, S. J., first bishop of Leavenworth, and Mother Xavier Ross, first mother general of the Sisters of Charity. Finally, in the midst of a forest of elms, oaks, wild cherries, and hazel brush, the good bishop spread a small linen lap robe from his buggy on the grass and said, "This is where your house will be." Saint Mary's Hall stands on the spot today.
Money was hard to get in those days just as it is today and interest rates were usually from 10 to 12 per cent. But the academy building was finally finished and recently, 84 years later, and examination proved the walls to be plumb and the floors still level.
Care of orphans was one of the early tasks of the Sisters and in 1882 a fund of $7,000 was raised by the women of Leavenworth to build an orphanage of two stories and eight rooms completed in 1883. It was a brick building across the street from the academy on Kickapoo. St. Vincent's Home was built in 1887 at the "base of Sugar Loaf in Muncie Land," south of the city. The building is still in good condition though the name was changed to Guardian Angel in 1947.
The campus of the present Saint Mary College has been expanded to 240 acres. The problem of the Sisters has always included the demand for more teachers and nurses than are available, and the pressure for more room. Starting in 1914 a considerable building program was started. After the academy building, now St. Mary's Hall and Meade Hall, constructed in 1891, there followed Miege Hall, Berchman Hall, the Motherhouse and the laundry building. A junior college was opened in 1923 and extended to senior rank in 1930. The last diploma was issued by the academy in 1959 and at the same time a graduate department of education was added to the college. Students this year come from 22 states and six foreign countries.
When the Sisters first came to Leavenworth it was Indian country. There were only a dozen or so buildings of any size in the town. There were no railroads and travel by steamboat was unpredictable. With it all, a small band of women came to Leavenworth because "there was work to be done." Not only did they stay but they have made this the base of their work for the sick and destitute, the orphans and students in nine states. The Number in the Community is now 786 professed nuns and 80 novices. They operate a total of 93 institutions spread from Illinois to California and Montana to New Mexico.
The Sisters are true Sisters of Charity. They have given far more to every place they have ever served than they expected in material rewards. They seek their reward in heaven through service of their fellowmen on earth. They do not live in luxury but are a happy and contented group. they came into a unlimited field of labor and found the "western spirit" and have never lost the solid, foresighted, conservative characteristics it engendered.