Fr. Bernard Donnelly: The Irish Priest Who Carved Out Kansas City
By Diane Euston
Kansas City wouldn’t even begin to look the way it does today without the remarkable contributions of one Irish-born man with visions that stretched across the sea. Often referred to as Kansas City’s first historian and “the builder,” Father Bernard Donnelly’s appointment to the edge of the frontier changed the course of one fledgling city that wished to grow from the bluffs. Without his visions and training, Kansas City would likely not have matured into the metropolis it is today.
Early Irish Beginnings
Born in Kilnacreeva, Co. Cavan, Ireland, Donelly’s early upbringing was on a small rented farm. In a biography written by Bishop Thomas Lillis in 1921, Lillis declares, “When asked his age he would make a calculation by saying he could recall such and such an historic event and so must have been five or six at the time.”
Likely born around 1810, Fr. Donnelly’s intelligence allotted him more opportunities than the generations before him. He studied algebra, trigonometry and geometry and later took up training in English, Latin, Greek and civil engineering. He was talented enough in engineering to be given the opportunity to work for the Civil Engineering Corps in Dublin and later in Liverpool, England.
He never abandoned his parents back in Co. Cavan. Donnelly was able to save his money to send back to his parents and save enough for passage to America where he believed his talents could be used better than in his homeland.
Arrival in America and Answering the Call
In about 1839, Bernard Donnelly arrived at the port of New York and quickly mapped out his next move. He had taught school in his homeland, so it was suggested he go to Philadelphia where positions were available in education.
He later moved to Pittsburgh and then to Ohio where he continued as a teacher. He felt drawn at this point to pursue what he believed was his life’s calling– he wished to become a priest.
In 1845, Donnelly was ordained in St. Louis and within hours he received his first appointment; he was to head to the edge of the frontier to “the missions of Westport Landing (Chouteau’s Town), Independence, Westport, Liberty, Clay County and about a hundred places.”
Colleagues were surprised to see that Fr. Donnelly’s talents would be sent “outside of civilization.” Fr. Wheeler in his “Recollections of Twenty-Five Years in St. Louis” wrote of Donnelly, “In my letters about a western town in 1847 I wrote that Father Donnelly was intellectually and socially too refined a priest for work among Indians and trappers. I now say of him that, like St. Paul, he is all things to all men.”
In May 1845, Fr. Donnelly arrived at the only established parish in his territory, St. Mary’s, in Independence. On a bluff overlooking the Missouri and Kaw Rivers high above the West Bottoms was a log church. In 1834, Rev. Benedict La Roux was sent to the area from St. Louis. He made a contract with James McGee to build this little church to serve 12 French Catholic families, one being the Chouteau’s. This church was the site of Fr. Donnelly’s first Parish in Kansas City.
Carving out Kansas City
When Fr. Donnelly would travel to the area, he would stay with the Chouteau and Guinotte families and say Mass inside the log church built by Le Roux. The inhabitants of this area, only numbering a few hundred, were mainly traders, trappers, fisherman and merchants. By 1850, the Town of Kansas was incorporated and the city charter was drawn up in 1853. At that time, “Fr. Donnelly had been one of the first to advocate an organization of a city.”3 Leaders of the area knew the bluffs along the south and west of the platted town were a problem for long-term planning. The topography of these limestone bluffs made it impossible to build any semblance of a city.
Fr. Donnelly’s experience as a civil engineer and stonecutter would be well-served. They would need laborers to help tear down the bluffs and fill in the valleys. Donnelly said “he would bring hundreds of Irishmen from the East to level off and make streets and curb them, and construct sewers.”
With the blessing of city leaders, Fr. Donnelly wrote to Irish newspapers, the Boston Pilot and Freeman’s Journal of New York asking for the aid of Irish immigrants. He commissioned for 150 people from Boston and 150 from New York be sent to the area, offering to pay their passage and pay better than the wages offered in the East.
There was a catch in his offer: men had to all be from the same county in Ireland in order to keep the peace and abstain from alcohol – at least while employed in Kansas City.
Fr. Donnelly’s plea was answered. All 300 Irishmen sent from the East were from the province of Connaught. Temporary one-story buildings, comfortably furnished, facing 6th St. running from Broadway to Bluff St. were constructed to house the Irish laborers. Aptly, the area became known as Connaught Town.
These Irishmen, under the watchful eye of Fr. Donnelly, carved out the streets of Kansas City, virtually eliminating the bluffs and creating more land to settle south of the riverfront. These men from The Emerald Isle were the first large population of Irish in Kansas City.
In 1857, Fr. Donnelly took the ten acres of land where Fr. Le Roux’s log church, rectory and small cemetery had stood and constructed a brick church. Standing at 11th and Broadway, the church was consecrated Immaculate Conception and the old church neighborhood became known as Quality Hill.
The Loss of a Fortune
In 1863, the Civil War had divided the area in half. As the war crept closer to the city, townspeople became nervous about their money and property. It was said that Confederate Gen. Sterling Price had taken the funds from banks in other places, and it was feared he would do the same as he approached Kansas City.
People rushed to the banks to gather their money and wished to conceal it in a safe spot. Feeling their homes could be looted, they went to someone they trusted.
On the eve of the Battle of Westport in October 1864, a large number of men brought their fortunes to Fr. Donnelly. According to Bishop Lillis they were “bringing money in cans and jars and purses, asking Fr. Donnelly to take care of it for them until the trouble was over.”
He opened up a book to record what each person gave him, but he couldn’t keep up because so many showed up. That night, he contemplated where he should hide the loot entrusted to him when the answer seemed clear. “Dead men rest untouched in the graveyard,” Fr. Donnelly concluded, “I will bury the people’s money in the cemetery.”
The cemetery ran along Pennsylvania Ave. from 11th to 12th St. In the dead of night, Fr. Donnelly awoke the sexton. They found a plot of grass running along a pathway and removed the sod gingerly. He placed the treasure in the hole, hoping it would remain incognito.
The sexton wasn’t as good at keeping secrets. Drunk at a local tavern, the sexton blabbered on about the buried treasure. Fr. Donnelly became concerned and went out before dawn to dig up the treasure once again and move it. After the Battle of Westport, he went to retrieve the buried box; however, no matter where he dug, he couldn’t find it. Hole after hole, he searched to no avail.
Distraught, Fr. Donnelly went to a local banker and borrowed money to pay back the people who had trusted him to keep their fortunes safe. For the rest of his life, it bothered him that he was unable to find the money he had buried.
Bishop Lillis wrote, “If it still remained in the earth perhaps by this time it has moldered into dust, or perhaps some digger’s spadesful of earth will yet reveal the secret.”
The Legacy of an Irishman
Fr. Donnelly continued to be a proponent for his Parish and for Kansas City. As the city continued to grow, he found the graveyard near Immaculate Conception, oftentimes referred to as the Old French Cemetery due to its early burials of Chouteau’s Town, were being infringed upon. Starting in 1873, graves from this cemetery were slowly moved to land Fr. Donnelly had purchased near current-day 22nd and Cleveland. Today, this graveyard is named Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery.
On December 14, 1880, Fr. Donnelly took his last breath. His decades-long legacy in Kansas City helped establish more than just the Catholic church in the area; he was an engineer whose visions brought the Irish to the city to lay out the future.
In addition to civic duties, Fr. Donnelly also started two orphanages, a school in the West Bottoms, and built and established St. Teresa’s Academy.
In 1882, Bishop Hogan laid the cornerstone for a new cathedral just to the west of Fr. Donnelly’s church at 11th and Broadway. He had selected this location to be the future site for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception named in honor of Fr. Donnelly’s first brick church in Kansas City. It was completed in 1883.
The Kansas City Star wrote at his death, “Simple, unaffected, charitable, brave, patient, devoted, Father Donnelly’s life was a blessing to the community. . . [His] life work was a noble one, and its blessings will be experienced in the city for years to come.”
Certainly, Fr. Donnelly’s contributions to Kansas City are indeed seen throughout our beloved city even today.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com