Transcribed by Sean Furniss
RIGHT REVEREND JOHN BAPTIST MIEGE, S. J.,
Written for the Kansas State Historical Society by James A. McGonigle, of Leavenworth
JOHN BAPTIST MIEGE was born in 1815, the youngest son of a wealthy and pious family of the parish of Chevron in upper Savoy. At an early age he was committed to the care of his brother, the director of the episcopal seminary of Montiers. At this time he manifested literary and religious qualities of the highest kind.
He completed his literary studies at nineteen. At first he desired to enter the army, but at his brother's suggestion he spent two more years at the seminary, in the study of philosophy, and after this his purpose was changed. On the 23d of October, 1836, he was admitted into the Society of Jesus by Rev. Father Puty, rector of the novitiate at Milan.
During the very first years of his spiritual life, spent under Father Francis Pellico, he gave evidence of his strong purpose and energy of soul. Broadest charity, profound humility, unflinching spirit of discipline and ardent devotion to his institute evidenced his vigor of character. Charity to his fellows was one of his very strongest characteristics, and one of his favorite themes for thought and discourse.
He pronounced his first vows on October 15, 1838, spent two years in literary studies, and was transferred to the boarding-school at Milan, where he was entrusted with the office of disciplinarian. Thence, in 1843, he was removed to Chambery where his genial disposition and wide sympathy of his heart gave him a large influence over the students. In September, 1844, owing to promise of future eminence, he was sent to Rome to be instructed by eminent masters. His talents were extensive and varied, but his bent of mind seemed to incline him especially to the most able solution of moral questions.
He was ordained priest in 1847, and in 1848 completed his theological studies. This very year the houses of the society were closed by the revolutionists, and among others, Father Miege sought refuge in France. During the journey thither he took advantage of a most successful disguise to play the role of protector of exiles, and his influence was such that he greatly contributed to make the journey rather pleasant than otherwise for the victims of the persecution.
In the midsummer of 1849, as the result of his long and earnest petition, he set sail for the Indian mission of North America, and reached St. Louis in the fall. He was appointed pastor of the little church in St. Charles, Mo. His pastoral duty included the charge of the mission of the Portage.
Later he was removed to the house of probation at Florissant, Mo., where he taught moral theology. In 1851 he was sent to St. Louis University, Missouri. In the fall of this year he was appointed to the vicariate apostolic of all the territory from Kansas river at its mouth north to the British possessions and from the Missouri river west to the Rocky mountains, being about 650 miles from south to north line and 600 from east to west. it required, however, the formal order of the Holy See to move him to accept the office. He was consecrated by Archbishop Kenrick on the 25th of March, 1851, in St. Xavier's Church, St. Louis, receiving the title of bishop of Messenia. He left St. Louis on the 11th of May following, and finally arrived at St. Mary's, territory of Kansas. Here in 1851, he built his first Catholic Church in Kansas, of hewn logs.
Here he began his life work as a missionary. The vast extent of his diocese rendered long and tedious journeys necessary, for he often visited its distant limits, traversing the then trackless wastes of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and the Indian Territory. He removed and established his See in Leavenworth in 1855, where he found seven Catholic families.
he commenced the erection of a church, size 24 by 40 feet. The increase in the Catholic population was so fast that in 1857 he created a larger church, it being 40 by 100 feet. In 1863 he erected a large episcopal residence.
In 1859 Bishop Miege, with Brother John, crossed the plains in his own conveyance to Denver to establish the organization of the Catholic Church in Colorado. A trip at that time was hazardous, as the hostile Indians were constantly scalping those whom they might come across on the plains.
About 1858 he established a Catholic Church in Omaha, Neb. In 1858 he invited eight members of the Sisters of Charity of the state of Tennessee to establish their order here, which they did. From the basis of eight members in 1858, they now number about 500, having academies and hospitals in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Montana, where they have taught and dispensed charities to thousands of people. There is no order of sisters in the Catholic world that has done so much good as they.
Bishop Miege commenced the excavation for the cathedral at Leavenworth in the spring of 1864. The corner-stone was laid in September 1864, and the cathedral was completed and dedicated December 8, 1868. The question is often asked: "Why did the bishop erect such a fine cathedral at Leavenworth?" The reason was this: At that time the contest was between Kansas City and Leavenworth as to which would be the greatest city on the banks of the Missouri river. In 1863, and for many years after that, Leavenworth was very prosperous and everything indicated that it would be the large city. Bishop Miege was a strong believer in the great future of Leavenworth, and showed his faith by erecting such a cathedral. Each city was striving to become an important railroad point. Kansas City secured it.
The bishop possessed an artistic and architectural mind, which the great work he accomplished shows. The architectural proportions of the cathedral are perfect. The sanctuary is the largest of any cathedral in this country. He often remarked that he wanted a large one, so that the largest ceremonies of the Church could be held in comfort. Bishop Miege secured the best fresco artist in the United States, Leon Pomrade. The figures in fresco are perfect, and even today the expressions and colors are good. The stained-glass figures show that they were made by a first-class artist, as the colors are as fresh and clear today as when executed, thirty-seven years ago. The cathedral is of the Romanesque style of architecture, and has no superior of that type in this country. The size of the cathedral is 94 feet front and 200 feet long and about 56 feet high to square of building. The towers, when completed, will be about 190 feet high.
After the dedication of the cathedral the prosperity of Leavenworth declined, which affected the financial support of the church. The indebtedness of the cathedral at that time was about $100,000.
Bishop Miege concluded a short time after the completion of the cathedral to make a trip to the South American states for the purpose of collecting funds to reduce the indebtedness. He was gone for a year or more, and solicited funds in all the states of South America, and suffered many privations and had many dangerous trips. He told me that in crossing the Andes mountains it was so dangerous that he was blindfolded, as also the mule he was riding, which was led by the guide. He returned to Leavenworth having been quite successful in his mission. I am not positive, but I think he told me that he reduced the indebtedness about $50,000.
After reducing the debt, in 1874, with permission of the Holy See, he laid aside his dignity of bishop and retired to St. Louis University, St. Louis, Mo. Thence he withdrew to Woodstock College, Maryland, where he acted as spiritual adviser. In 1877 he was sent to Detroit, Mich., to open a college of the Society. Here he greatly endeared himself to the people. In 1880 he retired once more to Woodstock.
In 1883 he was stricken with paralysis. He lingered in this state a year, and underwent many sufferings. He died July 20, 1884, with all the comforts of the Church.
His noble qualities were numerous, as a religionist, a priest, and a bishop. His virtue and genial disposition caused him to be regarded with confidence and affection by the young and with deepest veneration by the old. With the highest endowments of mind and character, he combined the most imperturbable modesty and humility. He had the rare gift of being able to adjust himself to humors and characters. But one of his finest characteristics was the depth of his sympathy, springing from a broad, warm, human heart.
There died a good bishop, a loyal Jesuit father, and one time a colaborer of the great Jesuit, Father de Smet, in civilizing the Indians, who as a citizen of Kansas did more for its religious and material prosperity than any citizen of the state. The state of Kansas has a room in the capitol building at Topeka where the portraits of the distinguished men of Kansas are placed and cared for for all time to come. When the portrait of Bishop Miege shall be placed there it will represent the greatest of them all.
The territory of Kansas, by a law of the United States government, was thrown open to settlement in 1854, giving citizens the right to preempt 160 acres of land free of cost, under certain conditions. The white population in all the territory at that time, from the Kansas river, at its mouth, to the British possessions, and from the Missouri river to the Rocky Mountains, did not exceed 3000. At the end of fifty-two years, in the same territory, there are about 3,000,000. The growth of the Catholic population in the same territory and the same time is about 400,000.
In 1855 there was one Catholic bishop and one See in all that territory, with a population of 700 Catholics. At the end of fifty years there are nine bishops and nine Sees, each See having its cathedral, colleges, convents, parochial schools, orphan asylums, and hospitals. The character and intelligence of the inhabitants in this territory cannot be excelled anywhere.
I have submitted only a few of the many good points of Bishop Miege. He laid a great many good foundations and left them to others who will follow to build the superstructure. He was a remarkably handsome man, with a commanding appearance, whose presence would attract attention. He possessed a fine mind, and was one of the most lovable of men. The most humble of his parishioners could always get his attention and be treated with the utmost courtesy and kindness.
I arrived in Leavenworth May 6, 1857, when I made the acquaintance of Bishop Miege, whose friendship was given to me, and which is one of the most pleasant memories of my life. My business association, consisting in the construction of the cathedral fro the foundation to is completion, was mutually satisfactory. I had a strong affection for him when living, and his memory is cherished with great appreciation.
I am indebted to Reverend Father Corbette, S.J., Detroit, Mich., who was administrator of Leavenworth diocese during the absence of Bishop Miege in South America, for information of the early life of Bishop Miege. During Father Corbette's administration of the diocese he exercised great ability and sound judgment, and retired from his responsibility, having given satisfaction to the priests and people of the diocese.
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