Thursday, December 02, 2010

December 2010 Travel Photo: Ruins of Immaculata Chapel

The Virgin Mary looks down and away from the ruins of her Immaculata Chapel.  The photos are from my travels to St Marys in 2006 and 2007.
St Marys, Kansas is a very unique place.  It was originally settled by Potawatomi Indians in 1848 forced out of Michigan by the United States.  The Potawatomis were a deeply Catholic tribe and were accompanied by Jesuit missionaries who had been with them for over one hundred years.  While a minority of Potawatomis adopted Great Plains Indian culture the one's at St Marys set out to learn from the oncoming white culture.  During the Oregon Trail, many wagon train diary remark how "civilized" the Indians of St Marys were: they had brick homes, farms, a nice church, doctors, blacksmiths, and even their own toll bridge.  Another removal in the 1860s split the tribe but a large number chose to stay and accept American citizenship.  The Potawatomi became a rare example of Indian assimilation.  Even today the St Marys region is full of people with Potawatomi blood and French last names (acquired from French fur trappers intermarrying into the nation).

The Catholic presence was and is still strong in St Marys.  It had the first non-Spanish/Mexican bishop west of the Missouri River.  The Jesuits had a school and seminary there since 1848.  In 1909 the Immaculata Chapel was completed and was called the "Mother of Priests" because of its many seminarians. 

The Jesuits left in 1967.  The population of St Marys began to dwindle with the loss of the school and slow but steady economic turn against small-scale agriculture.  However, in late 1978 the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) acquired the old Jesuit campus and established their own school.  The town quickly regrew with up to 1,500 SSPX supporters moving from across the country to be located in the new SSPX prairie capital.

(SSPX is known as the Latin Mass-only, radical, anti-Semetic Catholic breakaway group who celebrated the lifting of their bishops' excommunication by saying things like "we were never excommunicated" and "the Holocaust never happened."  But the painful breakaway did not occur until 1988, well after the initial St Marys land transfer.)

Depending on who ask something strange, divine, or demonic happened as the SSPX was moving into St Marys.  Immaculata Chapel was going to be the prize American icon of the SSPX.  SSPX founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre visited St Marys in May 1978 and Immaculata's beauty persuaded him to acquire St Marys.  In November, though, a massive fire erupted in the church and gutted the inside before the SSPX could celebrate mass in it.  In August 1979 Lefebvre visited the ruins to bless upcoming reconstruction work.  Then on May 31, 1980, random luck/God/dark forces responded with a massive wind storm which further damaged the chapel.

Today the chapel stands in ruins.  Walking up to chapel one can look through the places where stained glass windows were and look into the grass field that was once the interior of the church.  Look further back it is hard for one not to get a sense of loss.

A ghost of a church.  I thought about the ruins of monasteries in England destroyed during the Reformation.
SSPX has plans for rebuilding the chapel but these come and go.  Right now there is a website for the reconstruction but no news has been published since 2009 (the last news said check back "this afternoon" for another update).


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