The History of Immaculate Conception—St. Joseph Parish
Without any exaggeration, the people of immaculate Conception—St. Joseph Parish can claim to have one of the most significant parish histories of any Catholic community in the State of Kansas. What today is the Catholic community of Immaculate Conception—St. Joseph is really the outgrowth of four separate Catholic parishes in Leavenworth County: The Cathedral Parish of the Immaculate Conception, St. Joseph Carmelite Parish, Holy Epiphany Parish, and Sacred Heart Parish, Kickapoo.
Sacred Heart Parish, Kickapoo
Prior to any ecclesiastical organization of what is today the State of Kansas, Jesuit missionaries came to present-day Leavenworth County in 1836 to establish a mission with the Kickapoo Indians. Fr. Charles Felix Van Quickenborne, a Jesuit priest who had left Maryland for St. Louis in 1823, established the mission of St. Francis Xavier in 1836. The mission was short-lived and closed in 1840. The Kickapoo Indians migrated west. This early history, however, did give the Catholic community of Kickapoo the honor of being the first established Catholic mission in Kansas. In 1873, Bishop John Baptist Miege, SJ founded the Parish of Sacred Heart not far from the original Jesuit mission site of 1836-1840. The country parish was active for almost 100 years, being closed in 1970. The parish was then transferred to Immaculate Conception Parish in Leavenworth. Archbishop James P. Keleher named Sacred Heart Church a pilgrimage site for the Archdiocese during the 2000 Jubilee Year, re-gilding the church's chalice as his personal gift to the community. As a "stational church," there are no regular weekend Masses celebrated at Sacred Heart. However, celebrations are still held each year for Thanksgiving Eve, Christmas Eve and Memorial Day, as well as occasional Youth Masses, Lenten Stations of the Cross, Baptisms and Weddings.
Immaculate Conception Parish
Immaculate Conception Parish was founded on August 15, 1855 as the Cathedral Parish for Bishop John Baptist Miege, SJ. Having been named the Vicar Apostolic for the Indian Territory East of the Rocky Mountains in 1850, Miege had labored with the Pottawatomie Indians near present-day St. Mary, Kansas from 1851-1854. With the promulgation of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, Leavenworth became the "First City" of the new Kansas Territory. Miege decided to locate his Cathedral parish here and named it after the Immaculate Conception.
In 1864, Miege began construction on his magnificent cathedral, which was dedicated on December 8, 1868. It was considered at the time as the grandest church between St. Louis and San Francisco. The immense Romanesque structure was built in the Italian Renaissance style with Corinthian columns, barrel shaped ceilings and rounded arches. The ceiling decorations were executed by the French artist, Leon Pomrade, one of America's most famous 19th century artists.
Bishop Miege attended the First Vatican Council in Rome in 1869. In 1871 Bishop Louis Fink, a German-born Benedictine monk was appointed his Coadjutor Bishop, allowing Miege to travel to South America from October 1871 until May 1874 to raise funds to retire the debt on his great cathedral. Miege begged funds from Catholics in Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba, before returning to Leavenworth with $42,000 in funds. Miege resigned as Bishop of Leavenworth in December 1874.
Bishop Fink served as the Bishop of Leavenworth for over thirty years, from 1874 until his death in 1904. From 1904 until 1946, the subsequent Bishops of Leavenworth were: Bishop Thomas Lillis (1904-1910); Bishop John Ward (1911-1929); Bishop Francis Johannes (1929-1937); and Bishop Paul Schulte (1937-1946). In 1946, Bishop Schulte was replaced by Bishop George Donnelly. In 1947, Bishop Donnelly saw the See of the Diocese of Leavenworth transferred to St. Peter's Parish in Kansas City, Kansas. Although Leavenworth's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception had now become an ordinary parish church, it was still affectionately called the "Old Cathedral."
On December 30, 1961, the beloved Old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was destroyed by fire. The cathedral's twelve stained glass windows that had been installed by Monsignor Bernard Kelly in 1913 from the Royal Bavarian Art Institute of Munich, exploded during the fire. Leavenworth firefighters fought the blaze for over six hours with nearly a million gallons of water. As temperatures fell below zero, the destroyed facade of the building was coated in ice. Over a half century later, senior parishioners remember the shock and loss of such a magnificent church.
Under the leadership of Monsignor Alexander Harvey, pastor of Immaculate Conception from 1953-1966, the present church was built and dedicated on May 31, 1964. Built during the Second Vatican Council, the new Immaculate Conception Church was symbolic of the post-conciliar age in the Catholic Church and in the parish.
Catholic education has long been associated with Immaculate Conception Parish. The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth arrived here from Nashville, Tennessee in 1858, opening their first school on Kickapoo Street. Immaculate High School was founded on the third floor of the Cathedral Grade School in 1909. It moved to its present location in 1924. A new Sisters' Convent opened in 1955 across from the Old Cathedral (now Catholic Charities), and new school buildings opened on the site in 1957 and 1966 (now the home of the Alliance Against Family Violence).
Holy Epiphany Parish
In 1874, Bishop Louis Fink established Holy Epiphany Parish for African-American Catholics at Sixth and Pottawatomie Streets, between the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph parish sites. It was to be the first black Catholic parish established west of the Mississippi River. Through the years, priests from both Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph served the parish. The Oblate Sisters of Providence from Baltimore, Maryland, the first group of African-American sisters founded in the United States, worked in the parish, as well in the Holy Epiphany Grade School, and in two orphanages, Guardian Angels Home for Boys and Holy Epiphany Home for Girls. The parish was closed in 1954, and the parishioners transferred to Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph Parishes.