Carmelites celebrate frontier heritage
by Joe Bollig
LEAVENWORTH — What better way was there to celebrate a 150th anniversary than with a little horsing around?
We’re not speaking metaphorically. Real horses were involved — and a stagecoach.
Carmelites from across America and overseas, and well-wishers too, gathered on Oct. 23 in Riverfront Park in Leavenworth for the opening celebration of the order’s North American founding.
The celebration — from Oct. 22 to 25 — featured liturgies, keynote presentations and special events.
The opening included a reenactment of the 1864 stagecoach ride to Immaculate Conception Church (the Old Cathedral site) by the founding German Carmelites: Father Cyril Knoll and Father Xavier Huber.
The modern stand-ins were Carmelite Prior General Father Fernando Millan from Rome, Prior Provincial Father William J. Harry from Chicago, and Carmelite Brother Guenter Benker and Father Tobias Kraus from Germany.
The red and yellow stagecoach, drawn by matching black horses, traveled north up the Esplanade, then west on Kiowa Street, and finally to Fifth Street, pulling up in front of Immaculate Conception Church.
The stagecoach was followed by a procession of Carmelites carrying American, German and papal flags. The remainder of the procession included Third Order Carmelites, local Catholics, a trolley and private vehicles.
Just as Bishop John Miege met the two pioneering Carmelites, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann was waiting for the visitors in front of Immaculate Conception Church.
When the two German Carmelites first arrived in 1864, they mistook Bishop Miege for a workman, because they found the hearty prelate chopping firewood. It was a quick education in the ways of the American frontier: In Europe, bishops did not have to produce their own firewood.
In opening ceremonies at the park before the stagecoach ride, pastor of Immaculate Conception-St. Joseph Parish Father David McEvoy, O.Carm., greeted the sesquicentennial participants. Leavenworth Mayor Mark Preisinger read a proclamation, and Father William blessed a commemorative marker.
Following the stagecoach ride, there was an opening Mass at Immaculate Conception Church, at which Archbishop Naumann was the main celebrant and homilist. The concelebrants included several visiting Carmelites, archdiocesan priests and Benedictines.
Other distinguished persons present included Bishop Emeritus Michael LaFay of Sicuani, Peru; American provincials William J. Harry and Mario Esposito; Abbot James Albers from St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison; and representatives of male and female Carmelite houses.
Near the baptismal font were displayed relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a map of North America she drew when 12 years old, and a portrait of the saint painted by her sister Celine.
In his homily, Archbishop Naumann thanked the symposium organizers for their efforts — and for not adhering too strictly to the historical record.
“I’m grateful that you didn’t require me to be chopping a cord of wood outside, reenacting Bishop Miege,” he said.
This was a gathering not only to celebrate the past, but also to serve to inspire the congregation to strive to imitate the faith and courage of those pioneers of the Catholic faith.
“The story of how the first Carmelite Fathers first came to Kansas, and particularly to found their first parish here in the United States — St. Joseph Parish in Leavenworth — is a beautiful illustration of how God can use what might seem to be ordinary events and seeming insignificant occurrences to accomplish his will,” said Archbishop Naumann.
Over the years, the Carmelite Fathers became an essential part of the Catholic community of northeast Kansas, touching thousands of lives.
“And so, as we listened to the Gospel today, it was impossible not to think of how Cyril Knoll and Xavier Huber were following in their time that same commission Jesus gave to the 72,” said Archbishop Naumann.
“As a pair, they materially brought very little — next to nothing — with them to Kansas,” he continued. “But they did bring what was most important. They brought their faith — Jesus Christ in his Gospel and his presence in the sacramental life.”
In his comments before the dismissal, Carmelite Prior General Father Fernando Millan thanked many people, including those who participated and those who produced the symposium.
He also thanked those Carmelites and others who keep the missionary spirit alive throughout the world.
“Sometimes, I get very worried about our missions,” said the prior general. “I get very concerned because [people] are always asking for money and for personnel to go to the missions. Sometimes, I say to myself, ‘We are crazy, we are sending people without money, we are sending people without a program!’
“But in other moments, like this, I say to myself, ‘Balanced and prudent people never changed history.’
“So, thank you to all those crazy people.”
After the Mass, people gathered in Bishop Miege Hall for a keynote presentation by Father McEvoy, on “Carmel’s Frontier Experience.” The presentation was followed by a luncheon.
“The 1864 arrival of Fathers Cyril Knoll and Xavier Huber on the Kansas frontier from their Carmelite monastery in Straubing, Bavaria, was an arrival on a real frontier,” said Father David.
“This was a geographical frontier, a climactic frontier which defined this part of North America. It was a political frontier, an institutional frontier,” he continued. “It was a mission frontier — it was the Catholic Church’s frontier of American missions.”
In a sense, the Carmelites have always been “living on the edge” of a frontier, he continued. This has been true since their founding on the edge of Crusader territory in the Holy Land, to the edge of survival in early 19th-century Europe.
Father David told the story of how the pioneering German Carmelites established a North American foothold during the Civil War, and talked about three of the earliest Kansas Carmelites.
Father David concluded his keynote presentation with a sermon excerpt written by Bishop Thomas Lillis, the third bishop of the Diocese of Leavenworth.
“I took a little walk,” wrote Bishop Lillis. “I found your cemetery. I also found a row of graves in which Carmelites lie buried. I read their names and the dates of their lives. And then I began to think — I began to remember. It was potent thinking. It was a sacred remembering.”
The bishop wrote a little about each man, remembering all they did to sow the seed of faith and nourish the spiritual lives of Catholics.
“Now, before I shall administer confirmation, you will kneel with me and thank God for the coming of the Carmelites to Scipio and to Kansas,” wrote Bishop Lillis.