St Boniface – Brief History on the Survival of a Large Country Church in Rural Kansas

The St Boniface Church and Cemetery is located in Scipio, KS, a small hamlet between the towns of Richmond and Garnett, and two-miles east of Highway-59. This Catholic church with its 160′ copper steeple and its stained-glass windows is uniquely large for a country church, also having an equal-in-length rear ‘L’ wing that is currently a rectory and retreat combined. At one time this two-story limestone wing was a monastery for 25 Carmelite friars, who built the current limestone church, and who subsistence farmed/gardened up to 600-acres around it.

Original Church

In the mid 1850’s, a handful of Jesuit missionaries served the Native Americans in eastern Kansas. And then, against these missionaries wishes, these natives were moved further south. At about the same time, numerous immigrants were taking up farm land in the Scipio region, most of them German Catholics.

Because the Scipio group wanted its own church bad, two prominent members of this community prevailed upon the bishop in Leavenworth for their own priest. They got a once-a-month visiting missionary instead. However, because his unannounced visits didn’t work well, they prevailed on the bishop again, who paid them a visit. After seeing the nearly 40 dedicated families of faith and means living there, he assigned them a permanent priest.

The community then built their new resident priest a small home and log-church on 20-acres of donated land. It was dedicated in the spring of 1859. St Boniface would be the only Catholic church in Anderson county for 25 years. However, this situation would change in time as its surrounding big picture developed.

Outgrowing It

In 1865, St Boniface was turned over to the Carmelite Order, a large order of friars with German roots. This Order gave the parish a big boost in membership. In 1869, the railroad came nearby. By the 1870’s, the parish had outgrown its log church, which was also damaged by a prairie fire. With more families in the parish now, plans were started for a new church on top of the hill, west of the log one.

In 1873, their head friar ordered the construction of a log frame Carmelite monastery which would also serve as Mt Carmel College parallel to what would later become the current church. For a while, the church services would be held in this frame monastery, while the new church was being built.

Eventually, this future building arrangement would give the whole facility a large ‘U’ shape facing west when done. The construction continued with a one-room parochial school, a community hall, and a Ursuline Sisters home north of the proposed church. Meanwhile, the friars and lay-persons having stonemason skills hewed and stockpiled their own limestone blocks for the planned 1881-built church. Its cornerstone was laid in 1882.

By this time, the Carmelites had increased their land holdings to 600 acres. The brothers farmed/gardened it, which included a 10-acre vineyard and winery. They also built a massive rectangular red barn and sheds for dairy cows, livestock, hay, grain storage, and equipment. No doubt, they had a smoke house and places for butchering, canning, and doing laundry.

Times Changed

Because the township surrounding Scipio is on a country road between Highways 59 & 169, it never incorporated. Only a few houses remain there today. Other Catholic churches sprang up in the nearby towns of Richmond, Garnett, and Greeley, all three of them on busy highways that came into being in time.

The frame college closed, and was eventually torn down. The parochial school also closed. So did the nearby railroad, which later became a 51-mile rail-trail. Several friars and Ursuline sisters/teachers left for other places. The farming stopped. The land was rented out for a while, but was eventually sold. A storm destroyed the big Carmelite barn, and the population in the nearby towns increased.

Today

St Boniface still has about 60 active families in its parish today. Its Easter and Christmas services have standing-room-only attendance. Its college-building area is turned into a meditation garden with a fountain. Its limestone monastery has been retrofitted into a rectory and modern three-unit retreat for priests and others needing quiet healing. It’s called Elijah’s Rest.

Two friars live in the rectory, where they serve the church. The historical cemetery is still used, and sits where the original log-church stood. Tourists visit this church and its well-kept cemetery. Its doors are always open. For detailed information on this church, see the booklet below.


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