Although Catholics in southern Missouri remain a minority today, numbering only 63,000 of a little more than a million population in the 39 counties of the diocese, or five percent of the total inhabitants, Roman Catholicism has played a crucial role in the development of the area.
The original explorers, the earliest settlers from Europe and subsequent waves of immigration to the region have been predominantly Catholic.
The early years of the 16th Century saw Spanish and French adventurers setting sail to gain lands in the New World for their countries of origin and their kings. The Spaniard Hernando De Soto was reputedly the first white man to set foot in Missouri. With an expedition of some 720 men, which he personally financed, he moved inland from the western coast of Florida in 1539 in search of riches in the new country. When he reached the Great River two years later, he claimed the entire Mississippi Valley for Catholic Spain. His band included 12 Spanish priests, 8 brothers, and 4 monks. Crossing the Mississippi a little south of present Memphis, they turned northward on the west bank to the present Caruthersville, MO.
Almost 135 years later, French Catholics were to be instrumental in the settlement of the land. In 1673 missionary priest, Fr. Jacques Marquette, and entrepreneur, Louis Joliet, ventured from a northern missionary settlement at the juncture of Lakes Superior and Michigan to find out whether the Great River emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. They found the Mississippi, and a little southward, the Missouri River as well, meeting Indian chieftains along the way who knew of the Black Robes, as the natives referred to the Jesuit priests of the Great Lakes territory. Their expeditions revealed the opportunities in the new lands. But it was Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle who claimed the land at the mouth of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico for his king, Louis XIV of France. And so it came to be named Louisiana.
These pioneers opened the way for others, especially Canadians, to establish missions, trade routes, trading posts and mining operations.
First European Settlers
Beginning in the late 17th century, the French came in increasing numbers to work the mines and establish trading posts on the western banks of the Mississippi. By 1735 Ste. Genevieve was established as the first permanent settlement. In 1759, the Jesuits erected a parish there. But the French and Indian War (1754-1763) was to disrupt the Mississippi River society. With the French looking only to peaceful settlement, the British intent upon claiming the Ohio Valley and the Spanish allied with the French, the war resulted in the British forcing France to cede all her North American territorial possessions east of the Mississippi and north of Ohio, including Canada. Thus it was that the hostilities between the two countries, born abroad during the English Civil War of the 1640s, were enhanced and transmitted to later generations living on the Mississippi. Pressed for funds, Louis XV gave over “Louisiana”–“all the land west of the Mississippi claimed by France”–in the Treaty of Fontainebleau (1762) to Spain. With the transfer, the 100-year ecclesiastical jurisdiction passed from the French Bishop of Quebec to the Spanish Bishop of Havana, Cuba. In 1800, Spain returned the Louisiana Territory to France by secret treaty.
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MISSOURI is named for the tribe that inhabited the area with the Osage and Caddoan people. Both were farmers, but were strongly influenced by the nomadic bison hunters of the Great Plains. DeSoto arrived in 1541. In 1673, Jesuit Fr. Jacques Marquette, a missionary from Canada, accompanied entrepreneur Louis Joliet down the Mississippi River to evangelize the people living in the region. Eventually, they negotiated the river from Kaskaskia country all the way to the southern reaches of Arkansas. The first English-speaking settlement was established at Ste. Genevieve in 1735. The territory became part of the United States at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Most people heading west came through Missouri to connect with the Santa Fe Trail or the Oregon Trail. The Ohio-Mississippi-Missouri river system and the extension of the Cumberland Road to the Mississippi River brought thousands of immigrants from the upper and lower Midwest into Missouri, pushing the frontier to the Kansas border. In 1821, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave-holding state. Eventually, it remained on the side of the Union in the Civil War. Its central location as a crossroads on the north-south river trade route and the east-west railroad lines gave the state commercial importance. Today Missouri is a leading manufacturing and food-processing state with stockyards in Kansas City and service industries, agriculture, mining, and tourism forming its main sources of commerce.
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Ecclesiastical Jurisdictions and the Vincentian Fathers
With these and other territorial transfers east of the Mississippi from Canada to the Gulf, questions of diocesan jurisdictions arose among the Catholic settlers. In the early 1760s, only one priest, Fr. Sebastian Louis Meurin, served all of “Upper Louisiana.” Upon Meurin’s death in 1777, Fr. Pierre Gibault, who defended the people’s moral right to submit to the rule of the new United States, found himself the lone pastor in the vast area. In his declining years, his bishop in Canada, who was disenchanted by Gibault’s support for the American cause, forbade him to return there. At the request of the governor of Louisiana, Estevan Miro, Gibault was appointed to serve in New Madrid in 1789. The cypresstimbered church and rectory, which were subsidized by the Spanish government, were washed away in the cataclysmic earthquakes of 1811 and 1812.
Between 1787 and 1818, clusters of Catholic families of French, Irish, and German extraction settled just beyond the western bank of the Mississippi and 80 miles south of St. Louis. Originally known as the Barrens Colony, it would in time be renamed Perryville after the naval hero of the War of 1812, Oliver Hazard Perry. Beginning in 1790, an Irish priest trained in Spain, Fr. James Maxwell, served the Colony.
When Fr. Louis William Valentin DuBourg was named Bishop of Louisiana in 1815, he used St. Louis as his episcopal headquarters. Its boundaries encompassed Wisconsin, Illinois, and “everything west of the Mississippi.” He asked for assistance from the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentian Fathers). This help came in the person of Fr. Joseph Rosati, whom he sent to the Barrens Colony to establish St. Mary’s Seminary in 1818. Although Rosati was rector of the seminary, pastor of the parish and superior of the Vincentian Community, he found time to visit the missions throughout the state of Missouri.
The Diocese of St. Louis was established in 1826. Joseph Rosati was appointed the first Bishop of St. Louis in 1827. During this same year, Catholics living in Cape Girardeau were about to receive their first visit from a priest, Fr. John Timon, who was sent there by Bishop Rosati. Despite strong anti-Catholic sentiment, Fr. Timon publicly proclaimed Catholic beliefs. Public debates with local Protestant clergy took place, as well as pastoral care for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
In 1833, Fr. Timon converted an old frame warehouse on the riverfront into a makeshift chapel, first travelling on horseback from Perryville to celebrate Mass quarterly, then once a month. Fr. Jean-Marie Odin was named first resident pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Cape Girardeau in 1836. In 1838, Fr. John Brands became pastor and opened St. Vincent Male Academy. He asked the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross to move their convent school for girls from Perryville to Cape Girardeau. It was known as St. Vincent’s Women’s Academy.
St. Vincent College began to emerge in several stages between 1838 and 1843. Its first purpose was to siphon off lay students from St. Mary of the Barrens Seminary in Perryville to relieve the concern of those who did not approve of mixing lay students with seminarians. The college was incorporated by the state of Missouri in February 1843. By 1853, other dioceses began sending students there. By 1859, it had become a major seminary that had formed numerous Vincentian missionaries whose impact on the growth of the Catholic Church reached not only to Missouri, but south to Texas, and northern Mexico, and west to California.
The men mentioned here were just a few of the Vincentian priests of the 19th century who labored zealously to build up the Catholic Church in the southeastern regions of southern Missouri.
The Americains, as the French and Spanish called the migrants from the eastern US, began to swell the population of southern Missouri beginning in the 1790s. Originally from Scotland, their ancestors had migrated to northern Ireland during the 1600s after the English Civil War that had decidedly put down the Roman Catholic influence in England. Drawn by William Penn’s policies of freedom of religion in the New World, the Scots-Irish arrived in droves in Pennsylvania. As frontiers moved westward, they moved with them through Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, eventually reaching and settling in the Ozarks. They brought with them their old prejudices, superstitions, and suspicion of all things French, including the Catholic Church. They tended to work hard, keep to themselves and distrust the government.
Their freedom-loving, independent and self-reliant spirit clashed with the spirit of docile obedience to ecclesiastical superiors that marked their Catholic neighbors who had come under the influence of the well-educated French Jesuits. Rugged individualists, the Scots-Irish favored separation of Church and State. Incidents of vandalism and the rise of movements like the antiCatholic Nativists political party marked the late 1800s, discouraging efforts at evangelization.
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Early Nativists tried to transform their crusade into a political movement, but their principles initially influenced the workplace more than the ballot box. Artisans and laborers often complained that immigrants depressed wages because the newcomers would work for less pay than native-born workers. The frequency with which employers used immigrants to replace striking workingmen only deepened the animosity toward newcomers.
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The influx of Catholic German immigrants in the 1830s and ‘40s and the Irish immigrants in the late 1800s that swelled the population in the nation as a whole made its mark on the demography of the Ozarks. Newcomers, especially from Alsace, brought with them a sturdy faith and their European expressions of it. Finding the price of land in Ohio at $5 an acre out of reach, they moved on to Charleston, MO, where land went for $1 .25 an acre. By 1868, German Catholics in Cape Girardeau established their own German-speaking parish, St. Mary, the second Catholic Church in the city.
Twelve Dutch families came to Bollinger County near Marble Hill. They brought their priest with them, Fr. Van Luytelaar. They were able to purchase land for a “bit” (12.5 cents) an acre. The land became the site for the first church, St. John the Apostle. Although abandoned during the Civil War, it was later rebuilt. In 1900 it was moved and served as a school. The current Gothic church was built on the original site, where it stands today in the town of Leopold.
Victims of the famine in Ireland in the mid 19th Century fled their land to settle in St. Louis, more often than not facing rejection rather than work. Fr. John Joseph Hogan, a priest of St. Louis, turned to southern Missouri near the Current River, where he found vacant government land of almost primeval wilderness for his poor flock. The colony grew and by 1859, St. Benedict in Ripley County was established, serving both sides of the railroad town of Doniphan. But the onslaughts of lawless bushwhackers and the Union Army during the Civil War left only a few burned out buildings, overgrown fields and cemeteries of the original Ozark Irish settlement.
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Fr. Hogan And The Irish Wilderness
“… I had to move about 40 miles, to a region of country where there was yet much vacant government land, on the confines of Ripley and Oregon counties, along the tributaries of the Current and Eleven Point rivers, about 20 miles north of the state of Arkansas.” –Fr. John Joseph Hogan, On the Mission in Missouri
It was the late 1850s. The Irish immigrants escaping the poverty and starvation of the potato famines of their native land sought a better life in the New World. Instead, they walked right into a depression following the financial crash of 1857 and competition from slaves for farm jobs. To survive, the men worked the railroads and the women took jobs as servants in the city.
Born in Limerick, Ireland, Fr. John Joseph Hogan left St. Michael in St. Louis for a northern Missouri mission. Finding land too expensive there, he settled in a wilderness in the south, hoping to build a colony to restore family and church life to the immigrants. By 1859, 40 Irish families had moved to the area of the Current and Eleven Point Rivers, and more were soon to follow.
From the start, the new settlers faced troubles. Hill country preachers resented Fr. Hogan’s reclaiming of Catholics who, in the absence of a priest, had joined other denominations. But it was ultimately the Civil War that returned the wilderness to its pristine state. Troops from both sides garnered every morsel of food in their march across the land. Confederate troops sought revenge on the Irish settlers’ opposition to slavery and pro-Union stance. Union troops burned every building as they passed through. The settlement was disbanded and during the ‘90s the land was depleted by improper timbering and agricultural practices.
Fr. Hogan was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of St. Joseph, MO, in 1868. He was transferred and appointed Bishop of Kansas City in 1880.
Today the Irish Wilderness in its vast and haunting beauty survives as part of the 16,000 acres of land near the Whites Creek, a tributary of the Eleven Point River, bought by the US Forest Service in 1984 for the Mark Twain National Forest.
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In 1868, 110 Catholics were given permission to begin Immaculate Conception Parish in Springfield (population 5,000) by Archbishop Peter Kenrick of St. Louis. As determined as their Alsacian counterparts in the Cape, Springfield’s German-speaking community of 25 families wanted their own parish. In 1892 Kansas City’s Bishop John J. Hogan gave permission to open St. Joseph with the Benedictine Fathers of Conception, MO, to staff it.
A new Catholic congregation of Prussian, Bohemian, English , German, and Irish settlers formed a parish in Piedmont, where Mass was offered for the first time in 1870.
Many German, Polish, and Irish railroad workers laying track for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad leading to Kansas settled in what is now Pierce City. In the mid-1860s, Fr. Francis W. Graham, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Springfield and “all of southwest Missouri,” gathered a congregation from Newton, Barry, and Lawrence Counties. At first a small frame church structure was dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Later, the community of farmers, merchants, and railroad workers became St. Patrick Parish.
By 1863 the German members of the church formed their own parish, celebrating their liturgies in a former Baptist church, which they dedicated to St. Mary. In 1886 the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood from O’Fallon, MO, opened the parish school.
The Polish community in Pierce City received permission in 1890 to create their own Polish-speaking parish in Bricefield (now Pulaskifield). They named it SS. Peter and Paul and received their first resident pastor in 1893.
Southwest Missouri was opened up by the advent of railroads, which made inexpensive land available to immigrants and lured workers who then settled on the land. It also played a large role in establishing and developing Catholicism in the Ozarks.
In 1871 Irish and German Catholic farm families in the Sarcoxie area built a church for St. Agnes Parish on land donated by the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. St. Joseph Church, Billings, was built in 1883 by the men of the community on land donated by the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway Company. It cost $250. The A&P donated the land for St. Canera Church in Neosho.
Moving east, in the late 1800s, the Catholic community living on Crowley’s Ridge in Dexter bought land for a church from the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway Company for $130. The town was laid out along the Cotton Belt and Missouri Pacific railroad tracks. The train brought Fr. Maurice O’Fiaherity from Poplar Bluff to celebrate Mass every two weeks.
Evangelization in the Ozarks
The Catholic Church prior to the establishment of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese performed a double function. Its primary task was to provide for the needs of its Catholic members, but no less important was its role of reaching out to others in the area. It set about to fulfill these two missions by employing several strategies.
• It built new chapels and mission churches for regular worship.
• In a planned program called “The Motor Missions,” young priests and seminarians were afforded opportunities to do street preaching during the summer months.
• It conducted intensive catechetical programs under the auspices of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and the Archdiocesan Rural Life and Home Mission Society.
• The Buffalo Plan, also known as the Missionary Apostolate Plan, clustered missions in south central and southeast Missouri, arranging to have a newly-ordained priest working with an experienced pastor in visiting the people and providing for individual and class instruction.
• Finally, it fostered the growth of the Catholic school system.
Sometimes the zeal of an individual priest would make a significant difference. During the 1850s, a Jesuit missionary priest from the Wyandotte Indian School in St. Paul, KS, rode circuit and gathered a community from the Joplin area and miles around. Today Joplin has two Catholic church communities, St. Peter and St. Mary.
In Kennett, a place described as “the least Catholic place in the Western Hemisphere,” the faith was rekindled and St. Cecilia was established as a mission of Sacred Heart Parish in Wilhelmina. The growth of the membership from 15 to some 200 by the mid-1950s came about through the efforts of the Missionary Apostolate Plan of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Door-to-door canvassing by the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Victory Noll as well as the appointment of young priests in surrounding towns under the direction of an experienced pastor are also credited with the increase.
Around the turn of the century, Archbishop John Glennon of St. Louis recognized the dangers of plunging Catholic agrarian immigrants into the poverty and irreligion of factoried cities. To protect his flock, he founded the Colonization Realty Company for the purpose of locating Catholic families on farms convenient to church and school. In 1905 Fr. Frederick Peters was assigned to organize and supervise the work of colonization on the 12,500 acres in the southeast Missouri lowlands purchased by the Realty Company.
Fr. Peters described the land on his first visit as “a dismal swamp infested by wolves, bears, wildcats, and occasional panthers.” But there he also found “a vast body of timber. … I judged … to be fairly good.” This was the site of an abandoned lumber town called Paragon. With the help of two men from Malden, over one million feet of lumber were sawed to build homes for future parishioners. The old commissary building of the mill company became the first church, St. Teresa, in the town of Glennonville.
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The Little River Drainage Project
Most of the 12,500 acres in the southeast Missouri lowlands were swamps, unsuitable for any kind of habitation. Before a series of large levees was constructed by the federal government to harness the Mississippi River, its floodwaters regularly spilled across much of southeast Missouri. The Missouri Bootheel was once a natural basin to catch all of this water. In January 1905 planning began for what would become the largest drainage project in the US. Construction of an elaborate network of drainage ditches, canals and levees was devised and eventually carried out. The district serves parts of seven Missouri counties: Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, Dunklin, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Scott and Stoddard. Its funding comes from property owners within the district who are assessed annually on the basis of benefits received. Before the land was drained, less than 10 percent of 1.2 million acres of land were clear of water. Now, approximately 96 percent is clear and waterfree year round.
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St. Joseph, White Church, constituted a mission center from the beginning. From it, Sacred Heart Parish, Willow Springs, was established in 1897, and five years later, St. Mary, West Plains. The community was visited by priests from Poplar Bluff and Rolla until 1895 when Fr. John Waelterman became the resident pastor. His appointment included service to mission churches in West Plains, Pomona, Mountain View, and Cottbus as well as mission stations at Cabool, Willow Springs, and Thayer. Altogether he served about 65 families distributed over the vast area.
Dust storms and drought brought new families to the area from Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, but World War II saw many young people leave White Church to serve in the military or to find employment elsewhere, and parish membership dwindled.
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Newly-Ordained Priests serving with Fr. Bauer were Fr. Raymond Orf, Fr. William Stanton, Fr. Nicholas Hirtz, Fr. Franklin Schmitzhe, Fr. A.J. Boland, Fr. A.J. Kovarick, and Fr. V.A. Stalzer.
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After the War, in 1952, St. Louis Archbishop Joseph Ritter assigned Fr. Sylvester Bauer to White Church to implement the Missionary Apostolate Plan (Buffalo Plan) in the area. St. Joseph again became a mission center. Newly ordained priests were assigned to White Church and rotated to serve the other area churches in the 100-square mile, five-county area. New churches were built in Willow Springs, West Plains, and Thayer, and missions established in Eminence, Licking, Gainesville, and Houston. The early explorers, the European settlers bringing their faith and devotional practices, the railroads, and the church’s evangelization outreach had done their work well. By the 1950s, the Catholic Church of southern Missouri was firmly planted.
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Parishes Erected in the Archdiocese of St. Louis Before the Establishment of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau
1789 — Immaculate Conception, New Madrid
1827 — St. Michael, Fredericktown
1836 — St. Vincent de Paul, Cape Girardeau
1838 — Old St. Vincent Chapel, Cape Girardeau
1840 — St. Denis, Benton
1847 — St. Lawrence, New Hamburg
1850 — Immaculate Conception, Jackson
1851 — St. Mary’s Our Lady of Help Mission Church, Pilot Knob (destroyed by tornado June 1957–merged with St. Marie de Lac, Ironton
1856 — St. John, Leopold
1859 — St. Benedict, Doniphan
1868 — St. Mary of the Annunciation Cathedral, Cape Girardeau1870 — St. Francis de Sales, Lebanon
1871 — St. Canera, Neosho
1873 — St. Catherine of Siena, Piedmont
1874 — St. Henry, Charleston
1878 — St. Marie du Lac, Ironton
1878 — St. Augustine, Kelso
1878 — St. Joseph, Arcadia (attended from Ironton–closed 1957)
1880 — Sacred Heart, Salem
1886 — St. Joseph Mission Church, White Church
1888 — St. Michael Mission Church, Cabool
1889 — Sacred Heart, Dexter
1890 — St. Ann, Malden
1890 — St. Margaret Mary Mission Church, Neelyville (attended for Poplar Bluff–closed 1986)
1891 — Sacred Heart, Poplar Bluff
1892 — Sacred Heart, Caruthersville
1892 — Sacred Heart Mission Church, Thayer
1892 — Guardian Angel, Oran
1893 — St. Francis de Sales, Sikeston
1897 — Sacred Heart, Willow Springs
1898 — St. Edward Mission Church, Dutchtown (attended from Jackson 1898-1907; 1966-1967; Chaffee 1907-1927; 1959-1966; Advance 1927-1958; Cathedral of St. Mary August 1958-May 1959–closed 1967–merged with Cathedral of St. Mary, Cape Girardeau, Chaffee, Advance, and Jackson)
1902 — St. Mary, West Plains
1902 — St. Eustachius, Portageville
1905 — St. Teresa, Glennonville
1905 — St. Joseph, Advance
1905 — St. Anthony Mission Church, Glennon
1907 — St. Josephat Chapel, Beaverdam (attended from Doniphan–closed 1915)
1907 — St. John Chapel, Buckhart (attended from Mountain Grove–closed 1962)
1907 — Our Lady of Sorrows Mission Church, Williamsville
1907 — St. Ambrose, Chaffee
1910 — Sacred Heart, Wilhelmina (became a mission attended from Piedmont in 1963-1964–closed 1978–merged with Glennonville and Jackson)
1911 — St. Joseph, Scott City
1923 — St. Cecilia, Kennett
1940 — Holy Family, Cape Girardeau (closed 1961)
1948 — St. George Mission Church, Van Buren|
1950 — St. Maria Goretti Mission Church, East Prairie (closed 1976)
1951 — St. John Vianney, Mountain View
1951 — St. Joseph Mission Church, Steele (attended from Kennett 1951-1959, 1961, 1968–attended from Caruthersville 1960, 1963–closed 1986)
1952 — Our Lady of Sorrows Mission Church, Lesterville
1955 — St. Sylvester Mission Church, Eminence
1956 — Christ the King Mission Church, Bunker
Parishes Erected in the Diocese of Kansas City Before the Establishment of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau
1883 — St. Mary, Pierce City
1891 — St. Lawrence, Monett
1892 — St. Joseph, Springfield
1892 — Holy Trinity, Marshfield
1892 — SS. Peter and Paul, Pulaskifield
1892 — St. Michael Mission Church, Wentworth (attended from Sarcoxie until 1956–attended from Pierce City 1956-1966–closed 1966
1893 — Sacred Heart, Mountain Grove
1897 — St. Wenceslaus, Karlin (became a mission church in 1962; attended from Bolivar–closed 1963)
1904 — St. Mary, Lamar
1906 — Holy Trinity, Aurora
1908 — St. Agnes Cathedral, Springfield
1908 — Sacred Heart, Webb City
1908 — Sacred Heart, Conway
1912 — St. Joseph, Golden City (attended from Lamar 1956; attended from Bolivar 1957-2000–closed 2000
1938 — St. Mary, Joplin
1939 — St. Susanne, Mt. Vernon
1940 — St. Catherine Mission Church, Humansville
1940 — St. Leo the Great Mission Church, Ava
1943 — Immaculate Heart of Mary, Mansfield
1945 — St. Edward, Cassville
1946 — St. Elizabeth, El Dorado Springs
1946 — St. William, Buffalo
1946 — Sacred Heart, Bolivar
1948 — Nativity of Our Lord Mission Church, Noel
1949 — St. Patrick Mission Church, Greenfield
1949 — St. Martin Mission Church, Crane (attended from Aurora–closed 1956)
1951 — Our Lady of the Lake, Branson
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