St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Pawnee, OK

St, John
by Donatello

History of St. John's

The Parish of
St. John the Evangelist
Pawnee, Oklahoma 1902-

Originally written in 1992 by Father White

Most public buildings have a cornerstone. St. John's in Pawnee has two. One of them, a standard red granite plaque, gives the name of the church and a date, January 18, 1956, apparently the date of the dedication ceremony. The other stone is native sandstone, smaller, and much older. The Latin inscription reads “S JOANNIS AP ET EV + MAR 4 1902” or “St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, March 4, 1902.” Thereby hangs quite a story.

Territory Days
The Pawnee tribe was moved to the Indian Territory from Nebraska in 1876. When the Dawes Commission was established by Congress in 1887 to allot the Indian lands in severality [a sole, separate, and exclusive possession, dominion, or ownership], the Pawnees were the first to negotiate and to settle for allotment. Each Pawnee was given an equal share of reservation land and such acreage as was left over was opened for white settlement. The Pawnee opening took place on September 16, 1893, the same day as the famous Land Run into the Cherokee Outlet. Most of the reservation, together with the area to the east – known as “The Triangle” or “The Flat Iron Country” because it was shaped by the confluence of the Arkansas and Cimarron Rivers – was incorporated into what was first designated County Q, and later, Pawnee County.

Those were rough days. Cowboys who had been sidelined because of poor economic times had turned to crime. The notorious Doolin gang had a series of hideouts in the region. Just two weeks before the Land Run, on Sept. 1, 1893, the Doolins had been involved in the infamous shootout at Ingalls, in Payne County, which left three deputy marshals and two innocent bystanders dead. On the afternoon of January 23, 1894, Bill Doolin, Bitter Creek Newcomb and Tulsa Jack Blake entered the Farmers and Citizens Bank at Pawnee. Finding that the bank vault had a time clock that would not open for another thirty minutes, Doolin decided not to wait. He simply sacked up $262 left on the counter for the close of the day's business and forced cashier C.L. Berry outside to the waiting horses. With the cashier riding behind on Doolin's horse to prevent citizens from opening fire on them, the gang rode to the edge of town. There Berry was ordered to “pile off”, and the bandits escaped through the woodlands of Black Bear Creek into the Osage reservation.

On May 2, 1895, William B. “Bee” Dunn, a friend of Doolin and a minor outlaw in his own right, attempted to draw on deputy marshal Frank Canton on the street in front of Bolton's meat market. Before he had his gun half out of the holder, he was struck in the forehead by a bullet from Canton's gun. He fell on the sidewalk, according to a contemporary account, “dying and working the trigger finger of his right hand.”

The first Catholic Mass was celebrated in the town of Pawnee not long after the Land Run. Attended by ten white Catholic families and two Native Americans, the mass was offered in the offices of P.J. Meurer. The celebrant was probably Father Placidus Dierricks, O.S.B., a Benedictine monk from Sacred Heart Mission in the Pottawatomie National and chaplain at St. John's Indian School. This institution was located northeast of Gray Horse, Osage Nation, Indian Territory, and had opened in 1888. Mr. Meurer was the Justice of the Peace, and a loan and real estate agent in town. His firm, the Meurer Abstract Company, is still doing business on the courthouse square in Pawnee.

An infant girl, Jenny Grace Nuttle, was the first child of record to be baptized in Pawnee. Her baptism took place on June 4, 1899. Her parents were Robert and Mary Ward Nuttle, while the sponsors were a Mr. And Mrs. Martin.

The Spelmans were another pioneer family. The head of this large family – there were twelve or thirteen children – arrived in the Pawnee area from Iowa in the 1890s, before St. John's had been built. A chief concern of his, when bargaining for a homestead, was whether there was a catholic church in the town. The man was dealing with, anxious to make the sale, assured him there was a Catholic church, and to prove it, took him to see what was actually the Presbyterian church! Even he had been deceived in the way.

Mr. Spelman took his family in a wagon every Sunday all the way to Stillwater for Mass.

(His daughter would recall the trip on the train from Iowa. There were no dining cars then, and all passengers had to provide their own meals. Mrs. Spelman had packed a number of suitcases to carry on the train with her children; one was full of sandwiches, others with packed fruit, and so forth. The children simply ate their way to Oklahoma.)

Strict Catholics, they shunned many of the local Pawnee entertainments. Four daughters of this family became nuns. The Spelmans became friendly with another Catholic family from Cushing, the Schafers (who were originally from North Dakota). Father Herman J. Schafers was pastor of Cushing from 1925 to 1942; other members of his family were already living there. Lucy Spelman met on of the Schafers' boys at a Catholic Church picnic in Stillwater. They married and had four children; the three oldest girls became nuns and the youngest boy, born in 1924 and named after his uncle, became a priest in 1958. (The elder Father Schafers also had two sisters who were nuns.) After the death of her husband, Lucy Spelman Schafers, who had lived in Cushing during her marriage, returned to Pawnee to reside with her sister, Mary Spelman, who had worked at Meurer Abstract. (Katie Privett has described Mary Spelman as a saint. She was the eldest girl in the family. She never married, and cared for her mother for many years.)

On November 30, 1967, the younger Father Schafers, who was an enthusiastic amateur pilot, crashed his plane near Enid. With him was his aunt, Mary Spelman. Both were killed.

First Church
The Catholics in Pawnee continued to attend Mass in Mr. Meurer's offices until 1902, when the first Catholic Church in Pawnee was completed. It was built on land donated by Mr. Meurer. Nick Richard, an employee of the Pawnee Indian Agency, supervised the construction work under the guidance of Father John Heiring of Stillwater. Much of the carpenter work was done by the parishioners. The alter was built by Mr. Richard and his son, Matthew. (Another tradition, recounted by Bernice Hill, says that Mr. Steinbaugh, who was a carpenter and cabinetmaker, built the altar.)

Judge Meurer's daughter, Mollie, solicited funds from the townspeople to build the church; it was not uncommon in those early days for people of one denomination to help another congregation build their facilities. The building was 28 feet by 54 feet and cost $1500. It stood on Kansas Street just east of Highway 18, almost exactly on the site presently occupied by the Indian Methodist Church.

On March 4, 1902, Bishop Theophile Meerschaert came from his headquarters in Guthrie to dedicate the new church to Father Heiring's patron saint, St. John the Evangelist. At this time, Father Heiring had been ordained less than a year. He had served from July until November 1901 as chaplain at the Osage Mission for boys at Hominy Creek (Gray Horse post office). On November 1, 1901, he took over as pastor of Stillwater, and work started on the Pawnee church exactly one month later. Father Heiring was never a man to waste time. Soon after, he built churches as Ralston and at West Point in Payne County.

In 1906, he moved from Stillwater to Tulsa, where he built all the buildings that now comprise Holy Family Cathedral and the chancery office. He also saw to the construction of the original buildings of what is now St. John Medical Center in Tulsa (named, like Pawnee's church, for his own patron saint). Through a long life (he was 89 when he died in 1964) he built many other Catholic churches and institutions in Oklahoma, but St. John's in Pawnee was his first.

William Edward Pearle was the first child to be baptized in the new church, while another infant, Agnes Larkin Raperle, was the first to have her funeral there.

The early strength of the Pawnee parish was to be found in a community of Bohemian farmers who settled in the region after the Land Run of 1893. Names such as Cech, Cieloha, Zajic, Lovashuk, Novotny and Woolenshuk, Schlais and Hettenbach were common in the parish. Only a few Pawnees ever belonged to the parish. Lack of priests to serve the area, plus traditional Catholic distaste for engaging in what was viewed as Protestant-style evangelism, meant that little effort was ever made to convert members of this tribe. The majority of church-going Pawnees are either Methodist, Episcopalian, or, especially today, Baptist.

Among the Pawnees who were pillars of St. John's Parish were Henry Roberts, a son of Chief Rush Roberts – head of the [Pawnee] tribe during the 1930s – and his sister Lena. Henry Roberts, a Pawnee fullblood, was sent to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where he met his future wife, Rose Denomie, a Chippewa and a Catholic. Henry Roberts became a Catholic at about the time of his marriage. Henry and Rose lived in Pawnee for a time and then moved to Albuquerque where he worked as a security guard. They were joined by Lena, who afterwards married a Catholic Navajo man named Tafoya; she also joined the Church. Lena Tafoya returned to Pawnee and was active in the Pawnee Parish. She celebrated her 100th birthday on November 4, 1991.

Gertrude Farrell was another Pawnee **correction who was important to St. John's. She made it her special concern to see that the Catholic children at the Indian boarding school in Pawnee – there were usually fifteen to twenty—got to Mass every Sunday and were prepared for their First Communion.

Merton Moore (RIP) and Marlene Mameah were Pawnees who presently are active members of St. John's.

Beside J.P. Meurer, the first generation of Pawnee civic leaders included a number of Catholics. Joe Roland, Meurer's nephew, took over the abstract office after Mr. Meurer's death and managed it for many years. Joe never married. He is remembered as a wonderful man, a very sociable type, who lived with his mother and cared for her.

Mr. And Mrs. Eugene Schanzenbach were important early members of the parish. He was a carpenter and cabinetmaker. He and Mr. Read helped build the original St. John's in 1902. His daughter Anna married Wade Paxton. Because they had successfully prayed to the Infant of Prague to assist in their oil-leasing business, the Paxtons donated the statue of the Infant of Prague to St. John's church.

In 1904 the Pawnee mission was again cared for by the chaplains from Hominy Creek. When Hominy Creek closed in 1913, the chaplain was transferred to Pawnee, and for two years Pawnee had its own resident pastor. The congregation failed to grow, however, and in 1915 Pawnee was attached to the Stillwater parish.

Another of Pawnee's Catholic citizens was Dr. Moore, a surgeon from New Jersey who came to Pawnee with his sister Margaret, a nurse. (She was later office nurse to Dr. Haddox.) Together, with some local people, he built Pawnee's first hospital. It was active until after Dr. Moore's death in 1913. (The building still stands. It is located on the bench that overlooks the present St. John's Church.}

Defying the Klan
Dr. Charles Haddox was a Pawnee native who converted to Catholicism when he met Mary Webb, his future wife, while attending Washington University in St. Louis. The couple married in 1920 and moved to Marramec, where he practiced medicine for two years before moving to Pawnee. They had four children, including Katie Privett and three sons.

Bernice Hill was born and raised in the area of St. Paul, Minnesota. She first came to Pawnee in 1922 to visit her half-brother. Pawnee during the 1920s was a Ku Klux Klan town. The Klan would often burn crosses on a hill that overlooks the fairgrounds northeast of town, and Bernice's mother, a fervent Catholic, was advised not to make too much of the fact. A cross was burned on Mollie Meurer's lawn, but she faced the Klansmen down and defied them to unmask themselves.

In 1930, Bernice and her mother moved to Pawnee to live with her half-brother. Two years later she married Kearney H. Hill, a native of Pawnee and member of a pioneer family of the area. (The original Hill homestead is still in existence, a sandstone house on Highway 18, north of town. When the hills first came to the area, they lived in a dugout until the rock house was built.) Bernice and Kearney, who late converted to Catholicism, operated a grocery store for many years. They later sold the store, which has been converted into the present Rawhide Bar. The couple had three children – two sons, Kearney, Jr., and Jerome, and a daughter, Rita Marie, who died of complications from appendicitis at age seven.

The first generation of Pawnee's Catholics were notable for their fervour and adherence to the faith. The drift began with the generation that was born in the 1920s. The reasons for this were bound up in many of the same factors that caused the overall movement away from farms and small towns to the cities. As young Catholics moved away from the Pawnee area, those who remained tended to be influenced y the more numerous Protestant churches and by the factors that have caused a breakdown in religious observance generally.

During the Depression the women of St. John's brought sack lunches and met every Tuesday at Mrs. Roland's home, where she had set up a number of quilting frames. To support the church during those difficult times the women spent each Tuesday making quilts, which they sold for twenty dollars apiece. Katie Privett remembers going every Tuesday after school to Mrs. Roland's, because she knew that's where her mother, Mrs. Haddox, would be.

Pawnee's most celebrated citizen, Gordon “Pawnee Bill” Lillie, had a Catholic connection. Al Lillie, Pawnee Bill's brother, went on an European tour with a famous circus and met his wife, Gertrude, in Germany. She, a Catholic, returned with Al to live in Pawnee. Al remained an Episcopalian, but at his funeral, Father Victor J. Reed, pastor of Stillwater and Pawnee, assisted at the service in the local funeral home. (Father Reed was very popular with the people of Pawnee. In 1958 a number of Pawnee citizens commented to Bernice that they were glad he had been made a Bishop.)

Katie's brother's Wedding, in April 1947, was memorable because the priest failed to show up. Father Reed had just been appointed rector of Holy Family Cathedral in Tulsa, and in his excitement he forgot he had a wedding scheduled in Pawnee. To compound the problem, there was a telephone strike at the time, and Dr. Haddox had much trouble getting through to Stillwater to inform Father Reed that there was a church full of people waiting for the ceremony to begin. Finally after several hours, Father's assistant managed to get to Pawnee to conduct the wedding. The poor groom was the last to learn what had gone wrong; he was waiting in a small anteroom and no one had thought to tell him. He assumed the delay was because the bride had decided to call the wedding off.

In 1949, Pawnee became a mission of Fairfax, and it was a pastor of Fairfax, Father Philip Wilkiemeyer, who presided over the construction of the present brick church.

The New Church
Joe Privett started the drive toward a new church. Himself not yet a Catholic, he saw the drift away from the Catholic faith in Pawnee and was concerned by it. The original church had been built in the center of town, but in the 1950s, that area had become “the wrong side of the tracks.” He felt that the congregation would take more pride in a church that stood in what was then the newest and most prestigious part of town, the Lusk addition. He assembled the congregation and proposed that he would purchase several lots in one of the remaining choice sections of the addition if the congregation would undertake to build the church. The new church was built in 1955. Fred Zaroor of Muskogee, who had recently designed Sacred Heart Church in that city, was the architect. The first Mass was offered on Christmas Day 1955, even thought the dedication did not take place until three weeks later. The first wedding, that of Harry Willard and Petronilla Branson, took place on December 31.

Theresa Tanner, a member of St. John's, ran a successful restaurant in Pawnee. After she retired, she was approached by the Lion's Club asking if she would prepare their Thursday night suppers. She in turn asked the parish women, and they served the dinners for several years in the late 1970s. With the proceeds they purchased an organ for the church. When this became inoperative, Jerome Hill supplied the parish with a second-hand instrument.

As the parish aged, it had at one time five members between the ages of 87 and 95.

It has been difficult to sustain the faith in Pawnee. Children of the parish who moved away have generally remained Catholic, but those who continued to live in the town have usually married into families that are active in other, more aggressive, churches. These have drifted away from Catholicism.

The Catholics of Pawnee observed the ninetieth anniversary of their church on Sunday, December 6, [1992]. Most Reverand Eusebius J. Beltran, Bishop of Tulsa (and newly-appointed Archbishop of Oklahoma City) presided at the anniversary Eucharist at 11:30 a.m., after which there was a parish reception and dinner. In connection with the anniversary, a committee has been organized to plan the renovation of the church, with special attention to correcting design flaws int eh roof. Wallace Wozencraft of Tulsa had been engaged to prepare the plans.

Jerome Hill saved and returned the orignal church's church bell and Dr. and Mrs. Lauvetz had the bell restored. The bell now hangs proudly on the church grounds.

##[end of the body of the history written in 1992 by Father James White & Rita Hill ]
** Correction made by Gwen Shunatona 13 April 2010
What a delight to read the history of St. John's. I was thrilled to see my grandmother, Gertrude Farrell, remembered. She would probably be amused to see that she is identified as a Pawnee. Actually, she was from the Lasley family of (1) the Prairie Band Potawatomi and (2) the Sac and Fox, two tribes located in Kansas as well as the Otoe tribe of Oklahoma. She came to Pawnee for employment with the Pawnee Indian School where, because she gave catechism instruction to the Catholic students, she was given the moniker of "The Holy Ghost" by some of the students! Our family especially liked that story. "Mammah" Gertrude was the head cook at the Indian School when I visited Pawnee on the weekends and during the summer from Wichita with my parents, C. George "Babe" (Pawnee and Otoe) and Mary (Farrell) Shunatona. At the original St. John's, my sister, Gertrude Jen, and I would sit in the choir loft to sing with others. One time, not being able to clearly see the altar, "Jerry" Hill began to play the organ before it was time. Because he didn't hear my Mammah call him, she tossed her money for collection at him to get his attention. Fortunately, Jerry stopped playing ... and did not keep my Mammah's money!
- Gwen Shunatona
History of the Original and "new" Church buildings written by Jerome Hill in 2007


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