By the Rev. Mr. Paul M. Steele
The actual day and month of the Wichita’s first Mass had been a mystery. According to a letter from Fr. Paul Ponziglione written Oct. 22, 1888, it can be announced that the first Mass in Wichita was celebrated on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 1869. Somehow, the details of the first Mass were forgotten or overlooked during the following 141 years. While several references mention 1869, the actual month and day of the first Mass remained a mystery.
It would be a quick three years and three months later to Nov. 24, 1872, when Wichita’s first Catholic Church was dedicated under the name of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. During the preceding 27 months the population of Wichita increased from fewer than 100 persons to an estimated 3,000 persons.

Soon after moving to Kansas, I found an on-line document titled “Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception – History,” wherein a conspicuous announcement caught my attention. It proclaimed, “In 1869, Fr. Paul Ponziglione celebrated the first Mass in the home of the Meagher Family for the 13 Catholics of a small cow town called Wichita.” With great surprise, I realized the Meaghers are my ancestral grandparents, as well as the ancestral grandparents of Mrs. Jill Lehr, and her family who reside in Wichita.
However, history was an unlikely topic for the village’s first Catholic settlers. They would have talked about their longing to hear a priest preaching; and an opportunity to receive Holy Communion. Despite their hunger, the opportunity almost escaped them on Aug. 9, 1896. Fr. Paul Mary Ponziglione would later recall his first visit to Wichita, saying in the “voice” of his Italian accent, “(I came) from El Dorado, a long way between a real Sunflower forest, riding the Old-Buffalo trail between the two places.”
“When I came to Wichita and announced myself a Catholic priest, the few Catholics I met would not believe me, and judging from my shabby appearance, for I was all covered with dirt and Sunflower seeds sticking to my clothes, wearing an old dilapidated straw hat, and carrying an old patched saddlebag, they concluded I surely was a tramp.”
He continued, “As I saw that I could not change their opinion about me, I requested … to hitch up my horse to a post … (for there was no breeze on the plains that whole day except few small Willows on the edge of the Arkansas), and I went for a walk between several dugouts, which were the places Wichita had at that time. I was not gone very long when I met some young men, and an old trader, who had seen me frequently at my Osage Mission. “
“This was enough, I needed no longer to prove my character, people began to crowd around me apologizing, and inviting me to their houses. I was thankful to God for the change new things had taken. I stop with Mrs. (Ellen) Meagher (Mahr) whose husband way quite sick and unable to walk out. And it was in Meaghers house that on the 10 of August, as I recall the first Mass ever celebrated in Wichita.” He also wrote, “On the occasion of this my first visit to Wichita, I found but 3 Catholic families.”
Now, it is known that the Catholic families who attended the first Mass totaled 13 persons, including two complete Catholic families, one married Catholic woman, with her child, but without her husband; and another Catholic woman, with child, not counted as a Catholic family because her husband was Protestant. Several unknown Protestants also attended.
The individual names of those families can also be stated with certainty. The members of the Meagher were Timothy (58), Ellen (54), Michael (28), John (27), and Mary Celia (18). Likewise, the members of the Mahoney family were Bartholomew (65), Catherine (59), Timothy (31), and Michael (23). Also, Mary Pierce (22) and Abraham (3 months); plus Catherine Greiffenstein (19) and her infant child were present.
Jesuit Fr. Paul Mary Ponziglione was the celebrant and most important person in the “rest of the story.” But for now with an image of his shabby appearance in mind, a fond memory offered years later by a parishioner from St. Paul, Kan., helps us see him as a man “below average height but rather stout built. He was an old man when I knew him his hair being almost snow white, but he had an elastic step and a cheery smile that made one forget his age. He accosted the rich and the poor, the Christian and the sinner, the friend and the stranger with the same pleasant greeting that made him a friend of everyone.”

 

About the author and this series
The Rev. Mr. Paul Michael Steele, Ph.D., is a permanent deacon and board certified chaplain. His ministries include hospital chaplaincy as the director of Pastoral Services at Mercy Hospital and serving St. Andrew Catholic Church, both in Independence. As a transferring deacon, his curiosity about the Diocese of Wichita led to an unexpected surprise; which prompted him to look for more surprises. In the first of several articles, Deacon Steele answers the unanswered question, “What was the month and day of Wichita’s “First Mass?” In subsequent editions, he will acquaint us with Fr. Paul Mary Ponziglione mission and the Meagher “home-church.” The entire series, along with his footnotes, is online at catholicadvance.org.

Deacon Steele, center, spoke June 6 at Wichita’s Cowtown in the original First Presbyterian Church, and later St. Aloysius Catholic Church, Wichita.