By the Rev. Mr. Paul M. Steele
(This is the last of three articles about the first Mass celebrated in Wichita.)
Fr. Ponziglione and Wichita’s first Catholic church
The expansion of the western frontier brought increasing numbers of immigrant Catholic families including Irish, German, Belgian, Hungarian, Scotch, French-Canadian, and Freed Negroes to the missionary stations established by Fr. Ponziglione. Thus, the growing needs of other communities, delayed his celebration of a fifth Mass in Wichita until June 4, 1871; and the sixth and final Mass until Sunday, Aug. 4, 1872. At that time, realizing the congregations need for a church building, he asked “Mother Meagher” to raise subscriptions, which she did, including the donation of two lots by J. R. Meade at the corner of Second Street and St. Francis Avenue.
Less than two months later, the Wichita Eagle announced, “There will be Catholic services at the school house next Sabbath” with Fr. Phillip Colleton, from the Osage Mission, as the celebrant. Within weeks of the Mass celebrated on Sept. 29, a church foundation had been laid; but debate arose about constructing a new church or purchasing and moving the Presbyterian church building which was for sale. An appeal by “Mother Meagher” to Bishop Louis Mary Fink at Leavenworth for assistance brought Fr. Anthony Kuhls to mediate.

The Wichita Eagle dated, Wednesday, November 27, 1872 reported, “The Catholics of this town and vicinity have bought the First Presbyterian church, built two years ago. Rev. A. Kuhls saw the same for sale one day, bought it the next, and had the able engineer, Mr. Kempton, move it to the third day to its present destination. They are now working inside to paper the ceiling, and will put in a temporary partition so as to prepare rooms under the same roof for a resident priest. It will be dedicated next Sunday. The building, including furniture, has been bought for $550, and $100 has been paid for moving. The Catholics consider it an advantageous bargain, as they now possess an immediate place of worship.”
Fr. Kuhls’ summary of the event recorded in the Sacramental Records of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Catholic Church adds additional details. “The Catholic Church of Wichita was bought of the Presbyterian for five hundred and fifty dollars ($550) including all furniture, which was considered to be about one-third of the actual price. It was moved to its present foundation for one-hundred dollars ($100). The partition, paper, one stove – drum and pipes & wood have costed about ninety dollars ($90) in all $740, all of which has been paid by Rev. A. Kuhls , who did buy this church and blessed it with ‘benedicto domus’ on the 24th of November 1872 putting it under the protection of St. Aloysius. On this day, the first Mass was celebrated in the church. All furniture up to this day in the priest’s residence is a donation of the ladies of the congregation & belonging to the church. (Signed) Anton Kuhls, priest of St. Mary’s Church of Pyaudette, Kansas.”
Later Fr. Ponziglione would write, “He (Fr. Kuhls) left Wichita on the 26 assuring me that during the next week a priest would be sent to reside in that town. I feel very happy for the success of my labors had and wish that the new pastor may draw abundant fruit from the congregation I prepared for him.” However the appointment was delayed until Jan. 2, 1873 when Fr. Felix Swenberg was appointed the first resident priest of Wichita. The new parish would grow quickly, adding a rectory and parish school. In 1920, the Coleman Lamp Company purchased the church property, the parish relocated to 2605 N. Main, the church building moved to the Cowtown Museum, where refurbished, it was renamed the First Presbyterian Church.
Fr. Paul Mary Ponziglione, established 67 missionary stations during the years 1851 to 1866. However, he had previously labored for many years among the Osage Indians, learning their language and translating Catholic teachings into their language. Examples of his work, as well as the work of other early Jesuit missionaries are available and recommended for your viewing at the Osage Historical Museum in St. Paul. However, the most surprising and inspiring details of his life story were untold until the celebration of his golden jubilee. Then, persuaded by his friends, he revealed himself as an Italian nobleman, born in Italy at Cherasco, christened Paul Mary Ferrero Ponziglione di Borgo d’Ales, the only male heir of the Ferreo and the Guerras kingdoms; two ancestral families, which included Italian kings, cardinals, and Saints.
His childhood was without want, including an education befitting his rank. He attended the Royal College of Novara, the College of Nobles at Turin; and the University of Turin, and studied jurisprudence; but before completing his studies, God’s call led him to join the Society of Jesus. Thus, as a young man who had no earthly concerns, he rejected wealth and comfort, choosing instead hardship, happiness, and higher nobility by serving Christ in the desolate, dusty, and dangerous plains of the of Kansas.
He lived the last 10 years of his life in Chicago as a member of St. Ignatius College faculty, and pastor of neglected Italians in a city suburb. He also served as the chaplain for a convent, visited the cities jail inmates, spent considerable time at the asylum for deaf-mutes; and worked among the city’s poor as chaplain for the Visitation Aid Society. In January 1900, his health began to fail; and on March 28, with fellow priests in attendance, “he kissed the crucifix, and tried to say the Acts of Faith, Hope, and Charity, sweetly expiring in the effort.” His body was taken to where his deaf and dumb flock could see it, and in their own way, bewail the loss of the priest they loved.”
Fr. Ponziglione’s life shines as true and solid virtue in a high degree of perfection. His humility and sacrifice inspires those discerning priesthood or religious orders; and his unwavering faith models and guides us through life. His zeal awakens us to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, aided by grace through our Lord’s passion and death on the cross. The last deed of his life was eliciting those virtues for himself and those he served; and joyfully, we are his beneficiaries.