The father of Mid-Missouri
Monday, July 15, 2013
TAOS, Mo. — People were special to him.
Born of Belgian aristocracy, Father Helias chose the wilds of the American frontier. He left behind fine clothes and beautiful homes for buffalo-hide coats, log cabins and sleeping along the trails.
Helias earned the nickname “Apostle of Central Missouri” for establishing seven parishes and more than 20 missions, most of which eventually became parishes.
Although his service was in the mid-1800s, his legacy extends beyond a name for streets, schools and organizations. He is entombed at St. Francis Xavier and a small museum tells his story in the basement of his beloved parish.
The People’s Tribune Aug. 19, 1874, reported “the evidence of his success will remain as his monument long years to come.”
The middle-aged priest arrived in Mid-Missouri 175 years ago.
From his early teen years, Helias dreamed of a life spent sharing the Gospel with the Native Americans.
His European superiors “were more than anxious to oblige him, for they felt he was too wild and energetic for any European cloister,” Peggy Smith Hake said in the History Stories of Miller County.
Fleeing persecution in his homeland, Helias arrived in New York after his 42-day voyage aboard the Poland in 1833. He learned German working with immigrants in Pennsylvania before being called to St. Louis University to teach French, German, canon law and moral theology in 1835.
At age 42, Helias finally received the word he had waited decades for — he was going to the mission field.
But instead of Indians, he was to reach displaced German immigrants.
A 1838 steamer brought the pioneer priest to the banks of the Osage River. His traveling companions happened to be Peter DeSmet, known later for his ministry to the plains Indians, and John Sutter, who would discover gold in California.
His first frontier Mass was celebrated at Cote-Sans-Dessein May 11, 1838. From then, his ministry was a whirlwind of traveling by pony across a larger area than his Belgian homeland and delivering sacraments and blessings in four languages.
That same year saw an influx of immigrants to Central Missouri.
The Jeffersonian Missourian reported Nov. 3, 1838, “the road from St. Louis west is ‘literally’ filled and blocked up with teams, carriages and slaves.”
Earlier immigrants whose crops had failed in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee or the Carolinas the previous year joined the new German immigrants fleeing political, social and religious oppression.
For example, many of the Bavarians who settled in Rich Fountain sought Helias to solemnize their marriages, because in 1837 King Ludwig I passed a law preventing the poor from marrying.
Both groups also were drawn probably because Missouri land sold for $1.25 per acre, whereas further east land was $15 to $40 per acre.
Helias took it upon himself to minister to all the brave souls venturing into the western wilderness to make a new life. He reached 25 mission stations across 11 counties.
“He was as rugged a pioneer as the people he served,” the Taos 150th anniversary book said.
At times, Helias also served at doctor, lawyer, postmaster and justice of the peace.
Helias’ portable desk was discovered at a 1970s estate sale in Loose Creek and is now on display at the Westphalia Historical Museum.
“In my years of teaching at Helias High School, I would display this desk in my classroom,” said Freeburg native Father Joe Welschemeyer. “I wanted to get the students to see that Helias was a flesh and blood human being who also strove to have values and faith passed on to the next generation.
“‘Helias’ should mean more than a mere athletic team or a diploma name. It truly was a person.”
Historian Gary Kremer agreed, “Father Helias is sort of the grandfather of all the Central Missouri Catholic parishes.”
He was remembered by 29 parishes when his body was reburied in the St. Francis Xavier vestibule from the parish cemetery in 1964.
One key to his early success was separation.
Born in a war-infested Europe, Helias and other early Jesuits were fearful the sect fighting would carry over with the immigrants. So they intentionally isolated communities by homeland — Bavarians in Rich Fountain, Rhinelanders in Loose Creek, Belgians in Taos, Westfalens and Hanoverians in Westphalia, and the French at Bonnots Mill.
“Since the numerous immigrants who came from diverse provinces and different nationalities and who by antipathy and natural prejudice could not live in peace, I had to separate them into different congregations,” Kremer revealed from Helias’ unpublished memoir.
The early years in Westphalia, the original center of the mission, were highlighted by his design of the town lots, with the church at the center.
Helias’ first Mass in Jefferson City was celebrated May 27, 1838, for about 150 mostly German and Irish workers, eventually leading the St. Ignatius Loyola parish.
The mission at Cedron similarly was established in 1838 to minister to the California settlement growing because of the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
And from one, two-hour sermon in Portland, the Callaway County community was so moved, they collected $2,000 and sent the deed for five acres to the Jesuit Order with a request to establish a college in their town.
He was the first to minister to inmates at the Missouri State Penitentiary. In 1839, he prepared the inmate for the first Cole County hanging.
By 1842, Helias transferred his residence to Taos, which grew from immigrants primarily from his homeland.
Although he never saw his mother again, Marie Helias D’Huddghem, Countess of Lens, raised countless funds to support his holy endeavors, especially the construction and decoration of St. Francis Xavier Church in Taos.
Helias suffered from a variety of heath issues, even from childhood. While in his mission field, he required two operations after falling from a horse, he nearly died from exhaustion and again from a severe infection.
During the Civil War, he was accused of being a spy by both sides and he was harassed and pillaged by both, as well.
As a missionary, Helias gave equally to all he encountered and likewise received respect and support from Catholics and Protestants alike. And he adopted Pierre Labat, a 9-year-old orphaned after his parents succumbed to the 1853 cholera epidemic.
Despite his gift for missions and his ability to overcome adversity, it seems Helias’ one unsaintly flaw was to be outspoken.
“Would that this good man would learn discretion in his words,” wrote Helias’ Jesuit superior Father Verhaegen.
He died of a stroke on his way to ring the Angelus evening bell for the Taos parish. His last wish was granted to be buried in his beloved Taos, when the hermetic seal of his casket cracked and the railroad refused to transport him to the Jesuit Cemetery in Florissant.
Helias had left his own inscription: “Flanders was my cradle, France instructed me, Italy, Germany and Switzerland sheltered me, After many ventures and labors on land and sea, God settled me in Missouri. The foundations of Westphalia were laid by me and seven parishes were founded by me to the greater glory of God.”
“He, the man of noble birth, must have possessed great kindness, so that his aristocratic manners became winning in the eyes of the simple peasantry; and his severe virtue must have been blended with great cordiality so that people remote from ascetism were cheered,” an 1880s priest recorded.
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