The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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September 29, 2000 Issue
Local News

Saint helped Oneida school

Mother Katharine Drexel gave to help build Immaculate Conception School in 1914

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

A Northeast Wisconsin Catholic school was among the many groups touched by the generosity of Blessed Katharine Drexel, who will be canonized by Pope John Paul on Oct. 1.

"Money from Mother Drexel's community, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, helped to build Immaculate Conception School in Oneida," says Sr. Ella Kaster, CSJ, diocesan archivist.

Last October, Sr. Kaster received a letter from the Bensalem, Pa.-based community, requesting updated information on Mother Drexel's agreement with the Oneida parish.

A review shows that Mother Drexel had donated $1,500 to Fr. Aloysius Vissers, O. Praem, who was pastor at Immaculate Conception. The money was designated to be used for the building of a Catholic school on the land of the Oneida Reservation. True to the precepts of Mother's Drexel's order, founded in 1891 to aid Native Americans and African-Americans, the agreement states that "no Indian children shall be excluded from the school to give place to White children."

A copy of the March 7, 1914 agreement, signed by Mother Drexel and Fr. Vissers, is in the diocesan archives.

Mother Drexel was born in 1858, heiress to a Philadelphia banking fortune. In 1891, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, Pa., and used her multi-million dollar inheritance to found schools and missions to serve Native Americans and African-Americans living in poverty around the United States.

There are no records that Mother Drexel ever visited the Oneida school, which was built on land donated to the parish by Eli Skenandore. However, she did visit Wisconsin and the St. Mary's Indian School in Odanah on the Bad River Reservation, eight miles east of Ashland.

In 1888, Katharine Drexel visited the school, founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in 1883. She agreed to an $8,000 donation to expand the already crowded school. Over the years, she continued to donate to the Odanah School.

The Oneida parish dates back to convert instruction classes held in Skenandore's home on the Oneida Reservation. Skenandore was baptized on Feb. 4, 1890. A parish church was built in 1891.

Fr. Vissers was named pastor in 1910 and began a nationwide appeal for funds to build the school. At times, the Native children would accompany him on his appeal trips. It was this appeal campaign that seemed to have attracted Mother Drexel's attention.

Construction on the Oneida school began in 1922 and was completed in 1927. The building doubled as a church for the parish, since the original 1891 church was deemed unsafe. The parish did not build a separate church until 1961. (That church was destroyed by arson on Halloween 1965.)

The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity ran the school and lived on the third floor of the building until a new convent was built in 1965.

Immaculate Conception School was closed in 1987, but the 1922 building still stands.

Mother Drexel died in 1955. She was beatified in 1988. At her beatification, the pope praised Mother Drexel for her determination in combating ``the devastating effects of racism'' in the United States. Her feast day is March 3.

(Sam Lucero of Superior and John Thavis of CNS contributed to this story.)

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