Another area that had a great impact on the history of Shawnee, but not originally located within the city’s boundaries, was the Sacred Heart Mission.
Another area that had a great impact on the history of Shawnee, but not originally located within the city’s boundaries, was the Sacred Heart Mission. It was stationed five miles northwest of Konawa, and three miles north of State Highway 39 between Asher and Konawa. It was the first Catholic Mission, monastery, convent, and Pottawatomie Indian School in the territory.
It served as the center for other missionary activities throughout all of Indian Territory. The mission was also the place of origin for current-day St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee. The site’s ruins provide an excellent example of the way typical Catholic missions were arranged in the late 1800s. This vernacular landscape is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated Oklahoma Landmark.
Sacred Heart is intertwined with the birth, life and demise of the Sacred Heart Mission. In 1876, Father Isidore Robot, a member of the Order of Saint Benedict, while on a missionary journey, visited the area then recently settled by the Pottawatomi Indians. He was invited to stay with them and to organize a school and a church.
The Sacred Heart Mission Post Office opened on January 30, 1879, and closed on May 24, 1888. The Post Office for the town of Sacred Heart opened May 24, 1888, and closed August 31, 1954. The newspaper was the Indian Advocate. The site selected for the school and mission was a well-known landmark called Bald Hill.
A branch of an old military road from Fort Smith to western forts crossed at the base of the hill. With the help of the Indians a log house suitable for both church and school was built. Small log cabins for living quarters were also built. Recognizing the need for a school for girls, the Convent of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was erected a short distance from the mission. Nuns came from Illinois and New Orleans to conduct the school. In due time an abbey and other buildings were completed.
On January 15, 1900, a fire destroyed all the principal buildings and most of the lesser ones as well. The town was not immediately affected by the fire. Hopes were high that the railroad building from Shawnee to Ada would come through Sacred Heart. However, the tracks were laid three miles east toward Konawa. During the 1925-35 years a store and a few homes were added, for the village had visions of an oil boom. However, only one well was attempted. Old foundations and outlines of abbey and school buildings remain.
The cemetery in which the early fathers and lay brothers were buried is on the same grounds, just east of where the school buildings were. East of the present church is a more recent cemetery, but directly across the road from it is an old weed-covered cemetery used by the Indian residents of the area many years ago.
The remains of store buildings stand on both sides of what was the main street of Sacred Heart village. A few homes, built along the section line east from the village are in use. A rock school building, used by the public school district remains. The large Catholic Church on Bald Hill now reflects the memory of Sacred Heart, mission and village.
About two weeks after the fire, at a business meeting, the Benedictines tentatively agreed that the college of the future should be built in some less remote location. Not having the funds or means to do this at the time, temporary school buildings came were developed at Sacred Heart and the move was delayed.
By 1912, Shawnee was decided upon as the new location and land was acquired nearby the city. The monastic community placed Father Hilderbrand Zoeller in charge of the construction. The building of the college got underway in 1912, with the laying of the cornerstone in 1913. The name St. Gregory’s College was inscribed thereon. In the summer of 1915, the building was complete and the first students arrived in September of that year. There were only 15 students enrolled. Dedication ceremonies took place on November 23.
In 1916, the legislature of Oklahoma empowered the Shawnee institution to confer the “usual academic degrees.” The school in the early years was generally known as the “Catholic University of Oklahoma.” The curriculum was that of a four-year high school and the first two years of college. Senior college work did not get off the ground in those days, so by about 1920, the name “St. Gregory’s College,” became the common name for the institution. (Some of the information for St. Gregory’s was written by Father Joseph Murphy in May of 1968.)
(Clyde Wooldridge is a local historian, who has published four local history books on Wilburton, McAlester and Eastern Oklahoma State College and the Coal Industry in eastern Oklahoma. Look for his comprehensive history of the city of Shawnee, called “The Redbud City,” coming in 2018.)