Project Canterbury The Mass Mound of St. Katherine's
By Sister Esther, C.S.M.
American Church Quarterly volume 35, 1934
TRAVELERS in the old countries and in the Catholic parts of our own continent frequently come upon shrines erected by the wayside or in lonely parts of the forests and wilder portions of the country. What fascinating history, what holy legends, and what life experiences are interwoven with them!
Throwing off some of our iconoclastic ideas, and elder Puritanical feeling against images and shrines in America, we are beginning to erect chapels to the greater glory of God and shrines where we may kneel and pray as we journey through the land. Here and there, even, altars are set up out of doors. Outdoor services are held and processions take place more frequently. We begin to feel that need for expression which comes with the greater exercise of our religious devotion.
An interesting story hangs about the campus of St. Katherine's School in Davenport, Iowa. The school is on a high bluff of the Mississippi where the great Father of Waters decides to interrupt his north and south journey to flow from east to west for a short space. On this campus is an elevation which has been known for nearly a century as Holy Hill or Mass Mound. From traditional history this country has been swept by disastrous tornadoes. Both Indians and white people were in constant fear of what the heavy clouds, seen so often in the sky, might bring forth. Just as harvest time came, disastrous wind storms would destroy the crops and scatter the farm animals.
This region was in very early times, as we read in Parkman's history and in the records of the Jesuits, frequently visited by Jesuit missionaries, and missions abounded along the banks of the Mississippi. Davenport was but an Indian encampment, Blackhawk's watch tower guarded the opposite shores of the Mississippi, and Colonel Davenport's trading station was on Rock Island, now the site of one of the great United States Arsenals. Antoine Le Claire traded with the Indians farther to the north near where the famous Buffalo Bill was born.
One day, after the dread of devastating storms had long lain heavy on the dwellers of this beautiful country, one of the missionaries summoned all Indians and Whites, Christians and non-Christians--all who could be reached, to a meeting. He set up an altar on a hill where St. Katharine's now stands, and celebrated Mass daily for a week. Day by day the Indians came and went. The Christians sang litanies and prayed for blessing and protection. On the last day the holy priest lifted the Host and blessed all the country that lay before him, and prayed to God that henceforth it might be preserved from storms and cyclones. Now St. Katharine's fair gardens grow and prosper about this spot.
The Sisters of St. Mary heard this tale, and after much research have attested the fact by pioneer records and the Jesuit records in St. Louis. One of the manuscripts reads, "On the mound of the old Davis house (now St. Katharine's School), southwest side, where French priest had a black cross made of walnut wood, carved by hand, a crucifix, as great storms were so dangerous. Very holy clergy knelt in prayer, and made offerings to God for safety."
It is fairly well established that the "French priest" must have been either Father Mazzuchelli, a Dominican priest who in 1838 erected the Church of St. Anthony (now standing in Davenport) or Father Van Quickenborne, a Jesuit. Tradition points, however, to Father Van Quickenborne, for the narrators of the tale usually relate that the officiating priest was a Jesuit who had recently come from New Orleans; and the Jesuit archives in St. Louis confirm this tradition. The Sisters have found that the story as told in widely differing groups of the older people of Davenport varies in its details.
In 1928 a shrine was set up upon this Mound of Sacrifice and blessed at Commencement by Bishop Theodore N. Morrison. Now in 1931 an altar dedicated to St. Joseph has been erected. It was blessed by Dean Philbrook of Trinity Cathedral, Davenport, April 29th, and on Corpus Christi the first outdoor Mass was said.
It seems altogether fitting that, as in the Chapel of St. Mary there are the altars of St. Mary and the little altar of the Holy Child, the school should have the altar of St. Joseph. There it stands facing the river and ever reminding us of our dependence upon the sacrifice of the altar for the blessings which have been bestowed upon Davenport and St. Katharine's School.