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Loretto Follows the Santa Fe Trail

Posted on September 1, 2019, by Carole Eschen SL

Eleanor Craig has been heard to say that, “a few minutes of misery can provide a lifetime of great stories.” The trip following the Santa Fe Trail that 11 of us recently experienced certainly supports this statement.

The idea for following the Santa Fe Trail was rooted in Eleanor’s desire to make Loretto’s legacy a living experience for the Archive Staff and some Loretto Community members. Eleanor’s years of directing the Discovery Trails program for visually challenged teens enabled her to provide a rich background for the places we went and the people we met. 

Most of the travelers left the Loretto Motherhouse on the evening of July 3, taking the path followed by Loretto sisters as they set out for Santa Fe to open new missions in the mid-1800s. Our journey was a bit more comfortable! A van and auto transported Eleanor, Marcia Mohin, Susanna Pyatt, Ayla Toussaint, Karel Disponett, Kaye Edwards, Anndavid Naeger, Julie Popham and Maria Visse toward St. Louis. They arrived in the pouring rain, were greeted by Rita Brugenhagen, and offered hospitality and a dry bed at the Motherhouse of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

From left, Anndavid Naeger, Neil Tucker, Karel Disponett, Carole Eschen, Eleanor Craig, Cathy Smith, Kaye Edwards, Maria Visse and Preservation Officer for the Osage Nation Andrea Hunter visit a cemetery in St. Paul, Kan., where Loretto members are buried.
(Photo courtesy of Eleanor Craig)

July 4 the travelers ventured across Missouri, arriving that evening in Independence, again in the rain. Neil Tucker and I joined the group at the graveside of Mother Matilda Mills, who died of cholera on her journey westward in 1852. Fear of contagion had led town leaders to bar the travel of her body through town, so the Stayton family provided for her eternal rest in their family plot. We stood under a convenient tree and attempted to sing a song written for a 2002 celebration honoring Mother Matilda, but the tree had many gaps and soon we were soaked and the paper copies of the song were turning to mush. This was a soggy but moving beginning to what proved to be an incredible journey.

Visiting a Spanish colonial museum in Santa Fe, N.M., are, from left, Susanna Pyatt, archival curator; Ayla Toussaint, archivist; Karel Disponett; Julie Popham; Anndavid Naeger; Marcia Mohin, archival assistant; Maria Visse; Carole Eschen; and Eleanor Craig, director of the Loretto Heritage Center.
(Photo courtesy of Eleanor Craig)

Neil and I joined the travelers while Cathy Smith was able to take part in only the first and last day. July 5, the first stop was the Shawnee Mission (Kansas City, Kan.) Museum where we learned about the Native American tribes that sent their children to the mission for education. Our final stop 10 days later would also be at an Indian mission, Loretto’s St. Ann’s Academy in St. Paul, Kan. After a wonderfully informative presentation, we set out for Council Grove, Kan., a significant waystation on the Santa Fe Trail. There an 1825 treaty brought about a cultural exchange between the Kaw people and Euro-Americans. Our sisters had passed through this beautiful town on several of their westward treks. The end of our first day found us in Great Bend, Kan., where we experienced the hospitality of the Dominican Sisters of Peace. 

The Santa Fe Festival of Nations took place while the Loretto travelers were in town. (Photo by Carole Eschen)

In the next week, we saw many marvelous sites and had a great time visiting living history, military and trading forts, a Native American pueblo and all the sites in Santa Fe.  I could write many pages, but the things that made the trip most special were our fellow travelers and the people we met. Traveling in a caravan gave us an unusual opportunity to get to know people we were just meeting and to hear the stories of those we did know in greater detail. Neil used his photo-journalism skills to document the trip, and his ability to engage people brought him in contact with a number of Loretto alums. For example, Pat Brockwell in Santa Fe told Neil, “I learned to be kind” as a student at St. Francis grade school.

Joining the Loretto travelers are Jennifer Felsberg, local historical society host, and two Benedictines who now reside in the former Loretto convent at St. Joseph Parish in Taos, N.M.
(Photo courtesy of Eleanor Craig)

Susanna, Loretto Heritage Center curator, told us about Sister Alfonsa Thompson, who is believed to be buried near Pierceville, Kan. She was traveling the Santa Fe Trail in 1867 with Bishop Lamy when she died, probably of cholera. We had a moment of silence and a prayer while Maria played a soulful tune on her flute. (Check out the Loretto website to see Susanna’s fascinating account of an early example of fake news, for Sister Alfonsa was reported to have died from Indian attacks, brutally killed along with all the others in the wagon train.)

Attending the Luminaria reception gathering are, clockwise from left, Kaye Edwards, Renee Holmes from the Loretto Chapel, Mary Ann Wamhoff, Carole Eschen, Julie Popham, Kathy Baldwin-Heitman, Marcia Mohin, Anndavid Naeger, Karel Disponett and Eleanor Craig.
(Photo courtesy of Eleanor Craig)

Our brief time in Taos, N.M., was made memorable by a visit with Maria’s longtime friends Pat and Kathy. They invited us to their home, and we shared an evening of stories and laughter. Maria spent almost 20 years in Taos and welcomed the chance to visit, and we all are richer for the contact.

When our sisters arrived in Santa Fe after many months of arduous travel, they were greeted with processions and celebrations. Our journey was much less difficult, but we were welcomed just as enthusiastically when we arrived at the Inn at Loretto in Santa Fe. Michael Lakoff, sales manager, and members of his staff gave us such a warm welcome and provided a lovely reception on the patio. Two Santa Fe members, Kathy Baldwin-Heitman and Mary Ann Wamhoff, joined us that evening. They returned the next day for lunch on Museum Hill with us and Sandra Hareld, Karen Knoll and Trish Herron. This was a wonderful way to be together to share our adventures as Lorettos. 

Standing from left, Mark Sullivan of Franciscan Media/St. Anthony Messenger, and Michael Lakoff, sales manager of the Inn and Spa at the Hotel Loretto, join with Loretto travelers Carole Eschen, Julie Popham, Kathy Baldwin-Heitman, Marcia Mohin, Karel Disponett, Eleanor Craig, Mary Ann Wamhoff and Renee Holmes of the Loretto Chapel at the Luminaria reception gathering in Santa Fe, N.M.
(Photo courtesy of Eleanor Craig)

The next evening in Santa Fe, Michael and Mark Sullivan invited us to their home for a wonderful Southwest vegetarian meal. Michael did most of the cooking, and it was evident that he had former training as a chef. The food and company were exceptional! 

Returning from Santa Fe we followed a southern route. Two long days of driving brought us back to Kansas to our final destination in St. Paul. Once again we were greeted warmly and enthusiastically. In 1847, the Loretto sisters had been invited to St. Paul by the Jesuits to teach the girls of the Osage Nation because the Osage people highly regarded education. Our St. Paul hosts, Felix and Margaret Diskin, had contacted the Osage Nation whose preservation and history staff joined us and members of the local museum for a generous and tasty luncheon. Osage anthropologist Andrea Hunter, two of her staff and two members of the Oklahoma reservation spent the afternoon with us. Hunter and Eleanor enthusiastically made arrangements for the Osage members to travel to the Loretto Heritage Center in December.

From left, Julie Popham, Kaye Edwards and Karel Disponett stand in front of the entrance to Hotel Loretto in Santa Fe, N.M.
(Photo by Carole Eschen)

In St. Paul we visited the cemetery we found the graves of Mother Bridget Hayden and other Loretto sisters who served in St. Paul. The Jesuit graves are clearly marked as are the Loretto sisters’, but the Osage graves are marked by a single small stone which only says “Indian graves.” A more fitting memorial is being planned by several members of the Osage Nation and will be dedicated in the near future.

There were so many wonderful people and places visited during this extraordinary journey. We shared on so many levels. I have always been a fan of experiential learning and this was an example of learning at its best.


Carole Eschen SL

Carole Eschen SL retired in 2018 after 53 years of teaching math and science at four schools, including Loretto Academy and Kansas City Academy in Kansas City, Mo., where she still resides.
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