Romance of Omaha, Chapter X
No part of "The Story of Omaha" is so touched with romance and so inspiring with accomplishment as that which deals with the religious life and development of the vast region between the Mississippi river and the Rocky mountains, from the Canadian border to the Kansas line.
Many decades before the white settler came to the western plains, French Catholic missionaries found their way over prairie, plain and mountain to preach the Word of God to the roving Indian and roaming fur trader and trapper.
Unfortunately we know little of the journeyings of these devoted priests who fought their way through the wilderness and braved the dangers of an unknown land that they might reach those who, up to that time, knew naught or little of the Christian faith.
However, it is not difficult for the imagination to picture these men, forerunners of the later devoted, self-sacrificing missionaries. Protestant and Catholic, traveling over land and river, in an endeavor to win the wild Indians to their faith.
So far as history or legend goes, the first missionary to visit Nebraska was Father Juan de Padilla of Spain, who came to Mexico with Cortez and accompanied Coronado northward out of Mexico in the year 1541.
Father Padilla met a martyr's death at the hands of the Indians, either in what is now southern Nebraska or northern Kansas. He was the first, but by no means the last, missionary, to give his life for his faith in the western land.
It was between the time that Father Padilla visited this land and the early 80s that the French priests came to the country. It is also probable that some Spanish priests came up the rivers from New Orleans during the 17th or 18th centuries.
The first missionary to reach the vicinity of Omaha, so far as authentic history goes, was the Rev. Moses Merrill, a Baptist minister.
He arrived at the Bellevue fur trading post in 1833 and for seven years zealously sought converts for his church throughout the region. He was the first of the Protestant missionaries to cross the Missouri river into what is now Nebraska.
Five years later Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, Catholic missionary, arrived at what is now Council Bluffs. He traveled from the Mississippi to the mountains for more than 30 years and became one of the most influential men of the new land. Beloved of Indian and white man alike, he prevented Indian uprisings on several occasions by appeals to the better nature of the red men.
Peter Cooper First
Neither the Rev. Moses Merrill nor Father DeSmet, as far as known, held church services on the present site of Omaha.
The honor of holding the first religious services in what is now Omaha, belongs to the Rev. Peter Cooper, a Methodist pastor of Council Bluffs.
He crossed the river one Sunday in August, 1854, and held services in the St. Nicholas hotel, which had just been built. About 25 persons were present.
The Baptists followed closely behind the Methodists, and in 1855 held their first services on the site of Omaha.
The Rev. Reuben Gaylord, Congregational minister, arrived with his family on Christmas day, 1855. They had driven 300 miles overland through Iowa in the dead of winter in a carriage drawn by two horses. Mrs. Gaylord brought her three children, one a baby boy only 10 months old.
The first Catholic church services in Omaha were held in May, 1855, by Father W. Edmunds of St. Joseph, who came up the Missouri river for that purpose. He said mass in the legislative hall of the old territorial capitol on Ninth street.
Mormons Come Also
Although the Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists and Catholics thus shared honors of being among the first to hold religious services they were preceded by the Mormons.
On June 29, 1846, the first Mormons crossed the Missouri river and settled in "Winter Quarters" on the present site of Florence, now a part of Omaha.
By the end of that summer 12,000 Mormon men, women and children had reached Nebraska. Churches and schools were established and regular services held each Sunday. Brigham Young was the leader of the Mormons and often officiated at the services.
There seems to be some question as to whether the Methodists, Catholics or Congregationalists erected the first church building in the city. From the best information obtainable the Congregationalists first held services in their own building by utilizing the basement of their church located on Sixteenth street just north of Farnam and facing east.
But the Catholics apparently completed their church first. It was a little brick building on Eighth street. Both churches were finished in 1856, as was the first Methodist church on Thirteenth street between Farnam and Douglas, a site afterward occupied by the Omaha National bank building.
Episcopals in 1856
The first Episcopal church services were held in Omaha on July 13, 1856. A rector from Council Bluffs conducted services in Omaha until the year 1860.
The Lutheran church was organized in 1858 by the Rev. Henry W. Kuhns, one of the noted churchmen of the early days. Mr. Kuhns was untiring in his missionary efforts and traveled all over the west for many years.
The first church bell to ring out in Omaha was placed in the steeple of the First Lutheran church erected in 1860 at Thirteenth and Douglas streets where the Millard hotel now stands.
Omaha became a "see city" as early as 1859, when Bishop James O'Gorman of the Catholic church came to Omaha and established his residences here. Bishop O'Gorman was offered 63 lots by the Omaha townsite company if he would select Omaha as the see city of the Catholic diocese. The bishop refused the gift, but remained in Omaha.
One of the major events in the Catholic history of Omaha was the baptizing of 15 babies by Rev. Father Scanian in 1856. The infants had been born in the new town and their parents seized the first opportunity for baptism.
The second bishop to locate in Omaha was Robert Clarkson, Episcopal bishop, who came to the city in the fall of 1865. Nebraska and the two Dakotas comprised his diocese. He was one of the most beloved men of the west. Devotion to duty caused his death. He refused to forego scheduled visits to far parts of his diocese in inclement weather, contracted pneumonia and died.
Bishop John P. Newman of the Methodist church located in Omaha in 1888. Headquarters of three dioceses have been maintained here since.
Well Known Pastors
Among the best known of the ministers who came to Omaha were Rev. Thomas McCague of the United Presbyterian church, who arrived in 1867; the Rev. Henry W. Kuhns and the Rev. Rueben Gaylord, heretofore mentioned, the Rev. Newton Mann, Unitarian minister, and the Rev. Frank Crane, Methodist pastor, who later became a noted writer. He died recently.
The first Jewish services were held in 1868 in the old Masonic hall on Fourteenth street and the first synagogue was erected in 1874.
St. John A.M.E. church was the first church for colored people established in the city. That was in 1870.
The growth of Omaha churches from the year 1854 has been steady and sure. Every denomination in the city has progressed and as the years have passed, finer and larger churches have been erected. The tendency of the churches has been to move westward with the residential districts and the old days when all the church buildings were "downtown" have gone forever.
Trinity Cathedral, constructed in the early 80s, still stands at Eighteenth and Capitol avenue, but it is the last of the big churches to remain in the business district.
Now Church City
At the present time Omaha has 194 church organizations. Nearly all have their own buildings. They represent 28 denominations and sects.
The total value of the church buildings in the city, including the sites but not including schools or hospitals, is estimated at $15,000,000. According to County Assessor Sam K. Greenleaf, that is a conservative estimate.
The church population is another figure that is difficult to arrive at with any degree of accuracy. It is estimated that 50 per cent of the residents of Omaha go to church with some degree of regularity.
The finest and costliest church building in the city is St. Cecilia Cathedral. It has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and is not yet completed.
Kountze Memorial Lutheran church, which recently celebrated its 70th anniversary has the largest congregation. It is the largest Lutheran church in the country.
During the last 10 years more than $2,000,000 has been spent on new church buildings in Omaha. Among the newer and finer church buildings are the First Presbyterian and the First United Congregational.
Church organizations in Omaha, with the number of churches, are as follows: Adventists, three; Baptists, 24; Catholics, 31; Christian, six; Church of Christ Scientist, three; Church of Christ, Latter Day Saints, three; Congregational, five; Episcopal, 10; Evangelical, three; Greek, 11; Lutheran, 21; Methodists, 26; Presbyterian, 22; Unitarian, one; United Brethren, one; Reformed, one; Christian Missionary, one; Peoples, one; Jewish Synagogue, three; Church of the Nazarene, two; Pentecostal, two; Missions, three; Church of God, two; Community Gospel Temple, Church of Our Redeemer, Foursquare Gospel church, Christ's Temple, Community Church of God, Temple of God, Free Methodist and Liberal Catholic, one each.
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