Discolored by oxidation, the copper box had been sealed within
a time capsule since 1896 in the foundation of the chapel at the
Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s former Our Lady of Good Counsel
Convent at 1849 Cass Avenue, popularly known as the Clemens House of
Samuel Clemens fame — aka Hannibal’s Mark Twain.
Now, it was about
a half-mile to the west at 1421 Jefferson Avenue in the St. Louis Fire
Department Headquarters’ media center, sitting on a table covered with
white paper and awaiting its grand reveal.
The crowd gathered
March 28 included Sisters of St. Joseph, developer Paul McKee, Clemens’
family descendant Elizabeth Boland-Barbieri, St. Louis media and
interested firefighters, including chief Dennis Jenkerson. They watched
intently as landscaper and salvager Jim Meiners, with assistance from
McKee, pried open the stubborn box, which had been tightly sealed with
Meiners removed the contents one item at a time, items that
had been untouched by human hands since the 19th century, items the
Sisters chose to preserve for future generations and tell the story of
their time 122 years ago.
To that end, they saved five newspapers,
which emerged yellowed and brittle but intact — the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch, Globe Democrat and Republic, and two issues of Church
Progress, with one including a front-page story about late St. Louis
Archbishop Peter Kenrick, who had died a month earlier. It cost $1.50,
for a year’s subscription. The Globe cost 2 cents per issue, double the
Post-Dispatch, which touted beneath the name plate, “All Bicyclists Look
To The Post-Dispatch For Bicycle News.”
The sisters also saved
two pamphlets — the constitution and bylaws of the Ephpheta Society, a
shoutout to their initial ministry in St. Louis of teaching deaf
“Ephpheta Society is a society for the deaf. ‘Ephpheta’
is from the gospel — healing of the deaf,” said CSJ archivist Sister
Jane Behlmann, noting that the Sister’s St. Bridget Deaf Mute Institute
was briefly in the convent after the sisters bought it in 1885.
also pulled out six religious medals, a “Jerusalem” cross, a one-inch
statue of St. Joseph, a medallion commemorating Archbishop Kenrick’s
priestly jubilee in 1891, a scapular of Our Lady of Good Counsel and a
handwritten, single-sheet letter addressed to the bishop of St. Louis
and detailing what was then the Sisters’ 60-year history in St. Louis.
yellowed paper had disintegrated in multiple places, but Sister Jane
was able to read aloud the first paragraph, which detailed their arrival
from Lyon, France, in 1836 at the invitation of Bishop Joseph Rosati
and their first ministry teaching deaf children.
Jane described the experience of reading something locked away for 122
years as, simply, wonderful.” She added another “wonderful” for good
McKee likewise alternated between “very cool” and “really cool” in describing the experience.
cousin, James Clemens Jr., built the mansion in 1860 on property
inherited from his father-in law, John Mullanphy, in honor of his late
wife, Eliza, who died of cholera in 1953. Mother Agatha Guthrie bought
it from his heirs in 1885 for the Sisters of St. Joseph.
used it as their base for 64 years to staff parish schools in north St.
Louis City and north St. Louis County. The Our Lady of Good Counsel
Convent served as home for teaching sisters until new parishes built
on-site convents. Occupancy fluctuated based on the completion of parish
convents, but 80 to 100 sisters lived there over the years,
representing 17 parishes. The Sisters added a four-story dormitory at
the rear of the mansion/convent, then the large chapel next to the
building in 1896.
The Sisters of St. Joseph sold the property in
1949 to the Vincentians, who needed to relocate and make room for
construction of Interstate 55. Thirty years later, they gave it to the
Catholic Worker community, which used it as a homeless shelter.
Developer McKee ultimately bought the then-vacant property in 2005 and
had hoped to redevelop it as part of his Northside Regeneration. A
four-alarm fire in July, believed to be arson, ended that idea, but out
of those ashes arose gifts from sisters of 1896.