Sacred Heart: Konawa Oklahoma

ERIC NEHER

Eric lives in Blanchard with his wife and son. He is a contributing author to Ozark Farm and Neighbors as well has having several flash fiction stories published.

On the evening of January 15th, 1901 a strange sight was witnessed by the people of Konawa Oklahoma. An eerie orange glow suddenly appeared from the east; as if the sun had decided to trick the world with an early rise. Forty miles away the truth of what they were seeing was gaining in strength as the uncontrollable flames jumped from structure to structure. The Sacred Heart Mission was burning, and no one could stop it.

 It is from here, just five miles outside of the town of Konawa, that I now stand, gazing at the crumbled remains of an integrated hope cut short. It is not often that I find myself surrounded by the physical remnants of a dream that has fallen to ruin, and yet the two cemeteries that lay upon these grounds seem to cry out just that. One cemetery sits open with rows of crosses lined and bent with age. Here lies the Priests, and it is here that you are free to walk amongst the crosses as if you were stepping back through time. The other cemetery is much more of a curiosity; small marker’s peek up from the jagged blades of grass, all of which face towards a large crucifix as Jesus gazes down. More interestingly is that this cemetery is fenced off.  However, why? The reasons are open to speculation, but some say that the bodies of the children who died in the fire lay there. Another guess is that the Sisters who were sworn to chastity can, even in death, still keep their distance. Maybe that is why on warm nights a lonesome hooded figure can be seen drifting from stone to stone as if to reassure them that they are not alone.

What a historical jewel, a true gamble of a harsher time when just traveling from point A to B gave one plenty of time to rethink their decision. In 1879 Dom Isidore Robot, a French Benedictine Priest must have had more than ample time to do just that as he braved the harsh lands on horseback and wagon. An agreement had been made between he and the Potawatomi tribe; a Catholic school would be built as long as the children of the tribe would be taught. With the help of the tribe the first monastery was erected; a fifteen by the fifteen-foot log cabin. However, the excitement went way beyond the small wooden walls, as the motto ‘Pray and Work’ became a contagious way of life amongst the monks and the Potawatomi children. Their day often began at 4:00 am and lasted until well beyond the western sunset. Soon the spirit of this new endeavor expanded beyond the secluded region, as word was spread throughout the world even leading to the arrival of the missions first Benedictine Sisters in 1880, six women who had made the journey to teach the schools first class of girls. By the end of the nineteenth century the mission, which had started out as a small log cabin, had grown into its own self-sustaining community, including a post office, newspaper and a bakery that was renowned for producing five hundred loaves of bread a day. The future looked bright as white children sat in the same classrooms as their Native American friends. At least that was until 1901. 

The screams of terror must have been drowned out by the flames as they danced from building to building, swallowing within hours what had taken years to create. The ashes lifted high by the gusts of an oncoming storm, its promising rain too far away to care, as the survivors watched helplessly. They claim that no lives were lost that night, but I wonder. Perhaps they all did walk away and perhaps not, but one thing is for sure; beyond the physical tally there was certain death, and on that night hope was massacred. Standing here now, with the faraway murder of crows crying out to each other across the tree line, it is easy to see why Sacred Heart is listed as one of the most haunted places in Oklahoma. Its legend lies deep in an oral pit of historic misery. The bakery now stands as the only surviving relic, chipped and drowned as water from an unknown source fills its lower chamber, like a motionless cesspool that dares you to try. From somewhere deep within the murky chamber a single drop can be heard, falling with a timed hesitation.

The growing shadows from the late afternoon sun invite the imagination to take its turn as the snapping of a branch from deep within the woods catches my attention. The trees know the truth. If they could only speak, what a tale they could tell. It is among them, it is said, that a pair of drifting blue orbs can be seen moving between the branches, pausing for only a second, then moving on, like the spectral eyes of a tribal sentinel from long ago. I move cautiously closer to where the sound came from and stopped suddenly at the worn down beginnings of a path. The trail weaves its way on into the foliage, sticks litter the narrow walkway along with the curled needles from the scattered pines. Another call from some unseen bird cries out, sending a shudder up my spine as I take my first step onto the path. At first, it seems as though I have walked into another world; a pre-Neolithic time before the saw and ax changed everything.

As I walk on, my romantic evening dream is brought abruptly back to a less than desirable reality, as the low, reflected gleam of a crushed beer can appears before me. Out of respect, I bend down to pick it up when the maddening laugh of coyotes suddenly echo throughout the woods. A momentary jolt of fear ripples through my body as the image of ‘Murdered By Human Wolves’ flashes like a neon warning sign in my mind. These were the words that had been carved into the tombstone of an eighteen-year-old girl who died in fall 1917. It happened one night after a fallout with her father. She had stormed out into the open night alone. The family farmhouse sat in a clearing that was surrounded by the very same woods where I now stood. She knew that she should not venture too far in, but she was angry, and at that moment she could care less. Further on she went until the lantern lit windows of her house disappeared like the closing of tired eyes. The forest floor shined with the silver glow of a full autumn moon, as the newly fallen leaves crunched beneath her steps. At some point, she had decided to stop, but the sound of leaves being crushed did not. The girl knew that her life would soon be over as a howl ripped through the night, soon answered by another.

This is the legend, fueled by decades of rumor and fiction, and like so many other stories that thrill when the campfires blaze, there is a grain of truth. Perhaps a fallout with her father really did happen after all, and maybe she did leave her home angry and alone. The story of Katherine Cross is more than just some story; it is a criminal case. In 1917 the thought of premarital sex wasn’t too far away from the act of murder, and if a young woman happened to find herself pregnant from such an event it was safe to assume that a life of shame was soon to follow, and not just for her, but the family as well. To be in that condition in the early nineteenth century must have been horrific enough, and it wasn’t uncommon for certain types of illegal procedures to follow. Moreover, for Katherine Cross, that decision to terminate the pregnancy proved to be fatal.

 They say that on the nights when the full moon is free to shoot its silver beams from a cloudless sky, you can see her spirit walking blindly through the forest, hunting for the ‘Human Wolves’ that took her life. Tales of werewolves and missing children, ghostly panthers that pounce with shadowy claws dead Friars are carrying their dark flamed lanterns for the forgotten children of a dwindling clan to follow in silence. All of this seems to be a mere fairytale when you think of the true horrors that have happened. The terrifying notion that within a nine-month period a person can go from innocence to legend through no fault of her own is something that I find to be truly horrifying. The Sacred Heart Mission is truly one of the most interesting places that I have ever had the pleasure to visit, and whether it is haunted or not, I say who cares. Just to be standing on those grounds, surrounded by the cemeteries, the woods, and the ruined buildings are enough.

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