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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