Sister of St. Joseph deliver gifts from 1896

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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 lead.

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 children.

"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.

Meiners 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.

The 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.

Later, Sister Jane described the experience of reading something locked away for 122 years as, simply, wonderful." She added another "wonderful" for good measure.

McKee likewise alternated between "very cool" and "really cool" in describing the experience.

Twain's 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.

The CSJs 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. 

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