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Historian chronicles pioneer priest

Sommereisen became Kansas farmer

September 9, 2012
By Fritz Busch - Staff Writer , The Journal

NEW ULM - Details about the life of a Catholic priest credited with serving as a missionary to the Dakota Indians besides building churches from Southern Minnesota to Kansas were revealed by a Mankato church historian Saturday at the German-Bohemian Society Annual Potluck Picnic at Hermann Heights Park.

"Father Valentine Sommereisen was a very interesting person that people either loved or hated, there was no in between. And he was one busy guy," said Ken Ziegler, historian at Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Mankato.

A missionary to the Dakota who spoke the Sioux language fluently, Sommereisen served three dozen communities in southern MInnesota from 1856 to 1871. His first mass was given in a log cabin house near what later became St. George in 1856.

Article Photos

Staff photo by Fritz Busch

Ken Ziegler, historian at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Mankato, talks about pioneer priest Father Sommereisen Saturday at the German-Bohemian Society Annual Potluck Picnic at Hermann Heights Park.

Originally assigned to Saint Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Mankato, Sommereisen decided to build the church despite not having enough money to do it at the time.

"He couldn't always get bishop approval to do something because he was so far away, so he'd do things on his own," Ziegler said. "Sommereisen went all the way to Germany to borrow $12,000 in Gold marks from his brother. Trouble was, he was jailed just before being in Germany during the Franco-Prussian War before he was able to return to Minnesota."

Zeigler said the church was originally built of bricks that came from Minnesota River bank mud.

"The outside of the church was rather plain, but the inside of it, where most of the money was spent, was beautiful," Ziegler added. "Upon returning to Minnesota, Sommereisen was sent to Yankton, S.D. in 1871 to start a new church. The parish didn't agree with Sommereisen's church-building plans, so they withheld offerings. The bishop sided with the parishioners so Sommereisen left Yankton on his own."

Ziegler said Sommereisen traveled across South Dakota, considered a hostile place to travel at the time, in a horse-driven buggy without a gun. Sommereisen traveled west, offering his services to Gen. George Custer on his Yellowstone Expedition in July 1873.

Ziegler said Sommereisen wasn't afraid of the Indians because they knew who he was and referred to him as "The Santee Godfather."" He said Sommereisen filled that role in the baptism of the 38 Dakota before they were hung at Mankato in late 1862.

In October 1876, Sommereisen was first resident priest in Hays City, Kan. His first mass was at the Fort Hays military post. He served Fort Hays and German-Russian colonies on a monthly basis.

Sommereisen asked for and was granted permission to retire early and began farming, tending a vineyard and apple orchard in Kansas.

"People in Kansas told him he couldn't grow a vineyard or apple trees but his farm flourished, so well in fact, he repaid his brother the $12,000," Ziegler said. "In his later years, many people enjoyed visiting his farm and listening to stories of his travels. He was a very colorful person who spoke English, French, German and Dakota."

Ziegler said Sommereisen was credited with the idea of creating what looked like a cannon by putting together two sections of stovepipe on a wagon and making a small fire, during the Dakota attacks on New Ulm in August 1862.

"It looked like a cannon from a distance, which some historians say, although there is no way to be sure, that it was convincing enough to prevent the Dakota from attacking New Ulm a third time," Ziegler said.

Years later, a number of Mankato parishioners followed Sommereisen all the way to Kansas.

Ziegler said history buffs interesting in studying obituary details at St. Peter & Paul's Church in Mankato, can visit the church by appointment. He added that there is usually someone in the church library from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays.

"Our obits are in stacks," Ziegler said. "It's the oldest Catholic church in southern Minnesota and the only property in town still occupied by its original owners."

German historian Dr. Gerhard Sollbach, who spoke about what brought German immigrants to Minnesota 150 years ago, was scheduled to talk at the Saturday gathering, but opted to visit the Black Hills this weekend with his wife.

Denis Warta of New Ulm spoke in place of Sollbach Saturday.

"Germans came here in 1854 because it was a great place to farm, especially to grow potatoes," Warta said. "Potatoes were their single best energy source."

Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at



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