Kansas City’s first historian was Father Bernard Donnelly. In the mid-1850s, he was assigned as pastor to the riverfront Town of Kansas, later to become Kansas City. The happenings of the day were written in his records of marriages, baptisms, and funerals. These records give a first-hand account of daily life in the early town and aided his friend, Reverend William J. Dalton, in writing The Life of Father Bernard Donnelley.
Bernard Donnelly was born in Kilnacreva, Ireland. His poor parents could neither read nor write. He excelled in mathematics in school, pursuing studies in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. He became a civil engineer and worked on the construction of the Liverpool docks in England. Donnelly sailed to the United States in the early 1830s on a journey that took 80 days. He took a teaching job in Philadelphia and in 1840, over 40 years old, he entered a seminary in St. Louis. Ordained in 1845, his first parish encompassed the area from Independence, Missouri, to Indian Territory, now the state of Kansas. He traveled throughout the area until the middle of the 1850s, when he was assigned to the Town of Kansas.
After the Civil War the Town of Kansas expanded south. Donnelly opened a brickyard and a stone quarry on land owned by the Catholic Church in Quality Hill. He brought hundreds of Irish laborers to pave streets and build many of the city’s earliest structures. In 1857 these laborers built a brick church at today’s 11th and Broadway streets, replacing the log church built there in 1835. This church was the center of the town’s Catholic Diocese until the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, still standing, was completed in 1882. Donnelley sold some of the church’s property on Quality Hill to build St. Teresa’s Academy, The St. Joseph’s Orphan Home, and to purchase the land for St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Father Donnelly had an unwavering faith in Kansas City that prompted him to write in 1880, “Kansas City is likely to become one of the larger cities of the United States.”