As war clouds loomed over Eastern Jackson County just prior to the Civil War “Battle of Westport,” fear was sparked in most local residents and commerce slowed to a trickle.

All except one newspaper closed their doors, as did many other places of business, and telegraph wires were being cut daily by the Bushwhackers. When rumors circulated that the soldiers might very well seize money from the local banks, the depositors started withdrawing their money and seeking places to hide it before the approaching armies.

Father Bernard J. Donnelly was well respected by the whole community and groups of parishioners and many Protestants, friends, and merchants brought money and valuables in cans, jars and purses for the priest to care for until the troubles were over.

He tried to tell them that war was no respecter of the cloth and that he was no more immune to search and seizure than anyone else, but they would not listen. So, Father Donnelly made entry of each name and amounts of each treasure in his ledger.

Reasoning that the cemetery would be the safest place, he loaded all valuables into a large wooden box and under the cover of darkness hoisted the box on his shoulder and headed for the cabin of the gravedigger, a sexton named Tom. The box was loaded in Tom's wheelbarrow and by light of the lantern they selected a perfect grassy spot, removed the sod and loaded the loose dirt on the wheelbarrow. They lowered the box into the hole, replaced the loose dirt and sod, and swept away any remaining evidence the ground had been disturbed.

Feeling the treasures were secure, Father Donnelly returned home to sleep for the night. However, Tom did not, he went to a saloon instead to wet his whistle. After a few drinks he began to talk. “It was a fine thing the good Father and I have done this night. Never has any man laid eyes on such a treasure as we buried in that little cemetery up on the hill.”

When word of Tom's boasting got back to Father Donnelly, he quickly gathered four trusted men, and still under the cover of darkness, hurried to the cemetery, dug up the box, and reburied it behind the church. The job done, Father Donnelly returned to bed, but sleep would not come. If he could not trust one man, how was he to trust four men?

With shovel over his shoulder, he went alone to the second hiding place and once again dug up the treasure. He carefully stepped off a number of paces from the corner of the church and buried it for the third time that night beneath a large shade tree.

The next day the Battle of Westport in all of its fury passed through and Father Donnelly assisted with the casualties. It was some time before he could continue his parish duties and think about returning the treasures in his care to the people.

He once again shouldered his shovel and stepped off the paces from the corner of the church. However, as he turned the soil, much to his amazement, the box was nowhere to be found. He surmised that apparently someone had watched from the shadows as he buried the box for the third time, and had stolen it.

Father Bernard J. Donnelly was born in Ireland and came to America in 1839. He was ordained to the priesthood May 1, 1845, in St. Louis. He arrived in Independence on his first mission May 17, 1845, and became the first resident pastor of the present St. Mary's parish. In June 1857, he began his second mission in Kansas City where he continued to be the “first” in many fields of endeavor.

Reference: “Jackson County Pioneers” by Pearl Wilcox.

In cooperation with The Examiner, Ted W. Stillwell is available to speak before any club, church, civic, senior, or school groups.

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