POCAHONTAS, AR (KAIT) - Since the first priests walked out of the swamps or stepped out of canoes in the mid 1800's, the Catholic church has had a presence in Pocahontas.
Catholic churches in Northeast Arkansas initially belonged to the dioceses in New Orleans and St. Louis because of the French immigrants that lived in the area of the Bootheel and NorthEast Arkansas.
The first St. Paul's church was built in Pocahontas in 1868 at the site of the present day grotto. Thanks to the popularity of Father James P. O'Kean an Irish Catholic, Confederate chaplain who was invited to Pocahontas to speak.
Church member Tom Barre' said O'Kean was hailed as a hero when he stepped off the train.
"He was so well received that he stayed and our brother and sister protestant friends all donated and built the first church."
Father O'Kean was also responsible for purchasing the land for the present catholic cemetery and the conversion of Mr. J.C. Marvin who gave the land for the church, the convent and the school.
Father John Eugene Weibel came to the Pocahontas parish in 1879. At that time even though the farm land was excellent it was a very unhealthy place to live with malaria and other illnesses at every turn.
Father Weibel enlisted the aid of some Benedictine sisters to start a school.
"He started the school and it had a hundred or so pupils in the early 1880's and that's remarkable," Barre' said.
The school still exists but as an elementary school only.
Father Weibel played a large role in bringing European immigrant families to Pocahontas, through letters and advertising. He even wrote a pamphlet on the virtues of the area. He also used Pocahontas as a headquarters to go into the mission field.
"Weibel was the one who set up the various missions in Jonesboro and Wynne and Doniphan and Hoxie and different churches that were started," Barre' said
Another major legacy of Father Weibel was the establishment of the convent located behind the church. Weibel was able to convince many sisters to move to Pocahontas and serve.
"He knew how to get them to come," Barre' said. "They came and they went right to work teaching and helping the early families here."
At its peak the convent had about 100 sisters and novices. Those sisters spread out over Arkansas and even into Texas.
"It's something to be proud of," Barre' said. "It's benefited not only the Catholic people but the people of Northeast Arkansas as well with their schools and hospitals."
Only the washhouse remains from the original convent. Eventually the sisters moved to Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro and that remains the mother house to this day.
Around 1900 construction on the present day St. Paul's Church began, using all volunteer labor with the exception of the architect. Inside the church sits a massive marble altar. Surrounded by beautiful stained glass windows, it is a quiet place to worship.
From humble beginnings to being the center of the wheel of Northeast Arkansas Catholicism as it spread out. Pocahontas has played a very important part in the history of this state and this part of America.
"That's what makes up Pocahontas, makes up Northeast Arkansas, and makes up America," said Barre'. "It's those historical periods of struggle and hardship and hard won victories."