Sportsman's Hall

The Kuhn and Ruffner Families  Westmoreland County  1786 - 1789

Photo of Elizabeth Ruffner

Isaac Ruffner Obituary

Colleen's Genealogy Pages Including the Ruffner's

Greensburg, Pennsylvania, now the county seat of Westmoreland County, was one of the few places in Pennsylvania during the latter part of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth in which Catholics could attend Divine Service and receive the ministrations of religion (Note! Sportsman's Hall was closer to Latrobe, Greensburg being better known was used as a reference. Sorry but I forgot where this camer from.) . How it came to be such a place we do not know; no doubt in measure at least, it was through its location. Westmoreland County at that time took in much more territory than it does now and must have been before the home seeking public quite a good deal. The road across the state from east to west went near Greensburg as did also the road from the south to the northwest. The land there is quite fertile and the country is most beautiful so that one can readily understand why people seeking homes would locate there. Many Catholics from Ireland and Germany and a few from France settled around about Greensburg and within an area of one hundred miles.

Reverend A. A. Lambing, in his "History of the Catholic Church in the Dioceses of Pittsburgh and Allegheny," says: "No part of western Pennsylvania figures more prominently in the history of Catholicity than Westmoreland County:" and of Sportsman's Hall he says: "It is the cradle of Catholicity in western Pennsylvania."

In the years 1787 and 1788 six Catholic families left the settlement of Goshenhoppen in the vicinity of Philadelphia and, after a difficult journey of about two hundred fifty (250) miles, settled near Greensburg in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. In the following year, the young colony received an addition of several families from the East, among whom was Henry Kuhn, who was destined to take a prominent part in the future development of the pioneer settlement. On the 13th of March 1789, John Probst, John Young, Patrick Archibald, Simon Ruffner, Christian Ruffner and George Ruffner purchased a plot of ground, near
Greensburg, from Philip Freeman for the nominal price of five shillings. This plot was intended as a site for a Catholic church and cemetery. But Greensburg was not to become the new centre of Catholicity in Pennsylvania. In 1790 the settlers began the erection of a small log church, but it was never completed - never used for divine service. In 1800 an effort was made to finish the little church, but it failed; the unfinished building was then sold and subsequently removed. For the sake of historical
reminiscence it may be well to record the names of the heads of families who constituted the entire congregation when the building of this church was commenced in 1790. They are: Philip Freeman, John Probst, John Young, Patrick Archibald, Simon Ruffner, Christian Ruffner, George Ruffner, Henry Kuhn, John Topper, Patrick Griffin and Philip Hartmann. Before leaving Goshenhoppen the settlers had obtained a promise from the clergy in Philadelphia and at Goshenhoppen that a Catholic priest would visit them occasionally, and that in the course of time they would have a resident pastor. In March, 1789, Reverend John Baptist Cause (or Causey) paid them a visit. He said Mass in the house of John Probst, two miles west of Greensburg. This was the first Mass said in a permanent Catholic settlement in Western Pennsylvania. Father Cause remained only a few days, so that the little colony had assembled only once for divine service before he returned to the East.

The first resident pastor of the pioneer Catholic colony was Father Theodore Browers. He was a native of Holland, a member of the Minorite Order of St. Francis, and had been on the missions for some time in the West Indies. He arrived in Philadelphia no later than July, 1789, and stopped with Father Helbron, of Holy Trinity congregation, in Philadelphia. The trustees of Holy Trinity tried to persuade him to remain with them, but he steadfastly refused, and declared his intention of going westward. He heard of the colony that had been established in Westmoreland County and of the promise given to the settlers that they should have a resident pastor. He therefore, chose Western Pennsylvania as the field of his missionary labors.

Before leaving Philadelphia he purchased a tract of land from a certain Arthur O'Neil, of Chester County, Pennsylvania. This tract was situated on the eastern bank of Loyalhannah creek, in Derry township, Westmoreland County, and was known as O'Neil's Victory. It contained 154 acres and an allowance of 6 perches for roads, and so forth. The deed is dated August 7,1789, and receipt of payment 106 l7s) is acknowledged on the same day.

Father Browers arrived at the colony, with considerable luggage, towards the close of the year 1789. He found no suitable  place for celebrating Mass.

During the winter of 1789-90 he stopped with Christian Ruffner, at whose house the Catholics assembled for divine service. In the spring of 1790 he visited O'Neil's Victory with the intention of selecting the spot upon which to erect a house for himself and a chapel for the congregation. He found that the land was not as fertile as he had expected and that the location was almost twelve miles from the Catholic settlement, and he, therefore, reluctantly desisted from his first intention of establishing himself at O'Neil's Victory.

At this time a valuable tract of land in Unity township was offered for sale. It was called 'Sportsman's Hall' - a name given to it by a Harrisburg gentleman who had frequented it as a hunting ground. Henry Kuhn, who had gained the confidence of Father Browers and who had accompanied him on his visit to O'Neil's Victory, now urged him to buy Sportsman's Hall.

The property was purchased and the deed was written, signed, sealed and delivered on the l6th day of April, 1790, in presence of William Maghee and Joseph Cook. The purchased land contained 313 acres, 8 perches and allowance. It was situated about seven miles east of Greensburg. The soil was of excellent quality. The sum paid for it was "four hundred and seventy five pounds specie, good and lawful money of Pennsylvania, to him (Joseph Hunter) in hand, at and before the sealing and delivery hereof, well and truly, paid, the receipt and payment whereof is hereby acknowledged and the said Theodorus Browers forever
acquitted and exonerated." In purchasing Sportsman's Hall, Father Browers purchased what was destined to be the cradle of Catholicity in western Pennsylvania. He himself never realized the importance of his purchase. But he had planted the mustard seed, and under the fostering hands of Divine Providence 'it grew and became a great tree.' He had been frequently heard to say: "My object is to make Sportsman's Hall another Conewago." His hopes were more than realized, for Sportsman's Hall is now St. Vincent's Abbey, which enjoys a national reputation and is the largest Benedictine establishment in the world. During the years of its existence it has sent out hundreds of zealous priests -to spread the light of the Gospel in all parts of this great country.

When Fattier Browers purchased Sportsman's Hall the improvements on the estate were very trifling; a small hut or cabin had been built, and a few acres had been cleared. He at once engaged a carpenter, such as could be obtained under the circumstances, to build a house, seventeen feet square and one and one half stories high. The house was soon completed, and Father Browers took up his residence at Sportsman's Hall. He made a contract with Christian Andrews to attend to the farm, and agreed to pay him twenty three pounds a year for his services, as appears from the following receipt:

"Received of the executors, Christian Ruffner, and Henry Kuhn, twenty three pounds in full as wages for one year's work on the place of R. Theodorus Browers, deceased. Received by me, "Christian Andrews"

Father Browers continued to officiate at Christian Ruffner which was about five miles distant from his new residence, but much more convenient for the congregation. Every Sunday morning he traveled this distance on horseback, but, being of delicate constitution, he soon found his duties too exacting. One Sunday in June, whilst officiating at the altar, he was taken severely ill. He at once, Sent to Greensburg for some person competent to write his will.

The will made a few days before his death with much from one who hoped to succeed him was 'the cause of much parochial disturbance and of extended litigation in Philadelphia. This was most trying to the executors, henry Kuhn and Christian Ruffner. During nine years the parishioners were harassed by contending parties.

But happier days were in store for the sorely afflicted Pioneers of' Catholicity of western Pennsylvania. Fattier Helbron was appointed pastor, was an estimable priest, a courteous whole-souled gentleman, cheerful, affable, kind to all, excellent company, and most thorough and exact in his spiritual duties with a soldier like discipline and careful regard to details." He arrived at the mission on the 17th of November, 1799, and at once began to evolve order out of chaos. He had great difficulties, but matters soon adjusted and Father helbron took peaceful possession of Sportsman's Hall. As no church had as yet been built he said Mass in an apartment of his house, which, as we have seen, was but seventeen feet square. He was a
zealous missionary and did not confine his labors to his congregation. He visited a number of other settlements, which had been established within a circuit of forty miles. He soon became an intimate friend of Reverend Gallitzin, to whom he paid several visits, sometimes spending a couple of weeks with him.

Previous to the arrival of Father Helbron no church records had been kept at Sportsman's Hall, but he kept a careful account of his ministrations from the date of his arrival. On the title page of the book which he used for this purpose he wrote as follows:

"Liber Baptismalis, Matrimonialis et funeralis incipiens Anno Domino 1800. Sub Rev. Dom. Petro Helbron pastore miss a Rev'ssmo Domino Joanne Carrollo Doctore et Episcopo Baltimorensi et data ipsi possessione a Curia Greensburgensi in Loco R'di Dni Browers legitimi et primi antecessoris die decima septime Decembris Anno Domini 1799."

When Father Helbron had become somewhat acquainted with his new mission he built a house 28x 26, to which the congregation built an addition, to serve them as a temporary chapel. The carpenter work was done by two men of the congregation, Henry Kuhn and George Ruffner. Nails were dear and scarce in those days, so Henry Kuhn went east of the mountains to collect money and purchase the necessary nails. In 1801, Father Helbron Wrote:

"My little chapel which I built here is finished. I blest it in the name of Jesus and entitled it the Chapel of the Holy Cross. I intend, next Spring to repair the other at Greensburg." In 1802 he wrote:

"My dwelling place shall no more be called Sportsman's Hall but Clear Spring near Greensburg." Clear Spring was a literal translation of his own Helbron, but the name never became poplar. The chapel served its purpose for a number of years but as the congregation had meanwhile rapidly increased, they wished to build a church on the spot which Father Browers had selected for this purpose and where the present church stands. Father Helbron objected and offered them the unfinished house as a place of worship, but they declined the offer. Finally about the year 1810, twenty years after the purchase of Sportsman's Hall, the first church was built. It was a log structure of 40 x 26 feet and was erected in one summer. A floor was laid but no plastering was done. Subscriptions were taken up for the building of the church: (1810) "We the Under Named Catholicks belonging to the Rev. Doctor Hillbron's Congregation, Do promise to pay to Simon Roughner, or any other person that may be appointed, the Sum Annexed to our names, for the purpose of enlarging the Church at the Rev. Doctor Hillbron's, the Money to be paid the one half when the work appears to be carried on the other half when finished. Witness our hands. The subscribers number seventy-two with a total of less than two hundred dollars ($200). A few of the contributors are:

Jacob Burgoon $3.00 Henry Reintzel $6.00

Barnabas Burgoon 1.00 George Reintzel 3.00

Levi Burgoon 1.00 Henry Reintzel, Jr 5.00

Joseph 5.00 Simon Ruffner 1.00

Henry Kuhn 1.00 Simon Ruffner 6.00

Jacob Kuhn 5.00 John Aaron 1.00

Christian Ruffner (?) George Kerr 1.50

Simon Ruffner 1.00 Frederick Kintz 4.00

Joseph Aaron 2.00 Mrs. George Ruffner 1.00

George Ruffner 3-00 Anthony Staub 1.00

George Ruffner 4.00

It is strange to note great grandfather Jacob Burgoon heading the list followed by his two sons, when in 1813 he is on the Paschal list at Loretto, and in 1816 signs a document there as one of the Church Wardens.

Father Helbron's health was generally good, but a few years before his death a tumor formed on his neck. He submitted for a long time to the treatment of local physicians, such as they were, but was ultimately obliged to go to Philadelphia for medical aid. He obtained no relief and determined to return to his mission. He was taken ill at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he died late in 1815 or early in 1816. He was buried near the sacristy of St. Patrick's church in that place. After Father Helbron's death, troubles were renewed until, in desperation, the congregation's appealed to the State Legislature to vest the estate in a board of trustees. Three of the five named in the enactment of the State, 1821, are Denis Conor, Frederick Kintz, and Henry Kuhn. (This is Henry 3rd of St. Xavier's fame.) While this action solved some difficulties it aroused others, and it was only at the coming of Father Stillinger and the resignation of the trustees (among whom was Great Grandfather Jacob Kuhn) that permanent peace was established. We are familiar with this dear name as hearing it often from the lips of our loved grandparents, Leo and Catherine Burgoon. To Father Stillinger we are indebted for their marriage register.

Father Stillinger was a native of Baltimore, Maryland; he was educated at Mt. St. Mary's, Ehmitsburg, and ordained by Archbishop Whitefield, February 28, 1830. He was a man of commanding presence; he "was prudent and gentle, but possessing with all a degree of firmness that enabled him to maintain his position with dignity and pass safely through trying circumstances." A more suitable person could not have been found.

In 1833 Father Stillinger began the building of a brick church and pastoral residence. The contract for the church and residence made a total of $9200. The church was dedicated by Bishop Kenrick, July 19, 1835, and as the Bishop was accustomed to name the churches which he dedicated after the saint whose feast was celebrated that day, the church was placed under the patronage of St. Vincent of Paul. This church completed was familiarly known as the "Hill Church" and is now the Chapel of the Benedictine Scholastics Since then "Sportsman's Hall" has been known as "St. Vincents".

The builders had not done their work well. Foundation walls began to give way and many serious defects were noticeable in the construction. Repairs made in parts, the work remained still unsatisfactory. A balance of $1,400 was still due the builders, and this was withheld for damages. A suit was brought to court, but the jury found the verdict in favor of the congregation. Reverend Father Stillinger remained at St. Vincent's until November, 1844 when he moved to Blairsville, Indiana County. He was succeeded by Reverend Michael Gallagher, who remained until the coming of the Benedictines.

The first foundation of Benedictines in America arrived under the leadership of Reverend Boniface Wimmer-later first Abbot and Archabbot. They had come at the invitation of Father Lemke of Carrolltown, Pennsylvania, who hoped to have them at his mission. But after consulting with Bishop O'Connor of Pittsburgh the plan was changed to the gain of both the Benedictines and the people of Westmoreland. On October 21, 1846 Bishop O'Connor wrote the following document:

"To all whom it may concern. We do hereby appoint the Reverend Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B., pastor of the Roman Catholic Congregation, worshiping at St. Vincent's Church, Unity Township, Westmoreland County, vacant by the resignation of the Rev. M. Gallagher, and we confer upon said Rev. B. Wimmur all rights and privileges appertaining to said office of pastor of said Congregation, this appointment to hold good until revoked by us or our Successor or until. a new appointment. "Given at St. Vincent's on this twenty-first day of' October A.D. MDCCCXLVI. "M, Bp. Pittsburgh."

What a happy security after the years of storm and uncertainty, the reading of which makes one understand our parents, oft repeated prayer, thank God for our good priests!" - and their insistence on the reverence due them.