Catholic Colony of Ghent

Towns of Grandview, Westerheim and Vallers

By Father Julius De Vos
First resident pastor of St. Eloi Church
Ghent, MN - 1883

The first question asked by Catholics intent one migration is whether or no they can receive the consolations of their religion. After starting his colonies, Right Rev. Bishop Ireland of St. Paul met those wishes, and attracted to our state many rich and moral people. In order to organize divine worship, the enterprising bishop tries to put the Catholics all together, and also he enables them to support their priests and build churches.

In Lyon county he reserved the five northwest townships for Catholics. He made from Nordland and Eidsvold the colony of Minneota for the Irish and English people; and from Grandview, Westerheim, and Vallers the colony of Ghent for the Flemish and Canadian people. Here we will speak for the latter colony. It was only in 1881 that the colonists began to arrive in Ghent. Over the immeasurable ocean lies a small land the most thickly settled and the best cultivated in the world. It is the kingdom of Belgium. No larger than 10 counties of Minnesota it contains nearly 6,000,000 inhabitants, 462 in a square mile, so that on an average each Belgian should not have two acres of land. Every spot of land is cultivated with extreme care, and whole Belgium seems to be the agricultural garden of Europe.

But such a dense population makes great concurrence amongst the laborers. Heavy rents and taxes are to be paid, and manure, weeding and toiling are very expensive. The enticing pamphlets about the Catholic colonies reached those active people. Many were moved on hearing from that immense fertile prairie land which claims willing hands to become very fertile. But the old people, feeling themselves very comfortable at home, do not move as quickly as the bold Americans. There came about 50 Belgian lamilies, and others are preparing to follow.

The pioneer of all these settlers was Mr. Angel VanHee. He was conducted here by Right Rev. Bishop Ireland and by his brother canon Peter VanHee, a well informed man living in Liverpool. He was so much pleased with the appearance of the soil of Ghent that he made immediately his choice on the very land where he is now living. Though he traveled through the whole country, he did not find a better place; and he bought half a section. Immediately he hired more than 20 teams, and before starting he saw 100 acres broken. Then he went to Flanders, a county of Belgium, to get his wife and nine children, and to give good information to his friends. Returning, he built a large farm house, which still remains the largest of the country.

Meanwhile, to attract the Flemish people as to a new Flanders, the former name of the village of Grandview was changed to the name of the old city of Flanders, Ghent.

The family of Mr. VanHee, Mr. David VanHee and the widow of Mr. [Benedict] VanHee, bought large tracts of land, and built fine store houses in European style. Mr. De Zutter took half a section of land; Mr. Vandewoestyne, Mr. Decock and Messrs. Vergote and Foulon bought improved farms of 160 acres.

In January 1883 Father Cornelis, pastor of Minneota, went to Belgium and Holland and gave lectures on the colony of Ghent. Many were moved. With him came Father Y. Devos, who was appointed pastor of Ghent; Mr. J. Lambert, several farms; Mr. Princen, who purchased an improved farm near town: Messrs. Schreiber, Haerts, Maertens, Depuydt, Messine, Dicken, Sandy and they all settled on large farms, and built comfortable houses.

Messrs Clayes, Peters, VandenBogaerde, Crombez, Baumans, Delmele, Hendrick, Riviere, have been looking around till now for other business.

Nearly every week there were new-comers buying railroad land or improved farms; for instance, Messrs. Dereu, Vanden Abeele, VanSprundel, Vankeulen, Engels, Dobbeldere, Blauwette, Browers. Mr. Maenhoudt has moved to Marshall to rent an improved farm. There is now an impulse given, and many more will come, provided the emigrants continue to enjoy this country.

Meanwhile there was rapid immigration of French Canadians from Kankakee Co., Ill. Finding themselves too thickly settled in that state, those courageous people were looking around not only in Minnesota, but also in Iowa and Dakota, but they preferred our state. Two energetic men, Mr. Letourneau, and Mr. Regnier, came during the summer 1882. They traveled through some southwestern counties, especially through Pipestone, and finally preferred the colony of Ghent. Immediately they bought a great quantity of land, and acted with such activity that in 1882 they had more than 3,000 acres of R. R. land, and 1,000 acres more in the following summer of 1883. Mr. Letourneau became agent of the depot, and his oldest son agent of the elevator for Mr. Van Dusen, his two other sons purchased land near the town. Mr. Paradis bought a store house and 240 acres of land; his sons, Amilien and Cyrille, 240 acres; his nephews, Suprenant Lord and Lord Paradis, more than half a section; Messrs. Antony Paradis, Suprenant-Prairie and Metty entered large improved farms. Mr. Regnier and son bought nearly a section; Mr. Carron has 400 acres; Mr. Lebeau now has 320, and both built a large and handsome farm house in American style. Mr. Padnaud has 80 acres; Mr. Duchene, Mr. Nevell, Mr. Emilien Surprenant each 160; Mr. Carron has 200 acres in Vallers. Some others have bought land and are expected next spring.

The arrival of these people in spring was very encouraging. They filled a whole train, several freight cars and a coach. There were furniture, horses and cattle enough to provide a whole township. There were about 50 persons and more than one Illinois horse for every one. We have also some Irish Catholics, Messrs. Cavanaugh, Ford, Cassidy, etc. and some Germans, as Messrs. Schreiber, Haerts, etc. The arrival of these new-comers was saluted with favor by all intelligent Americans as being a great benefit for the country, for they brought in a good deal of money; they raised the value of property; and they gave occasion to sell improved farms dearer than anywhere on the prairies of Minnesota. Hence they were always welcomed among the old settlers and treated by nearly all like brothers.

The village though young and small is very thriving, having a depot and an elevator; Mr. Soucheray has a stock of general merchandise, and Mr. Emilien Paradis has also established a store. Mr. Gets has a hotel and a tinware shop; Mr. Vergote has a blacksmith shop; Mr. Cool is a carpenter and wagon maker; and Messrs. Lebeau, Paradis and Carron were well-known carpenters in Chicago; Mr. Angel VanHee and Mr. F. Gets are preparing a brickyard for next summer, Brick making is very well known among the Flemish, who all live in brick houses in their fatherland.

The first house of worship was a Methodist chapel which still remains. There are nearly three hundred Catholics around Ghent, but as new-comers they cannot afford to build a church immediately. They are preparing to build a large church next summer. The gentlemen of the town have already given a concert to provide church furniture. They are preparing a new one, mostly in English, so that everybody can understand them.

Since June 1883 Rev. Father Y. Devos has been among them. They are so assiduous to divine offices that they attend not only the sacrifice of the mass, but also the vespers, coming twice to the meeting every Sunday. They feel very happy when then they can relish the ceremonies of their old religion. Two very good musicians, Mr. Foulon and Mr. Vergote, furnish good singing during the services. There are few congregations where so many languages are spoken. When he addresses the people the pastor has to speak Flemish French, English and German. The Latin used in divine office is the only common language which is generally understood by all. As soon as they hear the Latin language, which they heard in their younger days and in their distant fatherland, they feel themselves at home in their old church, and they are very happy to see and hear the pious ceremonies of their worship.

There is now a bad organization of the school districts. We have three district schools, but the nearest school house is more than two miles from town. Very zealous for instruction, Father Devos erected a free school in town. It is taught by Miss Hanna Lester from England, and not only the children but grown persons go to school to learn the English language, so as to be able to converse with their American neighbors. In their love for instruction the county commissioners are ready to make better arrangements for the public schools of Ghent.

We hope in a few years to make of Ghent a thriving and happy city, a new home as joyous as we left in our fatherland.