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A small piece of history reclaimed from 'tragedy' as Clemens House time capsule is opened

A small piece of history reclaimed from 'tragedy' as Clemens House time capsule is opened

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As a young nun in the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Sister Teresa Maria Eagan has fond memories of the three years she spent in the Clemens House in the late 1940s.

The order had used the north St. Louis property since 1885, adding an annex and later a chapel to the house originally built in the 1850s by James Clemens, a second cousin of Mark Twain. Eagan recalls many trips up and down four flights of stairs and “ancient” plumbing that often lacked the pressure to make it to the buildings’ upper levels.

But she said Cass Avenue (the nickname the sisters gave their home) was a good place for young sisters, who lived there as they taught in the Catholic schools on the city’s North Side and north St. Louis County, she said.

“I have all kinds of happy memories,” Eagan said.

Almost 70 years after the order moved out of “Cass Avenue” in 1949, the Clemens House property burned to the ground last July, destroying one of the oldest structures in St. Louis.

But as the remnants were demolished over the last few months, a small piece of history was found amid the rubble: a time capsule behind a cornerstone of the chapel added to the house in 1896.

Developer Paul McKee, who has owned the site since 2005 as part of his ambitious Northside Regeneration development plans, invited the order to come watch the opening of the capsule Wednesday morning and reclaim some of the artifacts “from the tragedy.”

“We have wonderful stories” of our order’s history at Cass Avenue, Sister Marilyn Lott, province director of the Sisters of St. Joseph, told a group of press, onlookers and members of the order. “This will be another piece of our history we can archive.”

Newspapers — the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the St. Louis Republic, the Post-Dispatch and a religious publication called Church Progress — from late April 1896 were found inside the copper time capsule sealed with lead. Also inside were religious medallions from the Catholic Church. But most intriguing to Sister Jane Behlmann, the order’s archivist, is a handwritten letter describing, she thinks, the sisters’ mission in St. Louis.

The order’s connection to the Clemens House runs through the Mullanphy family. The clan reared by Irish immigrant John Mullanphy, known as the city’s first millionaire, was famously generous to religious orders and other Catholic institutions and initiatives in St. Louis. A daughter, Eliza, married James Clemens.

The Mullanphys built the Sisters of St. Joseph’s first permanent building in Carondelet. The St. Louis bishop had asked the order to come to St. Louis in 1836 from France, Behlmann said, in order to teach the city’s deaf residents. Some sisters stayed in a log cabin until the Mullanphys paid for a new residence in 1840. That structure still stands on the order’s campus on Minnesota Avenue.

Plans to rehab the Clemens House, though, never materialized after McKee’s purchase. The cause of the July fire was never determined. Jim Meiners, who collects local artifacts, salvaged some pieces of the property and found the time capsule. He’s currently negotiating with the City Museum to find space to recreate part of the house using salvaged materials.

A Mullanphy descendent, Elizabeth Boland Barbieri, attended the opening of the time capsule Wednesday at the fire station on Jefferson Avenue, just across from the future home of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the former Pruitt-Igoe site that McKee also owns. Her family is buying some artifacts to preserve, perhaps in a museum. She’s in “mourning,” she said, about the loss of the house that once belonged to her family.

“I’m in mourning for all the buildings in the city of St. Louis,” she said, referring to the crumbling, historic structures in many of the neighborhoods nearby.

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