The Story Behind the St. Agatha Cairn

  • Feature   Wed, Apr 28th, 2021   Al Junker

Located at the edge of St. Agatha coming from Waterloo on Erbs Road is a simple cairn which is very easy to miss. It was erected by the alumni of St. Jerome’s College to mark the original location of St. Jerome’s. The college was the idea of Father Eugene Funcken who served the St. Agatha parish from 1857 until his death in 1888.
In response to a request from Bishop Armand de Chabonnel of Toronto while on a trip to Rome, the Congregation of the Resurrection sent Father Funcken and Brother Edward Glowalski to serve the German speaking Catholics of Waterloo County. They arrived by train in Petersburg on August 13, 1857 and journeyed to St. Agatha the following day. Father Eugene envisioned a comprehensive education programme as a key to organizing the people of his parish and to prevent them from losing their Catholic faith.
Father Funcken began his programme shortly after his arrival by establishing a school for first communion instruction. The children were placed under the direction of three local girls and received instruction for six months. This school served as the foundation for the next phase of the education programme. After receiving their first communion, Father Eugene wanted to train three of the boys for vocations in the church. In September 1858, a preparatory school opened with seven boys aged ten to fourteen under the direction of David Fennessey. Instruction was offered in German and English and the subjects included arithmetic, geography, history and religion. Father Eugene took the opportunity to learn English from Fennessey while Fennessey learned German. In 1859, Father Funcken reported that “my preparatory school is unexpectedly turning into an Arts College. At the moment I have 12 students.” In 1861, the school closed when David Fennessey left to attend seminary in Montreal.
In 1864, Father Eugene travelled to Rome and was able to convince his younger brother Father Louis to return with him. They decided to reopen the preparatory school and named it St. Jerome’s College which was located in a log house a half mile east of St. Agatha on Erbs Road. The college was not to be a seminary but rather an arts college to prepare students for careers in medicine, pharmacy, law and the priesthood. St. Jerome’s opened on January 1, 1865 with a class of seven boys with Father Louis as the only teacher. After operating for about a year, it was decided the college would be more successful in a larger community and St. Jerome’s was moved to Berlin.
In 1858, Father Eugene stated that “an asylum for abandoned children is truly necessary here.” In 1861, two children were taken in and placed under the direction of the three local girls who were running the school for first communion instruction. A fund-raising campaign was started for an orphanage which was built in 1867. It proved very successful, housing an average of twenty-five children.
As early as 1857, Father Eugene expressed a desire to establish a home for school sisters in St. Agatha. However, it would take until 1871 for an established order to come. The School Sisters of Notre Dame from Milwaukee took charge of the orphanage and taught at the St. Agatha Separate School. The local girls who had been running the orphanage joined the Sisters of Notre Dame and travelled to Milwaukee to enter the community.
Father Eugene was also responsible for upgrading the cemetery in St. Agatha. In 1857, he had the land levelled and stone walls erected with turrets on top to receive the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. He also built the Shrine of the Sorrowful Mother located in the upper corner of the cemetery. During Father Eugene’s tenure, St. Agatha was the epicentre of the Roman Catholic Church in Waterloo County. The parish served all of Wilmot Township, portions of Wellesley, Woolwich and South Easthope in Perth County as well at the villages of Preston, Waterloo and Berlin, serving approximately 600 families.
From humble beginnings marked by a cairn outside St. Agatha, St. Jerome’s has grown into a university affiliated with the University of Waterloo; all the result of a vision of Father Eugene Funcken and implemented by his brother Father Louis Funcken.