Behind a rusty barbed-wire fence in Washington, D.C., private developers recently discovered an abandoned mausoleum shrouded with ivy. The remains of an early Minnesota pioneer-turned-priest had been placed inside nearly 90 years ago.
The developers, who bought the property from the Catholic archdiocese and its Providence Hospital, knew they had to do something.
So for the third time, the Rev. Thomas Edward Shields was laid to rest. Born in the Eagan-Mendota area in 1862, Shields was a "backward child," who overcame early challenges to become a progressive and leading Catholic educator in the early 1900s, according to biographers.
Shields' 1909 book, "The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard," was just part of his prodigious writings that included textbooks for Catholic schools. Trained in biology, he became an expert in psychology and the philosophy of education as a professor at Catholic University in Washington from 1902 until his death in 1921 at 58.
He was originally buried in Washington's Mount Olivet Cemetery while the mausoleum was constructed in the 1920s. He was disinterred in 1928 and moved to the mausoleum until February, when he was reburied in a new casket in Mount Olivet's deacon and priest section.
Before all that, church leaders in Washington placed a three-paragraph notice in the St. Peter's parish bulletin in Mendota. They wanted to "notify any remaining family of this move but have been unable to locate anyone. … As a courtesy, they want to make certain someone in the family knows of these actions. …"
Enter Joe Reid, the former St. Paul budget director in the 1990s and a state attorney general's office administrator before that. Reid is also an expert on his family's history.
His ancestors include Michael Reid, born in Ireland in 1806 and one of Eagan's first settlers. Fellow Irishman John Shields settled on land near Reid during the territorial days of 1855. Shields' granddaughter, Bridget, married Michael Reid's grandson, Michael, in 1906. The reburied priest and educator, Thomas Shields, is Joe Reid's grandmother's uncle.
"I sent the church and cemetery people in Washington a family tree showing how I was related, but they requested marriage and birth certificates," said Reid, who convinced authorities he was indeed the priest's next of kin.
The whole reburial saga rekindled Shields' largely forgotten story. Considered dimwitted, he was thrown out of school before he turned 10 and sent home to work on the family farm near what would become the intersection of Pilot Knob and Yankee Doodle roads in Eagan. Forty acres of that land was in the Reid and Shields families for a century before Lockheed and Sperry Rand's Univac Defense Systems turned the farmland into offices in the mid-1960s.
Rev. Shields endured an equally dramatic transformation, shedding his childhood dullard label to become "perhaps the leading Catholic educator in the U.S. during the first quarter of the 20th century," according to a 2003 "New Catholic Encyclopedia."
Originally educated in his parish school by the Sisters of St. Joseph, Shields tinkered with farm machinery before studying privately with a priest from 1879-1882. That work landed him a spot in the seminary in Milwaukee. Despite being 20, he entered St. Francis College as a third-year high school student.
St. Paul Archbishop John Ireland, impressed with Shields' smarts, sent him to the St. Thomas Seminary back home. Shields celebrated his first mass at 29 at St. Peter's Church in Mendota in 1891 and spent the next 18 months as an assistant pastor at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Ireland then dispatched him to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore to study natural science, hoping he'd become a teacher.
Shields picked up a master's degree in 1892 and enrolled at the new Catholic University down the road in Washington, D.C. Studying experimental psychology, biology, physiology and zoology, he wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on "The Effects of Odours, Irritant Vapours, and Mental Work upon the Blood Flow" in 1895.
Shields returned to Minnesota to teach and serve as an assistant church pastor for three years in the 1890s before moving to Catholic University for good in 1902. He originally joined the philosophy faculty and lectured on biology and physiology. But biographer Justine Ward wrote in 1947 that Shields' "heart was elsewhere … his mind was turning more and more toward education as the great need of the day."
While he spent the rest of his days writing and teaching in the nation's capital, Shields often brought up his youthful days in Minnesota. A copy of his book, "The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard," can now be found online at tinyurl.com/Rev-Shields.
Here's a Minnesota-centric sample, in which Shields flashes back to a June morning in 1879, when he sat on a load of hay just after turning 17:
"As the team reaches the top of Pilot Knob, an elevation of some 500 feet above the river, the view which greets the eye of the beholder is one of surpassing beauty. On every side well tilled fields, big with the promise of the coming harvest, stretch away over the undulating ground to the encircling horizon. Beneath, on the opposite side of the river, St. Paul lies spread out over a group of low hills; to the northwest the spires and chimneys of Minneapolis stand out against the blue of the summer sky. …
"The Twin Cities have grown apace; but the contour of the landscape remains practically unchanged through the lapsing years. But of the inner world in the which the boy lived, moved and had his being … there is no record save that inscribed on the tablets of my memory."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book "Frozen in History" at startribune.com/ebooks.