An outspoken nun loaded with gumption, a 19th century French saint and a fatal 1922 car crash in Germany are all part of the mystery swirling around one of St. Paul’s most impressive holy places.

Even the archbishop was flabbergasted when the French-inspired Our Lady of Victory Chapel opened in 1924 on the campus of what became St. Catherine University. The stone chapel, built south of St. Paul’s Randolph Avenue for more than $400,000, was the brainchild of Sister Antonia McHugh — St. Kate’s first president.

“Sister Antonia asked to build a chapel,” Archbishop Austin Dowling said, “but she built a cathedral.”

Call it what you will, the elegant architecture is a knockoff of sorts. It’s a dead-ringer replica of the Church of St. Trophime in the southern French city of Arles. And that wasn’t a coincidence.

Sister Antonia sent architect H.A. Sullwold to Europe to visit Spanish and French medieval cathedrals and was told, with a few adaptations, that the new chapel must mimic St. Trophime’s design.

The church in Arles is roughly 4,500 miles and a world away from Sister Antonia’s birthplace in Omaha. Born Anna McHugh in 1873, her father was a pioneer politician who took his daughter across the Dakota Territory before settling in what became Langdon, N.D. He became mayor, postmaster and banker and was elected to both the territorial and North Dakota legislatures. He did well enough to send his 12-year-old Anna to St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Paul and St. Mary’s Academy in Winnipeg. At 17, Anna entered the Sisters of St. Joseph and became Sister Antonia.

“During the whole of her life as an educator, Sister Antonia showed herself to be a true daughter of pioneers, alert, eager, undaunted by difficulties, and bold in her dreams,” Sister Teresa Toomey said.

In one anecdote, Sister Antonia purchased boxes of cigars for foremen who pleased her by working on her chapel on a Saturday.

“Her outspokenness was proverbial,” another nun said, in a 1992 book on the school’s history. “Her frankness was of a nature to abash those who were not lovers of the truth.”

A newer book, just published, wonders just how Sister Antonia pulled off her project, possibly without ever seeing first-hand the St. Trophime church that inspired her chapel.

“There are no notes, correspondence, drawings, sketches, photographs or records that provide insight into how Mother Antonia went about replicating St. Trophime’s design features — in many cases down to minute specifications,” author Mary Ann Brenden writes in her 2016 book, “Our Lady of Victory Chapel: Monument, Mystery and Mission.”

Brenden, an associate professor of social work at the school, scoured the St. Kate’s archives, including Sister Antonia’s first overseas travel diary. On her first trip to France in 1922, the itinerary included a stop in Arles on July 19. But her diary makes no mention of either St. Trophime or Arles, Brenden said.

How Sister Antonia raised the money to build the chapel is another puzzle Brenden tries to unravel in her book. One clue might be the carved stone figure of St. Therese of Lisieux — positioned amid the pillars of the chapel’s west doorway.

St. Therese, who died in France from tuberculosis in 1897 at only 24, was canonized in 1925 — after Sister Antonia’s trip to Europe and the decision to carve the not-yet-saint by the chapel entrance.

According to oral histories, she recounted praying to Therese of Lisieux as benefactors were ushered into fund-raising meetings around a conference table in the early 1920s. She asked for more money “than she dared to hope,” according to a 1974 oral history transcript. “But under some inexplicable influence, she asked for it anyway. Her request was granted; she was given a check for enough money to allow for the completion of the Chapel.”

In her book, Brenden has a theory about the identity of the unknown benefactor who responded to Sister Antonia’s prayers to Saint Therese and forked over the big check.

Mary Rahilly McCahill was born in 1864, the daughter of a prominent Minnesota lawmaker. She graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy and married James McCahill, who owned the Shenango Iron Mine near Chisholm. They raised six children and Mary became the first woman on St. Catherine’s board of trustees in 1919.

Her son, Army Cpl. Louis McCahill, died in France within a week of the armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. She made annual trips to his grave in France, bringing along her daughter, Eleanor, and Sister Antonia on her 1922 journey.

They sailed from New York in June and planned to spend the summer visiting six European countries. But en route to Germany, their driver swerved to avoid a bicyclist and crashed into a tree. Sister Antonia suffered only slight bruises. Eleanor, who was enrolled to attend St. Kate’s that fall, was unscathed. But Mary McCahill broke her leg in two places and crushed her thigh bone.

In a letter home that Brenden found in the school archives, Sister Antonia wrote: “You are horrified I am sure but to escape with our lives was so miraculous that if all goes well with Mrs. McCahill we shall have no complaints.”

But Mary McCahill died two days later. Back home, her generosity was lauded in widespread memorials, with a national Catholic magazine calling her a “true philanthropist.” A fund she started in her son Louis’ honor is one of the school’s oldest endowments. Since 1959, the outstanding senior at St. Kate’s is bestowed with Mary E. McCahill Award.

There are no known documents to confirm that McCahill was Sister Antonia’s secret benefactor behind the $400,000 chapel, but Brenden writes: “It was very likely that it was she who wrote the check beyond Mother Antonia’s daring hopes, thereby making Our Lady of Victory possible.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send suggestions to mnhistory@startribune.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.