St. Boniface Indian School & Cemetery: A Bygone Era

A visible reminder today of St. Boniface in Banning, California, is the line of olive trees extending north from Gilman Street. The trees at one time bordered the drive to the campus grounds. Indian School Lane use to lead directly into the campus and was originally a traditional trail leading from the Morongo Reservation (then called the Potrero Reservation) west through the Gilman Ranch and beyond.

“In the charming valley of the San Gorgonio Pass, San Bernardino county, situated at the foothills north of Banning, the stately structure of the St. Boniface school, with its surroundings attracts the attention of the traveler through that part of Southern California. Built for the purpose of educating the children of the 3000 Mission Indians, the remnant of the once flourishing numerous missions, the St. Boniface Indian school, opened its portal to these poor children September 1, 1890, and more than 100 Indian children were received and educated during the first year. The second year commenced with 123 merry children, little ones and tall ones of the red race inhabiting the spacious rooms of the school, eager to learn and to follow the directions of the good Sisters of St. Joseph, who instruct the pupils in all the ordinary branches of a school, as well as in civilization as far as can be attained.” ~Los Angeles Herald, May 9, 1892

Los Angeles Herald, Mon May 9, 1892

The Daily Courier, Sun Feb 25, 1894

“Operating on the doctrine of Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the famous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, opened in 1879, the goal was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” A brutal way of expressing a more benign goal, which was to help tribal children to assimilate into the U.S. culture and learn to function in a society that was alien to them. Some praise the schools for educating children who otherwise would have had no chance; others condemn them as a form of cultural genocide where children were forced to abandon their native languages and customs and adopt the white ways…for the native American children of the Coachella Valley, the first mission school came with the opening of St. Boniface in Banning in 1890.” ~Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences, by Clifford Trafzer, published by the Heard Museum in Phoenix, 2002.

The 80-acre ranch, with orchards, for the school site on Gilman Street in Banning, was bought from desert pioneer Welwood Murray. He used the $12,000 purchase price to move to Agua Caliente, where he built a hotel and renamed the place Palm Springs. Maybe you’ve heard of the place.

The Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions and Heiress-turned-nun Mother Katharine Drexel founded the school in 1890, less than six decades after the end of the California Mission Era.

Bricks were made by Chinese laborers at Capt. T. E. Fraser’s brickyard on Westward Street in Banning, but the actual construction of the buildings was done by Indian students. When St. Boniface opened on September 1, 1890, there were 125 students enrolled. The school would ultimately educate some 8,000 students.

The Los Angeles Times, Thu Jun 27, 1912

A two story boy’s dormitory was built in 1894. In 1900, an earthquake damaged the main building and chapel. A fire destroyed the boy’s building in 1911. The structure was rebuilt in 1913.

While Morongo is the closest reservation to the school, Native youth from reservations now known as: San Manuel (Serrano), Soboba (Luiseno), Agua Caliente (Cahuilla), Cabazon (Cahuilla), Torres Martinez (Cahuilla), Twenty-Nine Palms (Chemehuevi); as well as many Gabrielino-Tongva, Juaneno, and Kumeyaay Native youth attended the school. 

The school didn’t start enrolling youth of other minority groups until after 1934 with the passing of the Indian Reorganization Act and the Johnson O’Malley Act. 

A chapel in a grotto once stood on the right.

The sisters of St. Joseph taught at St. Boniface for the entire time the school was open.

The San Bernardino County Sun, Thu May 24, 1923
Father Benedict Florian Hahn in automobile with officials in 1911. Photo Courtesy: Banning Library District
The Desert Sun, Fri May 2, 1941
The Desert Sun, Tue Dec 30, 1947
Spokane Chronicle, April 02, 1958
The San Bernardino County Sun, Wed Apr 3, 1974
The Desert Sun, Sun Jan 13, 2002
The Desert Sun, Sun Jan 13, 2002

After the Franciscan priests left Southern California in 1952, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions left the St. Boniface campus property to the San Diego Diocese which in turn lent the property to the Boys Town of the Desert. The Boys Town of the Desert moved to Beaumont in 1969, leaving the St. Boniface property vacant. The San Diego Diocese sold the St. Boniface campus to developers in 1973. It was demolished by Banning in 1974.” (Boarding School Blues, by Clifford Trafzer)

Previous articles written by Bill Bell for the Record Gazette provide information based off of historical documents located at the Banning Public Library, as do work by Tanya Rathbun and R. Bruce Harley — in addition several articles in newspapers from the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

Saint Boniface was the English Benedictine monk who evangelized Germany in the early eighth century. He died a martyr in 754 or 755 AD.

Funeral of Father Benedict Florian Hahn at the St. Boniface Indian/Industrial School cemetery. Father Hahn was the rector of the St. Boniface Indian/Industrial School. Photo courtesy: Calisphere, University of California

Father Benedict Florian Hahn was the third and most revered superintendent of St. Boniface for 23 years. He is buried at the Saint Boniface Indian School cemetery.

Father Hahn’s funeral. Photo courtesy: Calisphere

St. Boniface Indian School’s cemetery is quiet and remote just off the dirt road behind the ruins. A row of tree stumps guard the hallowed grounds like weary sentinels. Unfortunately, we did not find one headstone other than Father Hahn’s which has not been vandalized, toppled over, moved, or had what we assume was its brass plaque or stone statue left intact.

Father Benedict Florian Hahn’s grave is in the center with a rock lined path leading to it.

Approximately 21 children died while attending St. Boniface, most of them having contracted tuberculosis.

We found it interesting that two headstones are located outside the fenced cemetery on the opposite side of the entrance and wondered why.

There is a list of individuals buried at the cemetery, which can be found in The Founding of St. Boniface Indian School 1888-1890 by R. Bruce Harley, however the list does not include all children buried there, as the cemetery was larger than it is today.

If you visit here, please be respectful and leave the cemetery better than when you found it.

A Eucalyptus tree has grown around a stump with an eternal hug.

One can only wonder what stone memorial once was lovingly attached here and to others nearby.

A rock lined path leads you to Father Hahn’s grave buried prominently in the center to the right of the entrance.

There’s a wooden park bench under shade trees to the left of the entrance to sit and contemplate.

Old cemeteries are often full of wonder and mystique about the past.

The air seemed especially heavy with loss in the cemetery because of the obvious vandalism over the years to children’s graves.

Many thanks to the Boy Scouts who worked hard cleaning up the cemetery in 2007. We do not know if they or someone else still maintains it.

Some headstones are separated by the old chain link fence that surrounds the cemetery.

We wondered if a brass plaque used to be attached to this headstone.

One of the few headstones where you could easily read the inscription.

Citations and Recommended Reading:


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