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.” ~Banning Library District

“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

“The 80-acre ranch, with orchards, for the school site on Gilman Street in Banning, was bought from desert pioneer Welwood Murray.” ~Banning Library District

He used the $12,000 purchase price to move to Agua Caliente, where he built a hotel and renamed the place Palm Springs, California. Maybe you’ve heard of the place.

“Previous articles written by Bill Bell and the Record Gazette provide information based off of historical documents located at the Banning Public Library, as do work by Tanya Rathbun and R. Bruce Harley–in addition to several articles in newspapers from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some of these fail to provide Native narratives.”

~Kelly Leah Stewart, San Luis Rey Band of Luiseno Indians/Gabrielino Tongva

“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.” ~Banning Library District

“While Morongo is the closest reservation to the school land base, 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.”

~Kelly Leah Stewart, San Luis Rey Band of Luiseno Indians/Gabrielino Tongva

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 1912. The structure was rebuilt in 1913.

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.” ~Banning Library District

Despite the cheerful newspaper articles we found about the school, we wondered what secrets the rocks and trees held. It could have not been easy for the Native children attending here. Many of them were orphans. My father attended another Catholic school. He recalled even as an adult the harsh punishment he received at the hands of stern but misguided nuns so many years before.

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

All that remains is rubble of what once was. It would be interesting to talk to Native Elders about their experiences.

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

According to an article by Mary Anne Pinkston for The Desert Sun, elder of the Morongo Band of Cahuilla Indians and first president of Malki Museum, Katherine Siva Saubel’s father, husband and older siblings attended school here while she went to a public school in Palm Springs. Saubel was the first Indian girl to graduate Palm Springs High School in 1940. Saubel faulted all the Indian schools for their attempts to eradicate the native culture.

The Desert Sun, Sun Jan 13, 2002

Saubel’s book, titled Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants would became a living example to Katherine’s extensive knowledge about natural healing. The term Temalpakh is a Cahuilla word meaning “from the earth.” To learn more about Katherine Siva Saubel, please visit our sister article about Malki Museum.

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

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.

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 Hahn’s funeral. Photo courtesy: Calisphere

St. Boniface Indian School’s cemetery is serene 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 due to tuberculosis. There have been reports from students who used to attend the school, that the cemetery was at one time bigger than it is now and more children are buried here than we are aware.

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

If you visit here, please be respectful. These are sacred grounds to Native Peoples.

When we visited, the cemetery was unusually quiet. No birds, insects or voices could be heard. No rustle of leaves on the trees from the wind. It was like the cemetery was holding it’s breath until we left, so we hastily departed.

A tree has grown around a stump with an eternal hug like a mentor and a child. Or was it more like a captor and its victim. The cemetery is a sad and somber place to be certain, a reminder of a thankfully bygone era.

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 for those in the past to sit and contemplate the incongruities of Native culture stripped away from innocent children.

Old cemeteries are often full of wonder and mystique about the past. This one left us yearning to know more.

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

Many thanks to the Boy Scouts who worked so diligently cleaning up the cemetery in 2007 by removing accumulated junk and litter at the site. 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. We will never understand how somebody could desecrate someone’s eternal resting place.

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

Bonus! You’re just a hop, skip and a jump from Gilman Ranch and Wagon Museum.

Citations and Recommended Reading:


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  • I attended St Boniface in 1957 as a twelve year old boy. It was an experience I have carried thruout my life. The abuse and cruelty I experienced has haunted ever since. Going to bed hungry, being sexually abused by a priest and other things I witnessed left me with emotional scars that can never be healed. Kids that were already messed up, came out worse than when they went in. There were priests that showed kindness, and some positive experiences, but the negative outweighed the bad.

    • Thank you for sharing on your experience and shedding some light of understanding on a place I’ve grown curious about. I am truly sorry for what happened to you those years ago, and I pray freedom and healing to your whole self in the name of Jesus.

  • I was fascinated to read the article about the St Boniface School which gave so much background and detail about its history. I would like to contact the person who actually wrote it because I am not seeing a byline.

  • Awesome article and pictures. So interesting. Thank you!

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