|Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers|
Majestic and wild -- Lake Pend d'Orielle, Idaho.
Weather is extreme in this Northwest Territory, presenting “severe highs and lows,” according to Montanta's Disaster and Emergency Survivor Guide. “Add to that the high risk for flooding, wildland fires, earthquakes and a variety of other hazards, and you could have a survivor challenge.”
Now rewind to the 1840s, when sheltering from heavy snows and winds slicing through mountain passes or across unprotected plains meant chinking bark between fir logs in your cabin and stirring up the fire. Jesuit missionaries Fr. Peter-Jean De Smet, Fr. Adrien Hoecken and Brother Peter McGean suffered through such winters in a cabin near Idaho's Lake Pend d'Orielle.
|Early photo of Kalispell Indians on |
Lake Pend d'Orielle.
Working with the people was rewarding because they were eager to embrace the Catholic Faith. But that location! Even for the wild Northwest, the spot was desolate. Good soil for a garden was scant. Game? Scarce. So in 1854, the missionaries were happy to take the friendly advice of Chief Alexander of the Kalispell tribe, in relocating to Idaho's sister state of Montana, to a spot in the Lower Flathead River area. That town today is called St. Ignatius, home to St. Ignatius Mission.
|Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet|
The Kalispell wanted priests among them. They were so eager to have Black Robes come teach about Christ, they sent four delegations to the Jesuits pleading for missionaries. So, a beautiful, mutual friendship grew between the missionaries and the people.
There’s a saying: “All things grow with love.” This proved to be the case through those early decades, while Fr. De Smet’s little mission corps labored with the Indians to found a church, and to create Montana’s first saw and flour mills, the first hospital and the first residential schools.
When the native peoples were not treated well, the missionaries took it deeply to heart. Fr. Hoecken grieved about the U.S. government breaking treaties. About a meeting he witnessed between a government envoy and the Indians, he later said, “neither side understood 1/10 of what was said.”
Real trouble came because the Native peoples looked to the treaty to reinforce existing friendship, building on those ties with the missionaries. But the officials came to assert claims on Indian land.
It’s proof of God’s grace that the Holy Spirit speaks a universal language. In spite of tensions between white man and Indian, the Faith flowered in the bitterroot Valley. Sisters of Providence came to open a school, and later shifted to Hospital work. Ursuline nuns came to teach and do outreach to the poor. Successes were tempered by trials such as when devastating fires destroyed school structures around the turn of the century.
But nothing stopped the missionaries’ walk with the people, through times of crisis and celebration. That process of teaching and learning the Faith continued. The people were open to receive, but operating from a vastly different worldview. On the Society of Jesus website, a little story tells about the 1882 visit of Archbishop Charles J. Seghers to confirm 40 people.
“While examining some Indians for confirmation with the help of Father Cataldo, His Grace noticed . . . an elderly Kalispell, whom he felt sure he had confirmed on a previous occasion. ‘But you, my son, have received the Holy Ghost already,’ said the Archbishop to the Indian. ‘Yes, Great Black Robe,’ answered the Indian; "but I lost Him; He got drowned crossing the river." The poor fellow was far from jesting or being irreverent: he only expressed himself as best he knew.”
Tribal people who could neither read nor write, learned salvation history from murals in St. Ignatius Church. Today, travel guides call these 58 murals worthy of European cathedrals. An untrained artist painted them. Brother Joseph Carignano, mission cook and handyman, spent precious spare moments between duties dabbing a brush to the walls. If you can’t visit this church in person, you have to visit virtually online. Within the heart of this remote little town of St. Ignatius, is this hidden store of masterpieces, all singing out praises to God through vibrant colors and scenes.
I’ve visited Montana several times over the years, on mission trips and vacations. Several images from my first trip to St. Ignatius Mission in St. Ignatius; Sacred Heart Church in Arlee, and St. John Berchman Church in Jocko, remain imprinted in my mind. In St. Ignatius, I stepped quietly into church one evening, and saw a circle of men praying up toward the altar. Cursillo retreats changed many lives on reservations across the nation, and these men were experiencing conversion through Cursillo. I remember their quiet intensity in the dimness as they sought God, and the simple welcome in their smiles as they nodded to me.
I also visited a nearby thrift shop run by a missionary sister and was so happy to find a Native American patterned shirt that I cherished for years. The shop provided a great opportunity for people on a tight budget to dress themselves and their children, and buy needed household goods.
Also, I recall going with a missionary to visit a sick Kalispell elder, and sensing the quiet peace of their prayers as the nun pulled a chair up to the sick bed.
And one of my last days at St. Ignatius, I attended an outdoor celebration where children danced native dances. A wiry, elderly priest sat grinning beneath a rather comical, wide brimmed white hat, perfectly happy to be with his people.
Falling in love with the missions and those who live and serve there, has made my life an adventure. Looking at problems in mission territory can be overwhelming: isolation, poverty, an eroding of family values, high unemployment, accompanied by high substance and physical abuse. But missionaries have a way of going into these areas, and loving people right toward God and their best selves. Like anything, sometimes the best outcomes don’t happen. But I’ve seen also seen faithful in mission territories be heroic in facing tough times, surviving, and giving their children better lives.
Learning about our Catholic heritage is a delight. Fr. Pierre de Smet? He’s a hero for the faith. So is Chief Alexander, who proved such a friend in those early years; and that humble cook who proved that, if Providence wills it, godly inspiration can be enough training to create a masterpiece. Also heroes, were those rather rugged looking Cursillistas in church, in plaid shirts and blue jeans, who bowed their heads and prayed for their loved ones and community.
This blog is adapted from my Missionary Moments podcast for Star Quest Production Network-affiliated Catholic Vitamins "D -- for Delight."