Friday, April 13, 2007

HOLY FAMILY MISSION by Hugh Black (notes)


by Hugh M. Black, B.A.

A dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Saint Paul Seminary in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 1960.

The Preface mostly lists sources and gratitude to helpers. Sources include:
1. Unclassified material in the archives of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus made available by the Rev. Wilfred Schoenberg, S.J., Oregon Province Archivist. Two principal accounts are the “Litterae Annuae” and “Historia Domas,” which Black had to translate from Latin.
2. The Archives of the Diocese of Helena, which contains financial reports and baptismal records of the mission.
3. Montana Historical Society, esp. the microfilm copies of “Woodstock Letters,” a Jesuit publication.
4. “Indian and White in the Northwest” by the Rev. Lawrence Palladino, S.J., a book. This is available for download on the Internet.
5. “Catholic Activity among the Blackfeet Indians” by Sister Mary Dorothy Sullivan, F.C.S.P.
6. Personal interviews with people who were there.


[This material takes a conventional white point of view “pre-post-modern”. The Blackfeet are seen as pitiful when they only had dogs, lifted to savage and warlike dominance with horses and guns (little discussion of hunting, much of war) but inclined to be dependent on great men -- at first chiefs and then white men. Historical facts come from Ewers.]

Blackfeet religion is “a mixture of pantheism and animism,” and involves a “Sun cult.” The people are seen as superstitious and attached to polygamy and whiskey. The tension between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the American Fur Companies is discussed and then the withdrawal of Hudson’s Bay in 1869 which left the Canadian prairies open to American whiskey traders until the Royal Canadian Mounted Police restored order in 1874. The word “squaw” is used, not as a compliment. Smallpox and the end of the buffalo are listed, followed by a period in which traders were welcome but not settlers.

First Blackfeet treaties and agreements are noted in 1853 and 1855. Major Alfred J. Vaughan is said to be one of the few decent Indian agents, but the fact that he was a Southerner meant that he left at the beginning of the Civil War. Then the Montana gold rush was on. Brother Van Orsdel arrived intending to be a missionary to the Indians but “the conduct of these whites was so detrimental that he felt compelled to turn his attention to them.” (Stella W. Brummit, Brother Van. (NY: Missionary Education Movement of the U.S. and Canada, 1919).

Though Black is sympathetic to the innocent victims of the Baker Massacre, he defines the actions of the young defiant Indians as “guerilla war,” which ended with the massacre. An intriguing side-note is that Malcolm Clark’s “niece, Mother Angela Lincoln, O.S.U., dedicated her life to the conversion of the Montana Indians shortly after she received the news of the death of her uncle, and became the first delegated Mother Superior of Holy Family Mission among the Blackfeet.” Her cousin, Helen Clark, was famous in her own right and “revered on the Blackfoot Reservation for her holiness and kindness.”

In 1870, in an attempt to prevent corruption, President Grant went to “faith-based” management of reservations and assigned the Blackfeet to Methodists, which they didn’t like. The idea didn’t work and in 1892 was abandoned.

After 1865 the Blackfeet reservation was diminished again and again, the borders constantly being moved inward, because of the greed of incoming ranchers and miners, with the compensation being uncertain annuities. Black discusses Agent Campbell with approval but notes the ultimate failure of his farming efforts. He says, “After the middle of the century, one can no longer speak of the Blackfeet as a nation, since in 1950 eighty-five percent of them were of mixed blood.” [Of course, the US “nation” was probably more “mixed blood” than that.]

The missionary found “that he had to clothe, feed and house the children without remuneration, that he had to estimate the reliability of each Indian promise, and that he had to oversee and often do much of the physical labor at the Mission.” Father Prando said, “After all the Indians are but children.”


Some time shortly after 1820, the first Catholic missionaries were converted Iroquois who came from the St. Lawrence River to the Flathead. The Flatheads made four expeditions to St. Louis between 1830 and 1840 to beg for more missionaries. Protestants volunteered to come but were turned down because “they married, and...had neither black gowns nor crosses nor the great prayer (the Mass).” In 1833 the evangelization of the US Indians was assigned to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Father Peter DeSmet came to the Flatheads in 1840 and established St. Mary’s Mission, which was occasionally raided by Blackfeet, who took horses and “Christian Indian maidens.”

[Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet was born in 1801 in Belgium and died in 1873 at St. Louis. He was ordained in 1827 during a stay at St. Regis Seminary (1824-1830) but had to return to Belgium between 1833-1837 because of poor health. From then on he trekked all across the northwest, both the US and Canada, until by 1846, after an ordeal ending at Fort Edmonton, he could no longer. Then he concentrated on raising money and organizing support from St. Louis. In 1868 he went into the camp of Sitting Bull and talked him into the treaty of Fort Rice.]

The Blackfeet softened when an old chief was converted while staying with the Flatheads and also by noticing that the Flathead did much better in battle with a “blackrobe” along. In 1846 Fathers DeSmet and Point, S.J. went to Fort Lewis to negotiate peace between the mountain tribes and the Blackfeet.

[Father Point was born in France in 1799 and came to the U.S. in 1834, founding the College of St. Charles at Grand Coteau in Louisiana before beginning missionary work in 1841. In the fall of 1846 he came to the Blackfeet, staying over the winter, and then was sent north to Canadian Missions. He died in Quebec in 1868. He wrote and sketched throughout his life.]

By erecting a large lodge in the middle of the Blackfeet camp circle where he could teach classes and lead Mass, Father Point converted 27 adults and 640 children. He felt that all were respectful but balked at giving up polygamy. [This is before anthropology was able to explore the economics of having many wives, a benefit to both the women and the men who depended on their labor.] He was near Fort Lewis and had better luck getting the white men there to marry their Native wives.

“There was no priest among the Blackfeet from May 1847 to Summer 1859.” It was agent Vaughn who requested missionaries. Father Adrian Hoeken, S.J., and a Jesuit lay brother came to look over the situation in the summer of 1869. This was the period when the agency kept moving and the “Piegan War,” a guerilla war, was confusing everything. The Blackfeet were resisting the Jesuits.

The tide was turned by a young priest, Father Philip Rappagliosi, S.J., [Born in Rome in 1841. He spoke Blackfeet and was stationed at St. Peter’s.] a strikingly handsome young man who welcomed martyrdom in the service of conversion and partly died because of starvation with the Indians in 1877. He deeply impressed the Blackfeet.

Also inspired were three Roman Jesuits, Fathers Philip Canestrelli, Joseph Damiani, and Peter Prando, who were at St. Peter’s. Damiani and Prando were among the founders of the Holy Family MIssion. Prando managed to talk White Calf into repudiating three of his wives in order to convert. [Prando was born in Italy in 1845. He came to St. Peter’s in 1880, was with the Blackfeet for a while, but was sent to the Cheyenne and Crows with whom he is more identified. He died in 1906, which would be three years after White Calf.] He was optimistic and funny, very popular.

But he was locked into battle with John Young, the Methodist agent, “stiff, blunt and unbending, formal and abstemious, a type not likely to endear himself to the Indians...” [Helen West's description.] He was a reformer. [It has occurred to me that if he’d been able to morph the original Wesleyan Methodists “method” of group revival and support, he might have had better luck, but he was from a later period of the denomination imbued with middle-class American and Victorian standards.] Young’s career was ended -- in spite of his best efforts -- by the Starvation Winter when the buffalo disappeared and 600 Blackfeet starved. He was transferred out and, tactfully, Prando -- who had been an enemy of Young, was sent to the Crow reservation.


Some of the religious persons in this part of the story are:

Father Cataldo, who had much experience, was made superior general of the Rocky Mountain Missions in 1877. He is the founder of St. Aloysius Gonzaga University in Spokane. He resigned in 1893 and took charge of the Alaskan Missions. He died in Oregon in 1928.

Father Bougis, born in the Ardennes, France, in 1860. Came to the US to study philosophy at Woodstock College, Maryland, and then to St. Peter’s in 1885 to teach boys and learn Indian languages. He was at Holy Family between 1891 and 1895, then did mission work in Alaska and California. He came back as superior for the year 1911-1912), returned to California and died there in 1920.

Bishop Brondel, born in Belgium, was a pastor and Bishop in Washiington State before becoming Bishop of Helena on March 7, 1884. He died in 1903.

Father Damiani was single-handedly the superior of St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s (Gros Ventre and Assiniboines) and of Holy Family. Understandably he wore out and was sent for a rest to California until 1893 when he returned to Holy Family only.

Mother Catherine Drexel, born in Philadelphia in 1858 to a banking family, inherited five million dollars in 1885 (along with her sister Elizabeth) and devoted much of it to Indian MIssions. In 1889 Catharine joined the Sisters of Mercy and in 1891 founded her own order, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament devoted to Indians and Colored People. She died in 1955.

St. Peter’s was the earlier mission. Louis Riel, leader of the Red River Metis Rebellion taught there some time between 1875 and 1885, the year of the Rebellion. When he left, Father Bougis took his class: “seventeen Indian boys and eighteen half-breed boys.” They were taught catechism in Blackfeet and also received lessons in English, French and Latin.

In 1885 Father Cataldo asked permission to build a mission on the Blackfeet Reservation as well as others. Damiani came, persuaded many, and built a “quite ample” log church and a “rude building” for the religious to occupy. This was on Two Medicine River, not too far from the location of the Government Agency at that time. White Calf gave him part of his allotment so there would be land for a farm and school. In 1889, a grant of $14,000 came from the Drexel sisters, but it was necessary to wait another year until federal funds could be added, over the objections of the Indian Commissioner, T.J. Morgan, who thought there should be secular government boarding schools.

A long two-story frame building in two sections was constructed. (Boys were to be on one side, girls on the other.) Total capacity was one hundred students. In August 22, Father Damiani trekked by wagon from St. Peter’s to Holy Family, with provisions and three Ursuline nuns, to begin the classes in September. Father Tornielli came in a month to act as superior so Father Damiani could travel. Father Bougis described going on to the reservation to collect students, who returned crying. If children ran away, which many did, the agent cut off the family’s rations (the only source of food for many) until the student was returned. Father Bougis reported that the school “was considered the best Indian school in Montana.”

Lay brothers Thomas Devlin (Irish?) and Jerome Caldos, spent 1892 working at the mission, the same year Miss Drexel sent a herd of cows and steers and an irrigation ditch was dug from Two Medicine River in order to grow grain and vegetables.

In 1895 a new building for the boys was built of sandstone quarried from the adjacent cliffs, which had previously been used for buffalo jumps. The building was forty by sixty feet, three floors and a basement, and beautifully paneled inside with sliding doors so that classrooms could be consolidated into larger spaces. The high windows looked out on the Two Medicine flood plain, which ultimately undermined the foundations of the empty budling in 1964. Two scholastics, John Carroll and Augustine Dimier, came to care for the boys and live with them. By now there were five nuns who lived with the female students in the earlier building. In 1891 the wind blew the roof off. In 1895 a runaway boy froze to death.

Financially the mission was barely surviving. Sympathy for religious-based schools was fading and the school took a twenty percent cut in government money in 1896. The Willow Creek School near Browning had been built in 1892 as a Government boarding school. Fifty children who wanted to attend Holy Family were rejected and only sixty-seven accepted.

At the end of 1897 a fire destroyed the girls’ building. Mother Drexel financed a new sandstone building. Pneumonia and measles swept the students. The basement floor of the boys’ building flooded. Father Bandini, younger than Father Damiani, came as Superior to oversee the construction of the building. When he had finished the job and gone to Spokane, he died in three months, worn out. The two scholastics also declared a need to be transferred out “to recover their strength.”

In 1900 government aid was discontinued. Father Achilles Vasta, S.J., came for the summer of 1899, but in fall of 1900 Father Prando went to the Crow Reservation. The word picture painted by Mother Mary Amata Dunne, O.S.U., was of a horde of shocked, dirty and infested children brought into a situation of poverty almost equal to that in their homes, except that it was “civilized” poverty where they were asked to scrub in soapy water carried from the irrigation ditch and heated, and made to eat vegetables. According to her, hair was not cut and parents hovered to make sure. But if dirty buckskin could be smuggled out of sight, it was burned and replaced with “white man’s clothing.” One problem was persuading children to sleep in beds with sheets, though a shortage of furniture often meant sitting on the floor for classes. Her position is that the music (Jesuits “always had an organ and kept it in tune.”), the art and the beauty of the sacraments comforted both the students and the mostly Italian teachers for the hard work and poverty. She claims they were mostly warm enough but it was hard to dry clothes in the winter.


This chapter is rich with particulars. It is a vivid illustration of the determination of the Italian Jesuits to continue the old battle of the agriculturists (equated with civilization) versus the hunters without resorting to fratricide as in the case of Cain and Abel. They were acting out of confidence born of 10,000 years of inventing farming, which ironically was not much different at the mission from that in Biblical times. But this was not a Biblical climate.

Hugh Black quotes at length Father Prando’s description of the weather. (Translated from the Italian in the Jan. 6, 1900, “Letters of the Province of Turin,” by Dr. Anthony Chiuminatto, College of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.) I shall requote, partly to convey what the weather was like and partly to illustrate that Father Prando was an educated, eloquent, and sophisticated man.

“The climate in the country inhabited by the Piegans is rather severe, and for him who does not have good lungs it is better that he stay away from it. The Summer is short, and the passage from the latter to Winter and from Winter to Summer is almost without Autumn or Spring. The land lends itself but little to agriculture; hay is cut once a year and the maintenance of life is in raising cattle.

“The winter is severe and the cold often reaches 25 or 30 degrees below zero on the Fahrenheit thermometer; sometimes it goes to 40 degrees and once it went to 50 degrees below. From the end of December to the end of April the ground is almost always covered with snow. The North wind is generally accompanied by snow in Winter and by rain in Summer; sometimes the West winds are so strong that they impede travel, and in Summer they bring big storms with lightning, thunder and hail, and in Winter, the blizzard...

“When it has ceased to snow and the sky has cleared, the West wind rises and sweeps the snow away in a curious phenomenon. The wind begins up in the mountains and one first sees it come down the mountains in long waves of white foam, then becoming one billow after another, two or three meters high; the mountains seem to be rejoicing...

“As the wind continues to gather strength, the snow rises on high and forms huge clouds which rise higher than the mountains, and in the distance one sees that the wind is blowing on the mountain tops; as the wind comes down, the tops of the hills are the first to be swept clean, and in the valleys, when the wind is not too violent, one sees the snow move along the ground at from a half to a whole meter in height.

“As the whirlwind increases, the snow is carried away in a horizontal line to a greater height, and traveling against the wind, one experiences much difficulty because one’s face and eyes are struck by these very minute crystals which hurt in the manner of punctures by needles. Too, when the wind is a fury, it is impossible to travel because it blinds one; and even though the sun is shining, one cannot see the road. And this is a kind of blizzard with clear sky.

“These blizzards sometimes come up so suddenly that many people are caught on the road and everyone runs for the nearest shelter, if any is to be found. And it is a thing of absolute necessity to have strong horses, and a buggy equally strong, otherwise accidents of a serious nature can occur.”

The nuns and girls maintained forty stoves in their building. They were kindled at 4AM. There were times that the wood nearly ran out. During Communion Mass in Heart Butte one morning, the cold metal chalice froze to the lips of Father Egon Mallman.

Boys were separated from girls in dormitories, dining rooms, classes, and at Mass, with the exception of school programs or all-school picnics. Someone supervised the children at all times. Some of the students were over fifteen. In Spring things could get “effervescent.” Students constantly ran away, were whipped for it, or expelled.

Two classes for boys, older and younger, and two classes for girls were taught. After school there were chores on this working model farm. For recreation the boys took to baseball after a slow start, and the girls fell in love with the phonograph, dancing to “Wild Irish Rose” until, says Black, “even the Irish nuns were satiated.” The boys had a good band, directed by Brother Nicolaus Fox and later by Mr. Dittner, until about 1927. The girls had a small string orchestra.

The community attended programs. If anyone objected to the constant instruction, catechism, devotions, Masses, feasts and so on, it was certainly not recorded here. Blackfeet love and respect religion of all sorts.

Three Jesuit fathers stand out in this period.

Father Aloysius Soer was born in Holland in 1853. Inspired by Father DeSmet’s letters, he came in 1887 and served Nez Perce for nineteen years, rising to Superior. He was at Holy Family from 1905 until 1932, the year of his death and about the time the mission closed, and all the whole time he yearned for the Nez Perce! No one could easily understand his words because of his heavy Dutch accent, but it was said that “just to see him preach was sermon enough.” He was noted for invariably visiting the sick, even on one occasion when he had to cross a stream with his clothes and religious materials on his head. He was the historian of the mission and left many letters.

Father Thomas Grant was born in NYC in 1870. He was orphaned and much of the time grew up in Jesuit boarding schools. He began as a missionary to the North Cheyenne, then spent time on the Crow reservation -- his favorite -- and came to Holy Family as superior from 1915 to 1929, when he returned to the Crow until his death in 1929. He is credited with averting a Cheyenne war in 1894. He had “wry neck” which forced him to hold his head on one side, like a bird taking a closer look. He could be very strict but was also a good story teller.

Father Jerome Galdos came for a year in 1892, then returned in 1909 and stayed for 25 years. More than any of the others he fits the idea of the wise, white-bearded, gentle and self-sacrificing priest. Once when pneumonia flattened the teachers and most of the students, he both taught classes and nursed the ill, sleepless and cheerful. He was the primary manager of the farm, along with a hired farmer and half-a-dozen local helpers.


The big paradigm for Holy Family, as explicitly stated by Father DeSmet, was to repeat the success of the Jesuits in Paraguay, where they had managed (with huge subsidies from Spain and Portugal) to separate the Indians and completely reshape them, right down to dictating their marriage partners. The US did not work out the same. Reasons included lack of government money, inability to separate the children from the families and communities who denied and mocked what they learned, and the general low quality of the floating opportunistic white men all around them. [These factors persist.]

The Flatheads were converted with less trouble and forced into assimilation anyway because their reservation was a checkerboard with white land. Commissioner Morgan proposed college preparation for Indians, saying education should “lift the Indian students into so high a plane of thought and aspiration as to render the life of the camp intolerable to them... There is urgent need among them for a class a leaders of thought, lawyers, physicians, etc...” [This is just now happening.] But the government position settled on the idea of educating Indians to be good wage-earners in an industrial world. [Well, a rural version of industrialism, maybe.]

Since the government decided to build its own schools and not subsidize the Jesuits, they were free to go their own way, which was exemplified by St. Ignatius:
1. to save the child’s soul by instruction and formation
2. to make available to the tribe the sacraments and Christian instruction
3. to make the students capable of rearing a good Christian family on the reservation
4. to raise the moral and intellectual level of Blackfeet life to that of a civilized Christian country.

[The devilishness of these goals has been the Jesuit conviction -- and they were not the only ones to think this way -- that they were right and thus entitled to throttle all other less-sanctified systems of thought. Post-modern, post-colonial criticism has exploited that blind spot into a world-wide philosophical system with major impact on Native Americans. The fury of the criticism has captured many of the NA intellectuals.]

Special attention was given to the “refinement” of the girls with much value given to neatness, cleanliness, maintenance of the home in cooking, laundry, and needlework including beading and working with buckskin. [These lessons went deep. The old mission-educated Blackfeet ladies that I knew in the Sixties insisted on high standards in their homes and person, according to nun’s ideas of what those were.]

Classroom standards for the basics were high enough that after the first state tests in 1928, the Superintendent of Education wrote them a letter of congratulation. The classrooms were primarily English-speaking but hymns and prayers might be translated to Blackfeet.

The Ursuline nuns were financed entirely by the Jesuits, but the nuns had exclusive authority over their own affairs and classroom practices. The exception was that the superior could ask a nun to leave or request another to be sent. The Reverend Mother Amadeus was governor of the Ursulines until 1900. She loved and believed in Indians.

An underlying assumption not often considered is that the religious persons considered the mission to be a real home, and wanted to include the children in that. Patronizing but nurturing, this assumption leaned heavily on moral rules which included hard work, being on time, keeping one’s word, and so on. The teachers felt they had the entitlement of actual parents, and therefore were vulnerable to all rejection, anger, and failure to perform in the same way as biological parents. When the students went to their biological homes, even for a month, and were pulled back into the original orbit, the religious persons were wracked over the need to punish the behavior without rejecting the individual, especially in the case of girls.

Father Soer wrote to a Superior that if the mission closed “the doors of protection to them” it would “occasion future sins of the flesh; in fact, in many cases to allow their eternal ruin.

“For what happens if they stay home? Scandalized by sin and feeling themselves abandoned, they surrender to the passions of the flesh and seek to enter marriage. Meanwhile, having lost purity, they will have relations with many, because temptations, unfortunately, abound on the Reservation, between those married as well as those unmarried. Very quickly, in the manner of children... governed by the devil, they finally contract marriage. Such marriages are easily upset by the devil, and consequently there are many adulterous unions and cohabitations on the Reservation.” [And that was before cable TV.]

By 1930 things had settled down and vacations were more frequent.

Here’s the beginning of a story relevant to Father Soer’s opinion. It’s told by Mary Ground in “Grass Woman Stories” which is available through the Blackfeet Heritage Center. Mary was always a defender of the Holy Family Mission, though she was also an active practitioner of the old-time religious ways. The book is one sponsored by the schools, a small stapled pamphlet with original drawings and a photo of Mary.

“This happened in June of 1896. I was at Holy Family Mission and it was just before vacation. I used to interpret for the Indians who couldn’t speak English. First thing, old Brocky came in to the Sister. He had on an old blanket coat and he was crying, so the Mother Superior called me. She brought the old man into the sitting room where I was and he could hardly talk, the way he was crying.

“She asked me, ‘What’s wrong?’"

It turns out that the old man’s daughter, who was married, had attracted a lover who killed the husband and took the wife. The old man wanted the mission carpenters to make a casket for the husband, his son-in-law.

“Father Damiani and Father Prando were at the Mission then. The fathers had their own carpenter.

“She [Mother Superior] told us to take him [the old man] over to Father Damiani. I told the father, “Old Brocky here wants to know if you could help him out and fix a coffin for his son-in-law, who got killed. Frank Double Runner killed him.” Frank’s two brothers were attending Holy Family Mission and Frank had one of them called out to help him, using the ruse of rounding up horses. The three of them hung around in the cliffs by the mission and finally went up towards Browning, by Willow Creek School. The brother pretended that he was going down there to get food, but betrayed the adulterer and the woman, who were finally shot and buried in one big coffin together.

It’s clear that schools were centers of action, places with resources, family members and authority figures. (The Methodist missionary Matson went out to reason with Frank Double Runner but after his hat was shot off, he withdrew.) I expect one could find similar stories in Iraq today or even in urban ghettoes. In times and places of disorder and transition, religious schools offer limited refuge.


Parallel and interwoven with the mission school was the work of converting and sustaining the Blackfeet to Catholicism. Two big forces worked against the diligent priests:

1. The practice of attributing every subsequent tragedy and misbehavior to the conversion -- and there were ALWAYS tragedies and transgressions in those tumultuous days.

2. The idea that if a priest were to be called to a deathbed, he would pray for the death of the person. [This is not too different from the media-created notion that if the priest arrives to give last rites, that means there is no hope.] In 1914 Paul Calf-Looking Senior waited a little too long and died without rites.

The tangles of marriage -- stranded between old-time patterns and Catholic modern morality -- ended in confusion and rationalization for bad behavior. If one family began to get ahead, all the ne’er do wells showed up to live with them, which was hard on the children. Then there were the predatory whites who circled the reservation like coyotes, offering whisky.

Here’s an interesting quote, a footnote in the manuscript: “In 1876, Father Constantine Scollen, O.M.I., a Canadian missionary among the Blackfeet, wrote: “The Crees have always looked upon the white man as a friend, or, to use their own language, as a brother. They have never been afraid of him, nor have they given him any cause to be afraid of them. The Blackfeet have acted somewhat differently; they have regarded the white man as a demi-god, far superior to themselves in intelligence, capable of doing them good or evil, according as he might be well or ill-disposed towards them, unscrupulous in his dealings with others, and consequently a person to be flattered, feared and shunned, and even injured, whenever this could be done with impunity.” This is from Alexander Morris, “The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, and Keewa-tin.” Toronto: Belfords, Clark and Co., 1880, p. 248.

Efforts to preach and offer mass really rather demanded demi-god strength. Distances were long, weather was extreme, horsepower was from real horses, places to stay were uncomfortable, and the priest had to have learned to speak Blackfeet. Father Bougis visited seven camps: “Big Nose, Under Mink,Many (Merry) People, Three Suns, Three Bears, Wolf Tail, Fast Buffalo Horse” and netted twelve baptisms.

In 1895 Prando replaced Bougis and fared a bit better. He had a little cart and gave out holy cards and medals. Attending every distribution of rations, he took the opportunity for confessions, baptisms, blessing of marriages. One day he was walking along the Two Medicine road when a wagon came along driven by a half-breed woman with a baby. Taking the initiative, he persuaded her to bring the baby over to the river so it could be baptized. When they returned to the wagon, there turned out to be a second mother and child hiding in the wagon, so he escorted her back down for a second baptism.

In addition to the 2,000 Indians spread over 3,000 miles, Bougis and Prando served the white settlers iin Dupuyer and Choteau. Prando built a church in Dupuyer. Bishop Brendel, having mercy, sent a diocesan priest for the towns.

In 1901 Father Prando wore out and the Rev. John B. Carroll, S.J. took his place. Then Father Soer served until 1932 when Father Robert Kane came. When there was an automobile, Sam Choate would drive Father Soer around.

Father Kane learned to drive the car himself. He had many adventures, including one with Ted Pendergrass -- a bodacious cowboy -- who got him stalled in the middle of a Two Medicine river crossing. Nevertheless, at the destination was such a large number of Indians that Father Kane founded a mission station he called “Upper Two Medicine Mission.” On his way there one winter day he was caught in a blizzard bad enough to paralyze travel. He had two boys with him. The Mission authorities were so worried that they sent out the Mission truck, but it got stuck, too. Then they sent the tractor but even that was soon stuck. Two days later the Indian Agent sent out fifty riders to find Father Kane and the boys, who were located in a cabin where they had taken shelter. No people were there, but wood and provisions.

Eventually congregations were formed in Heart Butte and Browning. Mr. Brown began to solicit contributions to build a church. People gave him animal furs, livestock and other valuables which he auctioned for $1,200. In 1904 the new St. Michael’s Church was constructed for $1,500. Father Carroll was sent to Alaska, so Father Soer served Heart Butte and Browning. As more government schools were built, Father Carrolll was recalled from Alaska to live in Browning. He built a lean-to onto the church where he cut his own wood, did his own cooking, and walked five miles out to Boarding School to give Mass and instruction. Progress was inch-by-inch.

When the first Protestant minister, Edward Dutchen, came in 1895 he bluntly told Father Bougis to get out. The boarding school became the scene of a wrestling match over who would instruct the children. By 1912 the Catholics won. The Jesuits asked the Provincial Superior to take over the northern part of the reservation. The Rev. Thomas A. Daley came, but didn’t speak Blackfeet, so had to help from Father Soer until 1920.

In Heart Butte, more traditional, a church was built and blown down by the high winds twice. In 1910, someone who read an appeal for funds in The Indian Sentinel sent $500 which was enough to get the church of St. Peter Clavaer built. The first Mass was celebrated on August 13, 1911, and the church became the center of a cluster of cabins. In 1933 Father Hannon came. Then in 1935 the Reverend Egon Mallman, S.J., who had to pick up the slack for the whole south half of the reservation when Holy Family closed in 1938. He was helped somewhat by two lay catechists, Eli Guardipee and Sam Choate who taught and acted as interpreters. Children were taught in the day schools scattered around the reservation.

Sometimes Father Soer was invited to Havre where the Reverend Francis Sansone, S.J., served three classic German and Bohemian congregations. He was always delighted and enjoyed speaking German again. In 1932 Civilian Conservation Corps camps were set up at Many Glacier, Babb, on Sherburne Lake and at St. Mary. Father Kane served them.

A few supernatural apparitions were recorded. Helen Clark, daughter of Malcolm Clark, appeared to Florence Magee who lay dying. Florence didn’t know that Helen had just died, but described her clothing, which was exactly the same as what Helen Clark wore in her coffin.

The exemplary members of the congregations included Percy DeWolfe, Joseph Tatsey, George Kipp and Eli Guardipee.

By 1934, when anthropology had advanced enough to explain Blackfeet religion a bit better, Father Jean Lessard, O.M.I., a well-known missiologist and missionary, said, “We should never have set aside all their pagan customs... And now, it is uphill work... We have to be careful because if we resurrect any of their paganism, it is so close to their heart, they will go all the way.” But the truth is that the Blackfeet simply embraced both ways.


The Jesuit Father Superior in charge of the Mission had absolute authority over nearly everything. The other side of that power was total responsibility for everything, including the weather -- at least in terms of preparation. He was the peacemaker, the personnel department, the fund raiser, and so on. Black notes “the extreme sensitivity of the Blackfeet...often too ready to listen to their children’s stories of mistreatment...necessitating the dismissal of the teacher in question.” [This is still common today.] The Father Superior was hard-pressed to find good teachers, esp. among lay people. [This is also common today, except for the increasing number of Blackfeet teachers.] The problem wasn’t just in the classroom. When the cook went off to become a religious, in the next year a series of eight cooks went through the kitchen -- including periods of time when the brothers or nuns had to pinch-hit.

The highest responsiblity was for the souls of the children, but then next was physical safety: enough warmth, clothes, food and health care. He also had to run interference with the government, the white community (tradesmen who might be asked for credit) and the tribe, both formally through the council and informally. Because the old-time band tradition was to depend upon the strongest leaders to help the weak and poor, the Father was interpreted as the “chief” and petitioned for all sorts of supplies and remedies for grievances. Sometimes he just didn’t have the means and then had to defend against the bitterness of the disappointed and thefts by those who took matters into their own hands. Besides everyday maintenance, a chief was expected to provide for feasts which traditionally involved gifts.

Maintenance of the property took much attention, energy and funds. Buying supplies and selling surplus crops or livestock were also his responsibility.

In 1904 France exiled the Brothers of Christian Instruction of Lamennsis, who offered Holy Family two teachers, Brothers Salvinus and Rene. Salvinus, who was especially gifted, stayed for seven years as teacher, choirmaster and sacristan. The two men left at the same time that Rocky Boy’s people were sent to the Blackfeet Reservation and Fort Shaw closed its school, creating an overpopulation crisis.

Charles Owens and his family came to Browning and made friends with Father Carroll, who felt Charles was God-sent. Charles’ father and brother were experienced farmers and took charge of the farm while Charles taught classes, but then he left to become a Jesuit.

Other teachers described include:

A nameless big fat German man who lost his temper all the time, refused to work in the fields and had no discipline.

Raymond Philibert from St. Louis who was an inexperienced teacher but proved to have a knack for it and who was especially devoted to the Sacraments.

William Mellen from Drummon, Montana.

William Van der Wansen, a former lay brother of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who had done mission work in the Americas, gone back to Belgium, and then left the order so he could return. Described as “hard working and cheerful,” he was teacher, sacristan and choir director.

In 1920 William Shepherd, S.J., came from Alaska for a year.

In 1922 the Superior, Father Grant, had to teach.

In view of the current debate over water rights, I will quote at length the paragraphs about water rights:

“The superiors at Holy Family were involved in a dispute from time to time during these years with the Government over water rights. With permission of the Government, Holy Family had dug, at its own cost, an irrigation ditch in 1892. The first canal which the Government constructed in the Two Medicine Valley was a partial failure, and Holy Family granted the Government the use of its ditch for some distance down the valley. Then, in 1908, the Agency dug a new ditch whose intake was a short distance above that of the Mission canal. Since this lowered the river level below the Mission intake during the dry season, Holy Family at this time obtained permission to use water from the Government ditch. This agreement was not formalized in writing.

“In 1918, the United States Reclamation Service raised the question of mission water rights by billing Holy Family at a rate of $1.00 an acre per year. Father Grant replied with a vigorous protest. After recalling the history of the irrigation ditches, he argued that since the Indians were not charged for the use of Government water [sic], it was unjust to demand payment from an institution supporting their children. He prepared to defend his rights, and had gone to an irrigation meeting in Seville (near Cut Bank) to do so, when he received word from the Mission Bureau that Holy Family was exempt from charge.

“The problem came up again in 1931. At this time the Society assigned the matter of the water rights for its Montana missions to the Rev. Francis C. Dillon, S.J., a veteran ‘troubleshooter,’ and in a short time the question was settled in favor of the Mission.”

A major part of administration is the careful keeping of records [a part that both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Tribal Council notoriously shirked] and these religious folks conscientiously maintained a daily diary, an “Historia Domus” and yearly reports on the state of the Mission and its progress. Fund-raising was constant, much fortified by Mother Thomas, O.S.U, in charge of the food and personal needs of the priests themselves but devoting every spare minute to shameless begging letters.

Nevertheless, money kept shrinking. At first Mother Drexel could help. Almost nothing came from local parish funds. From 1895-1905 were identified as the “lean years,” when government support withdrew. Father Damiani was superior for most of this time except for ten months in Brazil (1899-1900) when Father Achilles Vasta, S.J. took charge. For a while Father Damiani was the only priest on the reservation. He left for Alaska in 1905.

At about that time some tribal resources began to be available and at the time of allotment, the Mission Bureau was given title to the 320 acres of mission land. In 1909 the land was exempted from taxes and back taxes were refunded, which was used to pay debts, make improvements, and buy a bit more land.

Between 1900 and 1907 Brother Thomas Campbell and Brother Roch Terragno took on the cooking and chores and the Lamennais Brothers provided teachers. Father Damiani retuned from Alaska in 1912 (now over seventy) and stayed until 1915, when Father Grant became Superior. Remarkably, it is reported that he “skillfully directed mission affairs through the fourteen years with scarcely a problem or extraordinary happening. He was careful to avoid all unnecessary conflicts with the Agency or white interests, and , despite the childishness of many of his parishioners, he maintained universal good will toward the Mission.”

Donations began to come in after 1915. $1,000 was used to add a laundry room to the girls’ school, build a small barn, paint the interiors of both schools, and construct an ice-house for meat. In 1918 Father Soer’s brother, Mr. Arnold Soer, sent enough money for a new Ford automobile and in 1919 he sent another $470 to keep it in repair on the rez roads. Father Grant bought 280 acres of grazing from Paul Calf Looking, and in 1922 another 280 acres for $840.

The winter of 1919-20 was unusually severe, following a drought. There was little hay and Father Grant had to borrow to pay for coal and feed. 86 of the mission cows died, as well as other livestock. Desperate ranchers around him helped themselves to the mission hay. Father’s neck, not improved by stress, forced him to go to Minnesota for treatment.

In the summer of 1921 the sills and walls of the church were raised and several farm buildings were renovated. Still, Father Grant reported that the mission assets were greater than the debts. Agent Campbell’s “Five Year Plan,” which emphasized farming and organized granges, was very helpful to the mission where the Superior was also the “president” of that grange. An electric light plant was installed for $2,000. Several “friends” of the mission gave enough money to put a bell in the church tower and paint the exterior. Other farm buildings were painted and spirits were up, but there was a steady small erosion of the Mission.


Father Ignatius Dumbeck, a young man, arrived in July, 1929, to give the Mission nuns their annual retreat in August, to take a look around, and (he rightly suspected) to become the next Superior, a task which he didn’t feel he was up to. Everything had gradually slid downhill: buildings were leaking and cracking, the kitchen stoves had been repaired to the limit, the well was condemned, and the agricultural machinery was worn out. In his report he used the word “ramshackle.” Ten years earlier Father Grant had seen that white men were moving in on the reservation and that the survival of the mission was a gamble.

What Black calls “tribal money” -- which may have been Bureau of Indian Affairs controlled money -- was dwindling. Bishop Finnigan of Helena preached back east and begged donations. An appeal was made to the tribe, but a government inspector used Catch 22: no money could be allotted until they had improved the place. In one last burst of optimism, Dumbeck was elected to make the “Hail Mary” pass. An appeal was made to the Marquette League for renovation funds, which supplied $11,000.

Father Grant figured the buildings of Holy Family were worth $20,000 and the land $6,320, but the running expenses that same year (1928-29) were $18,500. He spent the Marquette League funds thus:
1. A used power plant from the Browning School Board at $50.
2. Weather-proofing of doors and windows, begun by Brother Jacob McGuire and finished by a Browning carpenter: $975.
3. Lumber for farm buildings directly from Montana mills at $18 per 1,000 in carload lots delivered to Browning: moving the barn away from the river and adding to it; building hog and chicken houses, fencing for a dairy herd of six cows.
4. A new hay mower with a sickle attachment, a Caterpillar #15 tractor, and some other machinery purchased at discount for a total of $2,692. The Caterpillar alone cost $1,475 but paid for itself in three months of work.
5. Repair of the roof on the boys’ building at $664.
6. Insulation of the dormitories.
7. Repainting of the interiors.
8. A new Majestic cooking stove for $398.
9. A dish-washing machine, a new oven and a bread mixer.
10. A new well and 600 feet of 2 inch pipe at a depth of six feet to get below the frost line.
11. Sewer upgrade to meet government specs.

From other sources came funds for a “Magic Marvel” flour mill so whole wheat bread could be produced and sold. Produce, esp. cabbage and carrots, were sold as well as beef, the principal source of profit. Bishop Finnigan went out of his way to provide support by visiting, helping Father Dunbeck study plans, and soliciting money. They managed to cut expenses by $4,000 and to find $3,700 from the tribe and the Indian Commission. In 1931, Father Dunbeck figured that the stock and garden had yielded a profit of $5,700 as well as supplying the Mission kitchen.

Then trouble came from the Two Medicine River, which was eating away at the bottomland in spite of a retaining wall built by Father Grant. Using that new Caterpillar, an old riverbed was deepened and the river was diverted into it. Cost was $500. Dunbeck also constructed an underground water reservoir up the hill (in preference to a water tower, which could freeze) at a cost of $5,000, paid for through Bishop Finnigan. The worn out windmill that pumped the water into the tank had to be replaced.

All this was done by 1931, but then Bishop Finnigan died. Father Soer had also recently died. In 1930 Brother Caldos was permanently incapacitated by pneumonia. The auto also died. More land was needed, back wages needed payment, leases demanded money. Dunbeck mortgaged the mission livestock in 1933. Under the strain, he began to fail himself.

In early June, 1934, hail damaged the buildings and smashed the garden and grain fields. Most of the windows were broken out and the roofs were ruined. The Most Rev. Ralph Hayes, then Bishop of Helena wrote: “It was sad to see the ravaging force of the storm, which lasted but fifteen minutes. A large field of alfalfa would have been ready for the cutting within a week; ... large fields of wheat and oats and barley have simple disappeared from view; potato fields and truck gardens beaten flat to the ground and ruined for the year. All this is a most serious loss to the Mission. Under the most favorable conditions, the financial problem of the Mission is almost hopeless, and the only solution lies in the fact that the Mission is able to supply... all the flour and vegetables of the children, and the grain required for the cattle, from its own fields. With crops destroyed for the year, a very serious problem is presented.”

Bishop Hayes and the Marquette League helped to repair the roofs ($940) and replace 300 panes of glass, but Father Dunbeck collapsed in July. Bishop Hayes reorganized the classes so that all would be taught by nuns, a cheaper source of labor. The Department of the Interior promised $100 for each of 15 of the 35 orphans at the Mission, but then said the state of the buildings was not good enough to house students.

Father John Prange, S.J., came to be the new superior. Bishop Hughes died and was replaced by Joseph M. Gilmore. Reverend John B. Tennelly became the new head of the Mission Board. They were the last team to struggle to save the Mission and they lost.


Black notes the style difference between the early priests who had such confidence in God and their own spirituality, as compared to the newer men who dealt with the practicalities of poverty and politics. It’s hard to know what factors in what proportions undermined and destroyed the Mission. But it’s even more impossible to know how much good was done in those arduous years of effort and self-denial.

What Black does NOT address is the accusation that J.L. Sherburne [NOT J.H., his father] -- possibly deliberately -- was the party who foreclosed on the Mission. This man has been so thoroughly attacked that his family is highly defensive and not all of them were in sympathy with what he did anyway.

Also, Black does not frame the end of the Mission with the worldwide Depression sweeping the globe. (In the Thirties all the Unitarian congregations in Montana collapsed.) As recorded in the Foley Report, the young, old and vulnerable of the reservation were starving again, as they had when the buffalo ended. People everywhere were dispersed and lost, especially in the West, and many High-Line communities were devastated.

The other personal observation I cannot resist contributing is that people like Mary Ground became anchors for the religious revival of the Old Time Blackfeet ways in spite of all those catechism lessons and Holy Masses. I don’t consider this a failure. After all, being Bundle Keepers never prevents anyone from attending Mass today. Conscientious men like Louis Plenty Treaty who responded to Campbell’s plans for farming were also active in the Horn Society long after others had forgotten there was such a thing.

Also, those old ladies the nuns intended to make “refined” as girls became order-keepers in their own families and their communities. It wasn’t until the reservation was opened to alcohol that many women began to drink with the consequent damage to their children, both physically and spiritually. In the Sixties the worst threat one could make to a child was “I’m going to tell your grandmother!” Very often, grandmother got their attention with a stick, just as the nuns had. Pride and discipline were kept alive.

Lately it has been fashionable to hate and blame the Mission schools, but perhaps that’s too easy.


Anonymous said...

HOLY FAMILY MISSION by Hugh Black (notes)
By prairie mary(prairie mary)
In 1932 Civilian Conservation Corps camps were set up at Many Glacier, Babb, on Sherburne Lake and at St. Mary. Father Kane served them.
prairiemary -

The CCCs were established on March 31, 1933. (so the above statement is not accurate.)

Just thought you'd like to know

prairie mary said...


Prairie Mary

chiefmtn said...

Good reading