Black Robes and Flat Heads and French, Oh My!

I’m reading Our Land and Our Lady, a superlative volume penned by the one-time collaborator of Father Feeney’s, Daniel Sargent. Mr. Sargent was a Yankee Blue Blood who converted to Catholicism and became a wonderful Catholic writer. Google Book Search has posted some of his works, at least excerpts thereof. You can also read his New York Times obituary, which tells us that he died in 1987 at the ripe old age of 96.

Our Land and Our Lady is a great read, written in a prose style both witty and robust. While it certainly is profoundly pleasurable reading, I’m at it more for business than pleasure. That is to say, I will be speaking at our July conference on some of the historical efforts at Catholicizing America, and Mr. Sargent’s book is all about that. By way of whetting the appetites of potential conference goers, I would like to present a brief passage from my last evening’s reading.

What follows is an inspiring excerpt on the Black Robes (Jesuits) and the Flatheads (an Indian tribe in Montana). Earlier in the book, reference was made to King Louis XIII’s 1638 consecration of himself and France to the Blessed Virgin, an act to which the King attached a great deal of solemnity. Many pages later, Sargent is explaining that, although the French efforts at evangelism in the Mississippi Vally did not prove very fruitful in the short term, there were lasting results of their efforts, including a joyful harvest of Catholic Indians in the 1830’s and 40’s that resulted from the Jesuits’ tearful reaping of the seventeenth century. In all this, the author attaches great importance to France’s consecration to the Virgin.

* * * * * * *

It came to pass that the legend of the Black Robes penetrated in the first decade of the nineteenth century to an obscure valley of the Rocky Mountains, to the Flat Head Indians of Montana. And who had brought the legend there? Who but the Iroquois originally of New York State, who had so long been the chief enemies of the Black Robes, who had been the martyr-makers of our continent, and whom the Black Robes had bought with their best blood? These Iroquois, a band of them, had immigrated to the Flat Head country, and there had stayed. They had told the Flat Heads of the Black Robes. These Flat Heads from hearing of the Black Robes wished that they might have such men among them, for they worshiped a Creator, and the Black Robes, they decided, must be special agents of the Creator.

News came to them — we wonder how — that Black Robes had arrived in the old French settlement of St. Louis. This was in 1830, and there was no telegraph and no mail, and the Oregon Trail had not begun, and St. Louis was a thousand miles away. Undaunted by distance and by the hostile Sioux tribes between them and St. Louis, they held a council and appointed four of their number to go to bring back to them a Black Robe.

The four arrived at St. Louis. But once arrived there, no one could understand their tongue. Two of them died of the plague, and died kissing the crucifix that a priest held to their lips. The other two who had somehow received a promise that a Black Robe would be sent to them died on their return journey, slain by the Sioux.

Those in Montana who waited their return — waited and waited. One day some White Men arrived, ready to preach to them, and to preach Christ, but they had wives, and they had no Mass, and the Flat Heads who knew no theology did not recognize them as Black Robes. They were Methodists who had heard of the strange visit to St. Louis and who genuinely thought that they possessed what the Flat Heads wanted. The Flat Heads made no comment, but refused to listen. The Methodists moved on.

The next time it was an aged Iroquois who made the journey. It was he who had told the Flat Heads of the Black Robes, and he was a Christian. He knew the French language; he would go. He went with his two sons. This was in 1835. He saw the Bishop of St. Louis, Rosati, confessed his sins, saw to it that his sons were baptized, received again a promise of a Black Robe. Returned. But no Black Robe. Two years later he made the journey again. This time he was slain on his return journey.

Finally a fourth embassy set out in 1840. This time the Black Robes had a priest to spare. Father De Smet, of whom we shall hear more later, went to the Rockies. “Our meeting,” he said speaking of his arrival at the Flat Heads’, “was not that of strangers but of friends.” Friends indeed! But the friendship had been made by the French. That part of France’s work that had been most true to France’s consecration to Our Lady had a touch of eternity to it.