Fr. De Smet

Editor’s Introduction: The following story is taken from the Life of Father De Smet, S.J. by E. Laveille, S.J. . We are pleased to reprint it for a number of reasons: It clearly illustrates that the fruits of the labors of the Eight North American Martyrs did not cease with their death but that the seed they planted among the Indians was indeed watered by their blood, growing into a great harvest. It shows, too, how God supplies the necessary means of salvation, namely Baptism and the Sacraments, to those sincerely seeking it. It also shows how sometimes those most opposed to the Church, in this case the Iroquois, can turn out to be the most zealous in promoting it.

Our Lord once said to His Apostles: “Lift up your eyes, and see the countries, for they are white already to harvest. I have sent you to reap that in which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors.” (John 4:35 & 38) These words likewise apply to Father De Smet. He was an apostle too; another one of those heroic black-robed missionaries. And it was his tremendous joy to reap the abundant harvest that others had sown.

The French Jesuits who fell under the tomahawk of the Iroquois in the seventeenth century, little dreamed that the Faith they had preached and sealed with their blood would one day be carried beyond the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and as far West as the Pacific Coast by the descendants of these same Indians who had treated them with such barbarity.

Let us here recall this extraordinary evangelization. Between the years 1812 and 1820 a band of Catholic Iroquois left the Caughnawaga Mission near Montreal, and, crossing the Mississippi valley, directed their steps to the unknown regions of the West. What could have been their object in migrating to the far West? Possibly, they were unconsciously serving the designs of Providence in behalf of those who were to become their brothers by adoption. The chief of the band, Ignatius La Mousse, had been baptized and married by the Jesuits and remained for some time in their service. The Indians called him Old Ignatius, to distinguish him from another Iroquois, the Young Ignatius of whom we will speak later on.

The travelers were so cordially received by the Flatheads that they decided to remain with them. Ties of marriage soon strengthened the bonds of friendship, and the newcomers became members of their people. Beneath his native ruggedness and rare intelligence, the soul of an apostle lay hidden in Old Ignatius. His courage and loyalty acquired for him an influence which he used for the good of the tribe. He often spoke to the Flatheads of the Catholic faith, of its beliefs, its prayers, and its ceremonies. The conclusion of his discourse was always the same appeal: to send for a Black Robe to instruct them and show them the way to heaven.

The Flatheads listened most attentively, and learned from him the principal mysteries of the Faith, the great precepts of Christianity, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sign of the Cross, and other religious practices. Their lives were regulated by this teaching; they said morning and night prayers, sanctified Sunday, baptized the dying and placed a cross over the graves of their dead.

The Pend d’Oreilles and Nez Perces, tribes friendly to the Flatheads, were eager to be instructed, and all ardently longed for the Black Robes. But how to obtain them? To reach the Montreal and Quebec Missions meant a journey of over four thousand miles.

Catholic priests, however, finally arrived in Missouri, and the news reached the mountains, doubtless brought by merchants who made yearly trips up the river. Old Ignatius at once assembled the tribe in council, and proposed sending a deputation to St. Louis in search of a missionary. The proposition was enthusiastically received, and four Indians offered to start at once. It was a bold undertaking. How were they to accomplish a journey of three thousand miles over high mountains, broad river, and across arid plains and the sands of the desert? How avoid meeting the Crows and Blackfeet, mortal enemies of the Flatheads?

The four travelers left their country in the spring of 1831, ready to brave every danger in order to obtain a priest. It is very probable, however, that they joined a caravan of merchants who were going East. In the beginning of October the deputation arrived at St. Louis, repairing at once to a Catholic church to prostrate themselves before Him whom Ignatius had taught them to adore, praying fervently that their long journey would not be in vain, and that they might realize their hearts’ desire. The dignified bearing and piety of the Indians greatly impressed all who met them, but unfortunately no one could understand their language.

Yet another trial awaited them. Worn out by the fatigues of a journey that had lasted several months, two members of the deputation fell ill and died within a few days. The two surviving Indians set out for the mountains, but never reached their tribes, nor is it known whether they, too, succumbed to fatigue, or were massacred.

This expedition, however, was not in vain, for it made known the existence of the Flatheads, and gained the interest of the public. Catholic priests were so scarce at that time that a new mission could not be started. The Protestants, wishing to profit by this condition, endeavored on two occasions to get in touch with the Indians. In 1834 the Flatheads learned that a band of missionaries was en route to their tribe, and they concluded it was the Black Robes with the messengers who had been sent to fetch them. Great was their disappointment when the caravan arrived and they beheld not one of their tribe in the party. The missionaries, moreover, in no way resembled those the Iroquois had told them about. They were married and they did not wear either the black robe or the crucifix, neither, did they recite the “big prayer” (the Mass). These were not the masters they expected. Realizing that it was useless to remain, the Methodists left to establish themselves in Oregon. Another attempt was made a year later by the American Board of Foreign Missions, with no greater measure of success.

The Flathead, despairing of seeing again their brothers that had left the camp four years previously, decided to send a second deputation to St. Louis. This time Ignatius offered to go himself. Taking with him his two sons, whom he wished to have baptized, he left the mountains in the summer of 1835. After unspeakable fatigues and hardships the deputation reached St. Louis the beginning of December. Having been taught French when a child, Ignatius could explain the object of his journey. A Belgian Jesuit, Father Helias d’Huddeghem, heard his confession and prepared his sons for baptism.

For some time the Fathers in Saint Louis had wished to establish a mission on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, but as the number of priests hardly sufficed for the work of the college, the Father General could not then undertake another foundation. Ignatius, nevertheless, continued to plead for a priest, in the name of the tribes whose delegate he was. “I consoled him as best I could,” wrote Father Helias, “assuring him that our ‘Black Chief’ at Rome would shortly provide for the needs of his people, and that if permission was given to me, I would start at once for the mountains.” Bishop Rosati also promised to send missionaries, and cheered with this hope Ignatius returned to his country.

Eighteen months passed, and yet no Black Robe arrived. In the summer of 1837 a third deputation started for St. Louis. It was composed of three Flatheads, one Nez Perce, and their chief, Old Ignatius. In traversing the Sioux country they encountered a band of three hundred warriors. Ignatius, who was dressed as a white man, might have been spared, as the Sioux thought he belonged to a caravan of white men returning to St. Louis; but the valiant old man refused to be separated from his companions. Knowing they were lost, the Flatheads determined to at least uphold the honor of their tribe. Fifteen Sioux entered into combat with them. At last, defeated and outnumbered, they fell, offering their lives to God for the salvation of their brothers.

Upon learning this crushing news the poor Indians asked themselves if they would ever obtain a Catholic priest, and undaunted, decided to send a fourth deputation to St. Louis. Two Iroquois who had some knowledge of French offered to go. One was called Peter Gaucher, the other the Young Ignatius. They left in 1839, joining a party of trappers traveling in the same direction. About the middle of September the deputation passed the St. Joseph Mission, at Council Bluffs. They visited the mission which had been established the year before for the Potawatomies, and there Father De Smet beheld for the first time those to whom he would soon begin his apostolate. “With tears in their eyes they begged me to return with them. If only my health would permit, I might have the luck this time to get further up the Missouri. Should God deem me worthy of the honor, I would willingly give my life to help these Indians.”

A few weeks later our two travelers arrived at St. Louis. They made their confessions to one of the Fathers at the college, then went to the cathedral to hear Mass and receive holy communion, and there Bishop Rosati confirmed them.

After a long conversation with the Indians the good Bishop wrote to the General of the Society of Jesus, telling him of the sterling qualities of these Indians, and recounting their efforts of the past eight years to obtain a Catholic priest. The letter concluded in the following words: “For the love of God, Most Reverend Father, do not abandon these souls.” Touched by this earnest appeal, the Father General agreed to send a priest. At last the Flatheads were to realize their long-deferred desire. Peter Gaucher started at once to carry the good news to his tribe, Young Ignatius remaining in St. Louis to act as guide to the missionary, who would start in the spring.

When Father De Smet heard of the promise made to the Flatheads he offered at once to go to the Rocky Mountains.

The missionary entertained no illusions as to the difficulties of the enterprise: “It is a journey fraught with many dangers,” he wrote to his brother, “but God in whom I put my trust, will, I hope, guide me, for it is for His greater glory that I undertake it. The salvation of a whole nation is at stake.”

His Superior had intended giving him an assistant, but the necessary money was not forthcoming, so he started alone, with only Young Ignatius as guide. They left St. Louis March 27, 1840, arriving a few days later at Westport, the frontier city of Missouri, and the meeting-place of the merchants en route to the Rocky Mountains. He here procured horses for his journey, buying seven in all, one for himself, one for his guide, and five for transporting baggage and provisions. They were to join a caravan of about thirty men belonging to the American Fur Company. Before starting for the great desert, he placed himself under the protection of the Queen of heaven, and wrote for the last time to his brothers and sisters. In the firm belief that he was answering the call of God, he departed cheerfully and confidently: “God has surely great designs upon these poor tribes, and I thank Him with my whole heart for having chosen me for this mission. I fear nothing, and never in my life have I experienced greater happiness and tranquillity.”

The caravan started April 30th, going west across arid plains that were intersected by deep gorges. Soon the intense heat began to affect them. “When only ten days out,” writes Father De Smet, “I was seized with an attack of intermittent fever, with the chills which usually precede such an attack. My friends urged me to return, but my longing to see the mountain tribes was stronger than any argument they could offer to deter me from going.”

Arriving at Green River June 30th, what must have been Father De Smet’s joy when he beheld a group of Flatheads approaching. Peter Gaucher had brought back from St. Louis the news that a Black Robe would soon come with Young Ignatius. The great chief immediately dispatched ten warriors to meet the missionary and escort him to the camp. He himself followed with all his tribe.

“Our meeting,” says Father De Smet, “was not that of strangers, but of friends. They were like children who, after a long absence, run to meet their father. I wept for joy in embracing them, and with tears in their eyes they welcomed me with tender words, with childlike simplicity. The Flatheads gave the news of the tribe, recounting their almost miraculous preservation in a battle that lasted five days, in which they killed about fifty of the enemy without losing a single man. ‘We fought like braves,’ they told me, ‘sustained by our desire to see you. The Great Spirit had pity upon us, and helped us to clear of all danger the road you must follow. The Blackfeet retired weeping. It will be some time now before they molest us again!’ Together we thanked God for his protection and begged for His assistance to the end.”

July 3rd was a Sunday. Father De Smet offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at an altar erected upon elevated ground and decorated with wild flowers. This was the first time Mass had been said in the Rocky Mountain. “I preached in French and English (writes the missionary) to the American and Canadian hunters, and then through an interpreter addressed the Flatheads and the Snakes. It was a consoling sight to see this cosmopolitan gathering following devoutly the Sacred Mysteries. The Canadians sang some hymns in French and Latin, while the Indians chanted in their own tongue. The service was truly Catholic. The place where the Holy Sacrifice was offered has since been called by the trappers, ‘The plain of the Holy Sacrifice.’ ”

The next day Father De Smet continued his journey. After crossing mountains and rivers, and scaling precipices for eight days, they arrived at the Indian camp.

The Flatheads, Pend d’Oreilles, and Nez Perces, came from a distance of eight hundred miles to meet them, and in their midst Father De Smet tasted the purest joys of his apostolic life. He himself shall tell us of it.

“The poles were already set up for my tent, and upon my arrival, men, women, and children, sixteen hundred souls in all came to shake hands with me and bid me welcome. The old men cried for joy, and the children expressed gladness by gambols and screams of delight. These kind Indians conducted me to the tent of the great chief, a patriarchal person called Big Face, who, surrounded by his council, received me with great cordiality. ‘Black Robe,’ he said, ‘welcome to my nation. Our hearts rejoice, for to-day the Great Spirit has granted our petition. You have come to a people poor, plain, and submerged in the darkness of ignorance. I have always exhorted my children to love the Great Spirit. We know that all that exists belongs to Him and everything we have comes from His generous hands. From time to time kind white men have given us good advice, which we have striven to follow. Our ardent desire to be instructed in what concerns our salvation had led us on several occasions to send a deputation of our people to the great Black Robe (the Bishop) of St. Louis to ask him to send a priest. Black Robe, speak! We are all your children. Show us the path we must follow to reach the place where abides the Great Spirit. Our ears are open, our hearts will heed your words! Speak, Black Robe! we will follow the words of your mouth!”

“From the day I arrived until I left the Flatheads, their avidity to hear the word of God increased daily. I preached regularly four times a day, and each time they ran eagerly to secure good places. Those who were sick were carried to the sermons.

“The morning after our arrival I began at once to translate the prayers through an interpreter. Fifteen days later I promised a medal of the Blessed Virgin to the one who would be the first to recite the Pater, Ave, and Credo, the Ten commandments, and the four Acts without a fault. A chief arose. ‘Father,’ he said, ‘your medal belongs to me’; and to my great surprise he recited all the prayers without missing a word. I embraced him, and made him my catechist. He performed this function so zealously that in ten days the whole tribe knew their prayers.

“I had the happiness of regenerating nearly three hundred Indians in the waters of baptism. They all begged for the Sacrament, and manifested the best possible dispositions. But as the absence of the missionary would be only temporary, I deemed it wiser to put off the others until the following year, not only with the intention of giving them an exalted idea of the Sacrament, but also to try them in regard to the indissolubility of marriage, something quite unknown among the Indian nations of America.

“Among the adults baptized were two great chiefs, one belonging to the Flathead, the other to the Pend d’Oreilles, both over eighty years of age. When I exhorted them to renew their sentiments of contrition for their sins, Walking Bear ( the name of the second) replied: ‘In my youth and even later in life I lived in complete ignorance of good and evil, and during that time I must often have displeased God. I sincerely ask for pardon. But when I fully realized that a thing was sinful I immediately banished it from my heart. I do not remember ever having deliberately offended the Great Spirit.’ ”

The end of July found Father De Smet camped near the junction of the three sources of the Missouri. Immense herds of buffalo roamed over the plain, and the Flatheads, profiting by this occasion, replenished their food supply.

Father De Smet shared in every way the wandering life of his Indians, living on roots and what game could be found. His bed was a buffalo hide, and, wrapped in a blanket, he slept under the stars; storms and tempests he braved in a small tent. For four months he suffered from a fever which, he says: “Seemed loath to leave me; but the hard life I lead finally enabled me to throw it off, and since September I am in perfect health.”

The season was then far advanced, and the missionary was obliged to start at once in order to reach St. Louis before the winter set in.

“I decided to leave,” he tells us, “on August 27th [1840]. Early in the morning of that day seventeen warriors, the pick of the two tribes, came with three chiefs to my tent. The old men in council had selected these braves to act as my escort through the country of the Blackfeet and the Crows, the two tribes most at enmity with the white man. Long before sunrise all the Flatheads had assembled to say good-by. No word was spoken, but sadness was written on every countenance. The only thing that consoled them was a formal promise to return the following spring, with a reinforcement of missionaries. Morning prayers were said amid the tears and sobs of the Indians, which drew tears from my own eyes, although I endeavored to control my emotions, trying to make them understand that my departure was imperative. I exhorted the tribe to serve the Great Spirit with fervor, and to avoid anything that might give scandal, dwelling once more upon the principal truths of our holy religion, and giving them, as spiritual chief, an intelligent Indian I had myself carefully instructed. He was to replace me during my absence. Night and morning every Sunday they were to recite prayer in common, and he was to exhort them to the practice of virtue. I authorized my deputy, furthermore, to privately baptize the dying and infants in case of need. With one voice they promised to obey all my injunctions.

“With tears in their eyes the Indians wished me a good and safe journey. Old Big Face arose and said:

“Black Robe! may the Great Spirit accompany you on your long and dangerous journey. Morning and night we will pray that you may safely reach your brothers in St. Louis, and we will continue to pray thus until you return to your children of the mountains. When snows of winter will have disappeared from the valleys, and when the first green of spring begins to appear, our hearts, which now are so sad, will once more rejoice. As the meadow grass grows higher and higher, we will go forth to meet you. Farewell, Black Robe, farewell.”