God’s Vistas: Blackrobes in Montana

This past October, Alice and I drove west in Montana across big sky country that stretched on for mile after tedious mile. This forlorn and under-populated region was once termed the “Great American Desert,” and on its prairies the earth once shook from horse-mounted warriors and the hooves of millions of buffalo. Livingston, Billings, and their eternal hills swept by, and then the ground began to slope upward. Eventually, we crossed the mountains of the continental divide and entered the Bitter Root Valley.

Here in this remote part of America on a bright mid-Sunday morning 40 miles north of Missoula. Montana, we found ourselves at St. Ignatius Mission, a small town in the middle of the Indian reservation with its impressive brick church. In this land of great vistas, one is not surprised to have a sense of the Great Spirit. It is quite another matter to encounter the face of Christ.

Interior of St. Ignatius Mission Church.
Interior of St. Ignatius Mission Church.

The story of how Catholicism came to this remote area is a long one in both space and time. It begins 2400 miles and 200 years earlier in eastern Canada where French Jesuits established a mission center that they named Huronia after the local Native Americans. The Jesuits in America used approaches that were respectful of Indian religious customs, and attempted to make Huronia an example of Christian peace in an often brutal land. Although a number of converts were made, the initial experiment was a failure. Conflict between the French and the tribes resulted in the deaths of eight Jesuits and many Christian Indians. But there was a sequel to these events. Christian refugees from Huronia re-located to other mission centers near Montreal.

As the fur trade expanded, French trappers accompanied by Indian porters and paddle men splashed ever further westward, where they encountered the  Flathead peoples on the plateau region west of the Rocky Mountains. At some point in the early 1800s several of the Huron Catholic Indians married into these tribes, and in this improbable setting they taught  the sign of the cross, the importance of keeping the Sabbath, and of baptizing infants in danger of death. The Hurons also spoke of the black robes who celebrated the mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection.

In the 1820s word reached the Bitter Root Valley that far to the east Jesuit missionaries had reentered the Mississippi Valley and a series of efforts took place to reestablish contact with the “black robes.” In 1831, four Indians from the Bitter Root Valley appeared at St. Louis after having traveled over 1600 miles through hostile Indian territory. Unfortunately, no missionaries were available to return with them. Two of the Indians soon died of disease, and the remaining two vanished on their return trip home. A second delegation made a similar trip without results, followed by a third group, whose members were massacred by Sioux Indians en route. It was not until 1837 that another group of five Indians finally succeeded in obtaining a commitment from the Jesuits to come to the Northwest.

Poised against the Rockies, he Jesuit Church at St. Ignatius Mission still serves Native Americans in Montana’s Bitter Root Valley.
Poised against the Rockies, he Jesuit Church at St. Ignatius Mission still serves Native Americans in Montana’s Bitter Root Valley.

On April 30th, 1840, a Belgian Jesuit, Fr. Pierre De Smet, set out with a trading party of the American Fur Company from present-day Kansas City on a journey that took the better part of 3 months to reach Flat Head country. He was warmly welcomed by the Indian leadership, and within a year returned with five other Jesuits. The pre-evangelization conducted by the Indians prior to the Jesuits’ arrival, resulted in thousands of baptized converts within a few years, and the creation of a mission complex that was soon regarded as one of the most successful in North America.

A missionary is “one who is sent” to share the Good News of Christ. In this sense, the first missionaries among the Indians of the Northwest were not the priests and brothers of the Society of Jesus. Rather it was Catholic Hurons from Eastern Canada who shared the rudiments of their faith and brought the Jesuits into their remote region. This remarkable tale, played out on the enormous canvas of the Far West, has few if any parallels in the history of the People of God.

April 29, 2010