Father De Smet
Sacred Heart Mission
De Smet, Idaho ca. 1840


  Father De Smet Crucifix
Stood In His Room
Until His Death


  Father De Smet Rosary
ca. 1850 Devotion
To The Virgin Mary

Sacred Encounter
The Invasion of the Heart

The Salish, The Pend Oreille,
Father De Smet and The Black Robes


“Cross of Peace,” erected during
the sacred encounter of our past
in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest in the 1840s.

The Catholic World

God said, Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild beasts and all the reptiles that crawl upon the earth. - Genesis 1:26

Nineteenth-century Roman Catholics believed that their church, presided over by the pope and a hierarchy of priests, was the one true moral and spiritual authority on earth. Their church was a place in which to worship God through the ritual of the Mass with its scent of incense and candle wax, the glow of gold and crystal, and the sound of Gregorian chant and Latin prayers. Beneath the vaulted transept, people reached for heaven and the sacred.

Roman Catholicism had both an institutional and a popular aspect. The church was a comforting place where people sought and found the intercession of a powerful, protective mother, the Virgin Mary, who was seen by believers, along with the angels and saints, as familiar kin to whom they could bring their prayers for help and healing. Church altars and shrines were dedicated to Mary and other saints, and pilgrimages were made to places where miraculous cures and Marian apparitions were reported. Some popular practices, such as the rosary or devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, were approved by the institutional church. Others, like the belief in the healing powers of springs or waterfalls, which had roots in the pagan past, were discouraged as pure superstition.

In De Smet's youth, however, this Catholic world was assaulted by political upheaval. The secular and democratic tides of the French Revolution swept across Catholic Flanders (now Belgium) and De Smet's hometown, Dendermonde, as did the forces of Napoleonic expansion.

Flanders was under French rule from 1797 to 1815, and under Protestant Dutch dominion until 1830. French replaced Flemish as the language of commerce and status, and the virulent anti-Catholicism of the French Revolution led to the closing and ransacking of Flemish monasteries and drove priests into exile. The De Smet family learned to speak and write French, but it was a dangerous time for Pierre-Jean to think about becoming a priest.

Contrary to his aging father's wishes, the twenty-year-old De Smet sailed for America in 1821, secreted out of Amsterdam along with eight other would-be Jesuits. After his arrival at the Jesuit novitiate at White Marsh, Maryland, De Smet wrote to his father, "God has called me; I must follow." De Smet spent most of the 1820s at the Jesuit seminary at Florissant, Missouri, where he became a priest in 1827.
Expansionist Christianity

Since the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, Christianity has sought to make itself a religion for the world. The revolutionary claim to universality and equality has over the past twenty centuries spawned movements and philosophies of both liberation and oppression. During the age of discovery and exploration, Christianity became a religion of conquest, and the Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1541, was one of its most fervent standard bearers.

In contrast to other religious orders, the Jesuits wore no particular dress, established no monasteries, followed no rule of hourly prayer and contemplation, and had no particular mission other than the "greater glory of God." The society's deeply committed, tightly disciplined, and highly mobile members rendered service directly to the pope for whatever was most needed in the Counter-Reformation battle with Protestants. Over time, missions and education became the Jesuits' forte.

Often controversial and frequently at odds with kings and popes, and once suppressed as an order, the Jesuits played a major role in extending Catholic missions into the four quarters of the globe. In 1549, less than a decade after the founding of their order, the Jesuits launched one of the largest missionary undertakings in history among the Guarani Indians of South America. At their height, the Paraguayan Reductions (from reducere, the Latin verb meaning to lead back, to bring into the fold) encompassed thirty towns inhabited by more than eighty thousand Indians. Under the paternalistic tutelage of the Jesuits, the Guarani became town magistrates, sculptors, organ builders, calligraphers, and builders of Baroque cathedrals. The Guarani towns survived until 1767, when the Jesuits were suppressed as an order and expelled from South America by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns.

The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jesuit missions in North America were less successful. The mission to New France, established in 1632 among the Iroquoian-speaking Huron of eastern Canada, was scarcely more than a series of outposts in the agricultural villages of the Huron Confederacy. The Huron Reduction ended in 1649 when, weakened by epidemic disease and conflict between traditional and Christian factions, the Huron Confederacy was destroyed by enemy Iroquois, and its Huron-Wendat members scattered.

Shortly thereafter, the Jesuits established missions among the Iroquois themselves along the St. Lawrence River. It was from these mission communities, particularly Kanewake and Akwesasne near Montreal, that Iroquois voyageurs - who would ultimately settle among the Plateau tribes in the early nineteenth century - were recruited. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first North American Indian candidate for sainthood, came from one of these seventeenth-century Iroquois mission communities.

The slow and fitful progress of the Iroquois mission might have been an apt model for members of the newly restored Society of Jesus after 1815. For the first band of young recruits like Pierre-Jean De Smet, however, who left Europe to minister to the Indians of America, it was the memory of the fabled Paraguayan Reductions that fired the imagination and the soul.


  St Ignatius Chapel in 1884

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The Invasion of the Heart

In the beginning, we were very different peoples. We came from totally separate worlds, each of which was very old. But we were also alike. We were human beings, occupying a portion of this earth that each of us considered to be the very center. We also shared a belief in a mysterious power beyond ourselves that made all life possible. We called it Amotkan or God; Sumeg or Sacrament. It was everything.

In the wake of the Columbian voyages, the encounter between Christian missionary and Indian sparked both confrontation and dialogue between two sacred worlds. The collision of European and Native American beliefs and values brought about wrenching changes and necessitated entirely new ways of life for native and colonizer alike.

When Pierre-Jean De Smet of Belgium met the Flathead, or Salish, of northwestern Montana in 1841, the encounter between Indian and white in the Western Hemisphere was nearly 350 years old. Although the story of the invasion of the Americas was not new, it assumed many forms. Some were clean and swift, like a knife. Others were subtle, even exquisite, in the masking of their mode of destruction. The most profound was the most intimate: the invasion of the heart.

In the 1830s, despite the encroachments of epidemic disease and white fur traders, the densely folded homeland of the Salish remained a safe haven. Yet, inexplicably, spurred by the prophecies of native visionaries such as Shining Shirt, the Salish and their Nez Perce neighbors began to search for Black Robes, the strange men who wore the cross of the Man-God and did not marry women.

As early as 1811, Catholic Iroquois fur hunters-including Ignace Saxa, or Old Ignace had migrated from the vicinity of Montreal to the Northern Rockies and intermarried with the Salish and related tribes. These men brought with them an Indianized form of Catholicism, woven from the recollections of their own experience under the Jesuits who had missionized in eastern Canada before being expelled as an order from North America in 1773.

Although the seventeenth-century Jesuit Relations reported the torture of priests by the Iroquois, some natives, like Old Ignace - a sacristan in his youth-warmly recalled the Jesuits. Between 1831 and 1837, three successive delegations of Nez Perce, Salish, and Iroquois traveled across the Plains to St. Louis in search of teachers of the new religion. Two delegations were led by Old Ignace, who was killed, along with the entire 1837 party, at Ash Hollow near the Nebraska sand hills.

The call of the Rockies was not immediately answered. The Catholic Church and fledgling Jesuit mission and novitiate at the frontier's edge had few men and fewer resources for such a far-flung mission. The romantic saga of previously untutored Indians in search of the white man's God, broadcast in the Protestant press, instead launched the Oregon missions of the Congregationalists (Samuel Parker, 1833), the Methodists (Jason Lee, 1834), and the Presbyterians (Henry Harmon Spalding and Marcus Whitman, 1835-36; Cushing Eells and Elkanah Walker, 1838).

But for the Salish and their Iroquois relatives by marriage, only Jesuits would do. A fourth delegation of two French-speaking Iroquois traveled east again in 1839. This time, at St. Joseph's mission to the Potawatomi at Council Bluffs, they found a man whom the Plains Indians later called "good-hearted," a thirty-eight-year-old Flemish Jesuit named Pierre-Jean De Smet.

For Fr De Smet, the appeal came as a voice crying from the wilderness. He visited the Salish at the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous of 1840, at once fulfilling Shining Shirt's prophecy and sparking native visions of new deities and spirit protectors. The following year, with the blessing of the bishop of St. Louis, Fr De Smet and his European confreres- Nicolas Point, S.J., French artist, architect, and college educator; Gregory Mengarini, S.J., Italian linguist, physician, and musician; and three lay brothers-set out for the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana with visions of their own. St. Mary's mission to the Flathead, modeled after the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Paraguayan Reductions, became for Fr De Smet the imagined heart of an "empire of Christian Indians," a wilderness kingdom in the uncontaminated reaches of the Rocky Mountains.

A convergence of interest, a conjunction of visions, a shared sense of the miraculous and the interpenetrability of the human and sacred, were not to be mistaken, however, for the desire of the Salish to convert to Christianity. Initially there were similarities of belief upon which to construct a dialogue. The mid-nineteenth-century European Catholic world was caught up in a love affair with the Virgin Mary and a renaissance of romantic piety known as the Devotional Revolution.
European Catholics were almost tribal in their devotion to the Holy Family and the saints, and to the values of generosity, community, obedience, and respect for family. Other aspects of Catholic theology and practice resonated or found points of contact with traditional Salish beliefs and practices: the sacramental and transformative power of chant, prayer, and devotional hymns; a sacred calendar associated with sacred colors; the veneration of sacramental objects and sacred sites; the use of water and incense for purification and for transporting prayers to the spirit world; innumerable feast days and sensorially rich ritual dramas and processions; the intercessory powers of saintly guardians and religious specialists (priests); and many of the apostolic values. Both Indian and Catholic worlds depended upon the mediating power of guardian spirits or saints, and both found the way to the sacred through ritual.

For a privileged moment in 1841-42, the mission seemed to prosper. The Salish at St. Mary's settled into a rigorous daily routine of prayer and song, catechism, and agricultural labor. Father Mengarini, who carried a drum, accordion, clarinet, and piccolo across the Plains in his luggage, claimed that within six months his Salish pupils could play the finest European band music of the day. Missions to the neighboring Coeur d'Alene, Pend Oreille, Colville, Kootenai, and Blackfeet tribes were opened in rapid succession.

Nonetheless, from the beginning, the Salish resisted Catholic authoritarianism, the concepts of sin and hell, and the imposition of European social, political, and economic values that directly challenged native norms. The Salish wanted Christian power and protection for their own ends, but they weren't interested in farming or making peace with their Blackfeet enemies. If anything, as Father Mengarini reflected in his memoirs, the prayers of the Flathead "consisted in asking to live a long time, to kill plenty of animals and enemies, and to steal the greatest number of the [enemies'] horses possible."

The mission to the Blackfeet was seen by the Salish as a betrayal. Protestant-Catholic missionary competition and hostility bred confusion and mistrust among neophytes and unbelievers alike. Within scarcely a decade of its founding, St. Mary's mission and the Jesuit missions to the Colville and Blackfeet were closed, their native residents apostatizing due to disease and missionary demands for change far in excess of spiritual conversion. Forced land cessions, war, removal to reservations, and decades of despair would follow. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, missionaries who had accompanied Fr De Smet and those he later recruited continued to breathe life into the Jesuit effort. Fr De Smet's dream of empire, however, was moribund.

After 1847, and for the remainder of his life, Fr De Smet was an advocate for peace. At a time of intense and often violent anti-Catholicism in the United States, Fr De Smet lent his charismatic presence as a trusted military and government emissary in treaty negotiations with reluctant or hostile Indian nations, among whom he was well known. He was a participant at the 1851 Fort Laramie treaty, and he helped to deter the Plateau tribes missionized by the Jesuits from joining their Yakima neighbors in the War of 1858.

His most controversial role involved a mission to the camp of Sitting Bull during the Fort Laramie treaty negotiations of 1868. Although he failed to persuade Sitting Bull of the government's good intentions, he brought in a sufficient number of Sitting Bull's people to secure the treaty and diffuse the threat of immediate war. The Fort Laramie treaty was a hollow victory, however. Government promises were broken within less than a decade, and war, however futile, became the only honorable alternative for the Sioux.

Fr De Smet has been viewed by some as an agent of the United States' expansion. Certainly he never wavered in his belief that the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty was a last best offer, an alternative to extinction for the native peoples of the West. Dying in 1873, he did not see the end of the buffalo days or the demoralization and pain of tribal peoples everywhere during the reservation era. After 188o, both the Catholic Church and the United States government adopted policies bent on destroying Indian identity, Indian culture, Indian religion, and Indian language.

During the late nineteenth century, Indian religion was forced underground. A core of traditional belief and practice persisted, however, reemerging in the late twentieth century as a new message of cultural strength and survival. In a belated gesture of tolerance and apology, the United States Congress in 1978 passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, designed to protect the traditional religious sites, beliefs, and practices of all Native Americans.

The last thirty years also have seen the emergence of an Indianized Catholicism in the western United States led by Indian lay men and women. The entwining of Christianity and native belief finds expression in the integration in the Catholic Mass of traditional Indian rituals and sacramentals such as sweetgrass, the drum, and the pipe, as well as in annual pilgrimages to the early Jesuit missions established by Fr De Smet. The grafting of Christianity onto the root stock of traditional native religion is a tentative indication that, after five hundred years, the descendants of European colonizers and the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas may finally have something to say to one another.

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The Catholic Pacific Northwest

Created: January 2003 - - Modified: 4/10/2005