If Only America’s Leaders Today Had the Flatheads’ Love of God and Fervor for the Faith

July 8, 2021

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 Mountains. “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.’” (Narrative addressed to the Carmelites at Termonde, March 1, 1841.)

Father DeSmet’s Prairie Mass Site, located about one mile east of Daniel, Wyoming, is the site of the first Catholic Mass (1840) in Wyoming. Photo by Realwyo.

The next day the gathering dispersed. Accompanied by his faithful Fleming and the delegates from the Flatheads, 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 Percés, 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 Pend d’Oreille, also known as the Kalispel, husband and wife in their traditional dress.

“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 today 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 has 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!’

St. Ignatius Mission, Flathead Reservation

“I then spoke at length to these good people upon the subject of religion. I told them the object of my mission, and asked them to give up their wandering life and settle in a fertile district. All declared themselves ready and willing to exchange the bow and arrow for the spade and the plow. I drew up a set of rules for the religious exercises. One of the chiefs immediately brought me a bell, and that first evening it called the Indians to assemble around my tent. After a short instruction, night prayers were said. Before retiring they sang in admirable harmony three hymns in praise of the Great Spirit of their own composition. No words can express how deeply I was touched.

A Nez Perce baby, 1911, in a Papoose (child carrier).

“The great chief was up every morning at daybreak. He would mount his horse and make the tour of the camp, haranguing his people: ‘Come,’ said he, ‘courage, my children! Tell Him you love Him, and ask Him to make you charitable! Courage, the sun is rising. Come, bathe in the river. Be punctual and at our Father’s tent on the tap of the bell. Be still, open your ears to hear, and your hearts to retain the words he will speak.’”

* Also Shoshones or Rootdiggers. See Chittenden-Richardson, p. 219.

Laveille, S.J., The Life of Father De Smet, S.J. (1801–1873), trans. Marian Lindsay (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1915), 107–9.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 785

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