The Life of Father De Smet, S.J.
from Chapter 5
The Potawatomi Mission
Zeal for the salvation of souls, and profound humility (God could not resist his supplications) were the distinguishing traits of our missionary, and a few weeks later he was appointed to the Potawatomi Mission. Father De Smet left St. Louis May 10th, Father Verreydt and Brother Mazelli joining him at Leavenworth. In going up the Missouri he greatly admired the vast river, dotted with its many islands; the villages that rose one above the other on its banks, the towering rocks, the caves, the forests, and the immense prairies, all of which lent infinite variety to the aspect. But the scenic beauty failed to render agreeable a journey fraught with many dangers.
"I would rather cross the ocean," he writes, "than ascend the Missouri River. The current is so swift that in order to get up the river the boat must be heavily loaded and the steam at full pressure. Hence, the traveler is in imminent danger of being shot up into the air by an explosion, and coming down perhaps in bits. Added to this, we run upon sand-bars every day - a dangerous proceeding. Lastly, the river bristles with snags which tear a boat open, and are the terror of pilots and travelers. More than once we were in great peril from them."
Crowds of Indians came to the landing to greet the missionaries, and wherever the boat stopped for fuel the priests went ashore to visit the different villages. The chief of the Iowas, an old pupil of Father De Smet's at Florissant, wished to keep him with his tribe. An Indian convert, eighty-four years of age, prepared himself for death by confession, shedding, meanwhile, tears of repentance. Everywhere they were most cordially received.
The visit to the Otoes enabled Father De Smet to initiate himself in the ways of the savage. The following lines give us an idea of his impressions:
"The village is composed of several large mud huts, each containing about ten families, and several buffalo-hide tents reeking with vermin. The women slave for the men, and appear most miserable. Some are blind, others have only one eye, and all appear extremely dirty. Their dress consists of a skirt of deer-skin to the knee, with tunic, garters, and shoes of the same hide. The whole costume is greasy and black, as though they had wiped their hands on it for a century. Both men and women wear bracelets of polished metal, and five or six strings of china or glass beads around the neck.
"I was ushered into the large hut of the chief or king. The queen placed a cushion of deer-skin shiny with grease upon a still greasier cane mat, and made me signs to be seated. She then presented me with a roughly-cut wooden plate which I think had not seen water since it was made, and served me on it a dish of disgusting appearance, cooked by herself. Opposite me a dozen wolf-dogs, seated on their haunches, eyed my plate. They seemed to envy me my happiness, and showed willingness to aid me in disposing of the food.
"I was hungry, I admit; but my stomach revolted at the sight of that mysterious stew. I said to myself, 'No airs now, you are not in Belgium, begin your apprenticeship. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.' I took a spoonful of the mess and found it delicious. It was a fricasee of buffalo tongue, mixed with bear's grease and the flour of wild sweet potatoes. I evinced my appreciation of the princess' hospitality by rubbing my stomach as a sign of satisfaction, and returned the plate to her much cleaner than when she gave it to me."
The missionaries arrived at the Potawatomi camp May 31st. Nearly two thousand Indians, painted in every conceivable way, came to the landing. Father De Smet and his companions repaired at once to the tent of the great chief, a half-breed called William Caldwell, renowned for his prowess and his victories over the whites. The missionaries were cordially received and promised protection. The chief then offered them three tents near his. Colonel Kearny, representing the Government, put an abandoned fort at the disposition of the missionaries. There they celebrated Mass and assembled the neophytes, until a wooden church was erected in honor of St. Joseph, patron of the mission. The Indians at first received them coldly (1), but soon the missionaries got into touch with them, and Father De Smet was then able to discover their tastes and aptitudes, and the needs of their tribe.
(Footnote 1): "We were far from finding here the four or five hundred fervent Catholics they told us about in St. Louis. Of the 2,000 Potawatomies that came to the landing not one of them seemed to know why we had come, and appeared quite indifferent. Out of thirty half-breed families, only two came to shake hands with us. Very few had been baptized, and all of them are profoundly ignorant of the truths of our religion. They do not even know how to make the Sign of the Cross, nor say the Our Father and Hail Mary, and this accounts, I think, for the great reserve they maintained toward us." (Letter to Father Verhaegen, June, 1838.)
"Imagine numerous huts or tents constructed of upright poles covered with tree bark, buffalo hides, canvas, straw, and grass; dreary of aspect, and pitched pell-mell, with no regard to order or symmetry, and you have some idea of an Indian village." In these holes, for such they are, 3,000 savages lead a miserable existence. The women do all the rough work, while the men pass their time in playing cards and smoking the calumet; their sole occupation being war or hunting.
"For the most part, these Indians are content with a little dried beef and a pap made of pounded roasted corn. They are sober, less from virtue than necessity. When food is plentiful, either at home or abroad, they plunge their hands into the boiling pot and eat like ravenous wolves, and when filled, lie down and sleep. Their sole possessions are a few horses that graze at large on waste land. At his birth an Indian is enveloped in rags, and during infancy left under a buffalo hide. He is brought up in idleness, and abhors work. He has no desire to change or ameliorate his condition. Any Indian who would aspire to a greater degree of comfort, or to increase his fortune through his own efforts, would be the object of general hatred and jealousy. Moreover, all his possessions would be pillaged and confiscated."
And yet the Indians had redeeming qualities: "The Potawatomies are gentle and peaceful. There is neither rank nor privilege among them. The chief has no revenue save that which he procures with his lance, arrow, and rifle. His horse is his throne. He must be braver than his subjects; the first to attack, and the last to leave the field. In the division of spoils, he shares equally with the others. The greater number of the Indians can converse intelligently upon things that concern them. They like to joke and listen to chaff, they never dispute or lose their temper, and never interrupt any one. If the affair under discussion is serious, the Indian reflects before speaking, or defers his reply until the next day. They know no blasphemous words, and often years pass without an angry word being spoken. But when drunk - and now they get drink in large quantities - all the good qualities of the Indian disappear, and he no longer resembles man; one must flee from him. Their cries and howls are terrible; they fall upon each other, biting noses and ears, mutilating each other in a horrible manner. Since our arrival, four Otoes and three Potawatomies have been killed in these drunken orgies."
Besides idleness and drunkenness, the missionaries had to combat prejudice and abolish polygamy and superstitious practices. They had to master a difficult language and undertake the still more difficult task of trying to domesticate men accustomed to a wandering life, who complained if obliged to stay three months in the same place.
Father De Smet said: "It is a work of God," and such indeed it was. He begged earnestly the prayers of his Superiors and friends. To the Carmelites of Termonde he wrote: "Here I have been for three months in the midst of the Indians. If it is your prayers that have obtained this favor for me, I beg you to ask that I may have courage, humility, fervor, patience, and the other virtues which make a good missionary."
Success soon crowned his efforts. Before the close of 1838 Father De Smet was able to write: "A great number of Indians have asked to be instructed. We have opened a school, but, for the want of a large hut, we can only receive thirty children. Twice a day instructions are given to those preparing for Baptism. We have already administered the Sacrament to one hundred and eighteen Indians; one hundred and five of this number I had to consolation of baptizing myself.
"The Feast of the Assumption will long be remembered by the Potawatomies. The church in which Mass was said was perhaps the poorest in the world. Twelve neophytes, who three months before had no knowledge of God's laws, chanted the Mass in a most edifying manner. Father Verreydt preached upon devotion to the Blessed Virgin. I followed with an instruction upon the necessity of baptism. I explained its ceremonies, and then administered the Sacrament to twenty adults, among whom was the wife of the great chief.
"After Mass I blessed four marriages. In the evening we visited the newly-converted families, who had all assembled and were thanking God for the graces received during the day, and now these good people traverse the country to induce their friends and relatives to be instructed and share their happiness. Several Indian women, whose relatives, being still pagan, refused to receive us, dragged themselves a distance of two or three miles to ask for baptism before dying."
The good dispositions evinced by the Indians encouraged Father De Smet to exert himself to the utmost in their behalf. "Often," he writes, "I visited the Indians in their huts either as missionary, when they seemed disposed to listen to me, or in the capacity of a physician to minister to their sick. When I find a child in danger whose parents are ill-disposed toward religion, I take out my bottles and recommend certain medicines. I begin by rubbing the child with camphor; then taking water, I baptize it before their unsuspecting eyes, and thus open heaven to the innocent soul."
The shiftlessness and filth of the Indians often occasioned epidemics; some tribes had as many as a thousand sick, and at such times the missionaries were dreadfully overworked. Each day Father De Smet visited a new village, carrying remedies and words of encouragement to the victims of the plague. His charity bore fruit in new conversions. Writing to his brother, he says: "I have baptized nearly two hundred Indians, and we now have three hundred converts. I can truthfully say they are all fervent Christians. Their greatest happiness is to assist at daily Mass and instruction, and receive holy communion. Several chiefs and their families have embraced the faith. I baptized an old man a hundred and ten years of age."
Protestant ministers tried to compete with the Catholic priests; but between a salaried official who distributed tracts to inquisitive members of the tribe, and the missionary, devoted body and soul to their interests, the Indians did not hesitate to make a choice. They refused the most alluring offers from Protestants and came from all directions to ask for a Black Robe to show them the way to heaven.
One day three chiefs of the Pawnee-Loups came to beg the Jesuits to visit their tribe. Noticing that the priests made the Sign of the Cross before eating, they, upon their return, instituted this practice in all the Indian villages. This delegation was followed by the chiefs of the Omahas, accompanied by forty warriors, who, making their followers a sign to wait, approached the missionary and executed the dance of friendship.
Father De Smet thanked God for the success that crowned his labors, and expressed his gratitude to his Superiors for appointing him to this mission. "We suffer, of course, many privations in this far distant country; but God will never be outdone in generosity. He rewards a hundredfold the smallest sacrifices we make for Him, and if our trials are heavy, our consolations are very great. I thank God every day for having sent me to this country."
The little community at Council Bluffs suffered many privations. To the fatigues of the ministry was added the anxiety of providing for their daily existence. Brother Mazelli, in his capacity of physician and surgeon, was in constant attendance upon the sick. Fathers Verreydt and De Smet chopped wood, cooked the meals, and mended their clothes. The distance from St. Louis, and the difficulty of communication interfered greatly with obtaining food supplies. The mission was often without the necessities of life.
In the spring of 1839 their distress was extreme, their whole nourishment for
weeks consisting of acorns and wild roots. At last, on April 20th, the
provision boat was sighted. Father De Smet hurriedly departed with two carts
to get the mission supply. A cruel disappointment awaited them. At the moment
of landing, the boat, striking a snag, was wrecked. The missionary arrived in
time to see it sink before his eyes. A saw, a plow, a pair of boots,
and some wine were all that was saved. But even this disaster did not disturb
Father De Smet's habitual serenity. "Providence," he said, "is
still kind to us. The plow has enabled us to sow a good crop of corn. Thanks
to the saw, we can now build a better house and enlarge our church, which is
too small; and with the boots I can tramp the prairies and woods without fear
of being bitten by snakes. The wine permits us to offer to God the sacrifice
of the Mass, a happiness we have long been deprived of. We returned courageously
to our acorns and roots until May 30th."
Taken from The Life of Father De Smet, S.J. by TAN Books & Publishers, Inc.
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