Saturday, June 13, 2009

Red Lake (2)

I've been working on a press release about the Sisters leaving Red Lake Mission, and ended up basically writing a story instead of a press release. I had to cut it down to the basics, though I still might submit the story to the Cold Spring paper and maybe one or two other places. The purpose of the press release is to get reporters to do their own story. And I haven't been able to talk to any of the Sisters who are still there. I just had a history, Full of Fair Hope, written by Sister Owen Lindblad, available to use, and the reminiscences of a few Sisters I've spoken too. You can buy the whole history from the gift shop at the monastery.
It's been nearly impossible to get this thing written, because people don't want to promote the event. The Sisters are sad to be leaving, but also it's not easy to talk about Catholic Missions, especially to the Indians. Louise Erdrich's early books are set in this area of Minnesota, and some of her nun characters are quite cruel. It was a cruel business of forced assimilation at these schools. The monks of Saint John's Abbey ran a boarding/technical school at the abbey as well. And when it came time to write the history of their first 150 years, Father Hilary wrote one page about the school, and moved it around and around, having difficulty finding a place for it.
Yet, when all is said and done, the Sisters and monks and priests who lived and worked there also lived in difficult conditions. It's a cold and desolate place, and one thinks they would have rather been at the Motherhouse or Abbey. In the history you encounter the story of priest after priest who learned the Ojibwe language, even in the 19th century, and long after the Indian children themselves spoke it. And the Sisters I talk to about Red Lake speak of it with great warmth and love for the people and culture and even for the hard work and how that bonded them together. It's certainly more complex than I can record in this simple story, but here is one small piece. The photos come from the Minnesota digital library.

The Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict are leaving St. Mary’s Mission in Red Lake, Minnesota, where they have lived and worked for 121 years.

When two Sisters from Saint Benedict’s Monastery and two priests from Saint John’s Abbey arrived in 1888, the population of Red Lake was already one-third Catholic. There was a long history of missionary activity among the Ojibwe in that area, and the first resident priest, Father Lawrence Lautischar, a colleague of Father Francis Xavier Pierz, arrived in 1857. The presence of Catholic missionaries was uneven, however, until the arrival of the Benedictine priests and Sisters, financed in part by Katharine Drexel and her sister, philanthropists from Philadelphia, and in part by the government to set up a school. Within six months the Sisters had established a boarding school and day school and were joined by two more Sisters and a candidate, an Ojibwe girl from White Earth, Jane Horn, who later became Sister Marciana.

For 121 years the Sisters have been a part of St. Mary’s School and the life of the mission. It was a boarding school until 1940, when it became solely a day school. The experience of that school’s early days was one of cold and a lack of supplies. “All in all there was a spirit of sacrifice deeply embedded in the lives of the Indian people and their children,” wrote Father Egbert of his experience at Red Lake in the 1940s. “The teachers had nothing to work with. There were few books, the classrooms were not warm, the chalk was short, water in the gallon jugs froze. . . . Many and great were the sacrifices, noble was the spirit in those early days of the teachers and pupils alike. . . it gave birth to a new life of cheerfulness and happiness that pervaded the school.”
And every indication shows the dedication of the students and religious at the Mission resulted in a rich and often happy life, despite the challenges and the conflict which made up this story of two cultures. Education and religious training originally focused on assimilation to Anglo American language and culture, by government directive and by the mission of the earlier church missionaries.

The school challenged the vowed religious who lived there and who brought their hard work and vision to bear on the mission as well. After a visit in the 1930s from Virgil Michel, OSB, a major figure in liturgical reform, the school started a music program that produced at its height a 56-member orchestra and an accomplished choir. The demands of a boarding school and lack of resources also demanded heroic feats in the area of food preparation. “We thought nothing of canning two or three hundred quarts of peas and thirty or thirty-five gallons of sauerkraut a year,” cook Gudilia “Goodie” Duclos, OSB, recalled of the mission in the 1940s. “We did our own meat processing. We had the largest cooler on the reservation. We smoked our own hams, bacon and sausage. Mr. Peter Graves brought us big wash tubs full of walleye and white fish. Sometimes we cleaned fish till all hours of the night. We dug carrots and potatoes and put away 150-200 bushels of carrots in the root house.” Into the 1960s, the Sisters “fed over two hundred people a day, and there were always guests. We never knew exactly how many would be there at mealtime.” Sister Elvan Drayna, celebrating her 75th jubilee this year, recalled after a day of teaching going to the kitchen to “dress hogs” and “gut fish” before the work day was over.

Sister Elvan also remembers a dramatic fire in one of the dormitories in the 1930s, and how Sister Ernestine Jansky rang the bell to awaken the Sisters and children to get them out of harm’s way. Fire was always a threat in the wood buildings heated by stoves through cold winters. Fire destroyed the first Sisters’ and girls’ dormitory in 1905, only a year after a fire destroyed the boys’ dormitory in 1904.

In the late-1970s, the Mission suffered from political unrest on the Reservation, and changes in government policies and relationships between the tribe and the religious community led to changes in the life of the school. Like many Catholic parishes and schools, the years since 1970 have been marked by increased participation by laypeople and the strength of a parish council. Still, the Sisters and priests continued to live among the people and serve, with an increased understanding of the richness of the Ojibwe culture and continued hope for the lives of the people. One of the five Sisters remaining on the mission is Mary Lou Carlson, a granddaughter of Peter Graves, the Ojibwe man who brought in fish so many years before.

The Sisters continued to be resourceful and share their multiple talents on the reservation. Sister Ansgar Willenbring, OSB, who died earlier this year, spent 23 years at St. Mary’s Mission. It was said of her, “she can as easily fix a radiator leak as a headache; tell you why the ‘Big Boy’ washer isn’t working; how best to remove fruit stain from a white blouse. She is receptionist, laundress, hospitality person; she can do electrical and plumbing repair; knows remedies for aches and pains; is historian, caretaker, convent sacristan and church organist. In short, the big white house couldn’t run without her.” Geraldine Zierden, OSB, a golden jubilarian, remembers vividly the chaos of preparing meals in the warm and lively kitchen, and also running upstairs to see large sheets of ice on the lake shoot into the air during the thaw.

It is with sadness but also a deep gratitude for the long period spent with the Ojibwe people that the Sisters leave St. Mary’s Mission and return home to St. Joseph. There is no longer the personnel available to staff the mission, which will continue under the auspices of the Crookston diocese. The connection between the Benedictines and the Ojibwe of Red Lake is deep and lasting. The Benedictines leave a legacy that will continue to inform the character of the place, including the white house and church with white steeple by the lake.

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