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Blessed Pius IX, Father De Smet and the American Indians

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Blessed Pius IX, Father De Smet and the American Indians
An Exchange between Pius and the Coeur d’Alénes

Excerpted from Father E. Lavielle, S.J.

Despite persecutions, the Catholic Indians [in America] with but few exceptions remained faithful to the Church.

A Methodist minister who for some time labored to turn Ignace, the chief of the Yakimas, from his faith, asked him one day how much he would want for changing to Protestantism.

“A big price,” the chief answered him.

“Two hundred dollars?”

“More than that.”

“Then how much? Five hundred, six hundred dollars?”

“Oh, more than that!”

“Indeed! State your price.”

“The price of my soul.”

It was thus that the Catholic spirit, united to Indian pride, made these primitive natures admirable types of nobility and fidelity.
But of all the tribes, the Coeur d’Alénes were distinguished for their devotion to the Church.

“During the fifteen years I have known them,” writes Father Joset, “never has their faith been so ardent as now. I am convinced that if we had sufficient means these Indians would outrival the Paraguay missions.”

Learning in 1871 of Pope Pius IX’s situation and that the Italian government had seized Rome, the Coeur d’Alénes immediately addressed to Pius IX the assurance of their filial attachment:

“Most merciful Father, it is not temerity, but love which moves us to write to you. We are, it is true, the most humble of all the Indian tribes, while you are the greatest among living men. But you were the first to cast a look of pity upon us. Yes, Father, thirty winters ago we were a savage people, miserable in both body and soul until you sent us the great Black Robe, Father De Smet, to make us children of God through baptism. We were blind, and you sent him to open our eyes. Many of us were still in darkness when Father De Smet left us; then you sent us another Black Robe, our good Father Nicholas, who came and lived with us and awakened us, directing us in the path that leads to Heaven. And how many other Fathers have you not given us to teach us and our children the law of God and make us better Christians?

“Hence, Father, hearing that you are in affliction, we wish to thank you for your charity, and express to you our great love and deep sorrow in learning that some of your wicked children continue to cause you suffering, having robbed you of your house.

“Although we are only poor Indians, ignorant of the amenities of life, we regard such conduct as a crime. Only fifty years ago, we ourselves were still savages but we would not have dared to act thus had we known that the dignity and power of the Popes come from Christ. For this reason we have prayed and will continue to pray with all the ardor poor Indians are capable of, for thee, Father, and for the entire Church.

“Moreover, having come from our various camps to assemble in the mission church, we have for nine days said many prayers and performed acts of virtue which we offer to the Heart of Jesus for thee. This morning we counted our acts and devotions and found they numbered 120,527. Judging this insufficient, we offered our own hearts for our excellent Father, the Pope, in the assured belief that this offering will not be rejected.

“We have a number of soldiers, not trained for war, but to keep order in our camp. If these men can be of service to the Pope, we offer them joyfully, and they will esteem themselves fortunate in being able to spill their blood and give their lives for our good Father Pius IX.

“And now may we tell you our fears and misgivings? The sellers of whiskey are daily drawing nearer. We fear to betray our Savior in taking back the hearts we have given Him. Help us, and strengthen us by thy prayers. But our dear children are still more to be pitied, because they are more exposed; not so much our sons, who have real fathers in the Black Robes, but our daughters who as yet have no kind mothers to look after them. We often asked for Black Robes of their sex [i.e., teaching Sisters], but our voices are too weak to be heard, and we are too poor to do more than ask. Who will send us good mothers to instruct our daughters and strengthen them against the enemy that draws near, if not thou, who has always had compassion on us, even when we were pagans?

“These are the sentiments of our hearts, but as we poor Indians attach little value to expressions of feeling unless they are accompanied by material gifts, we have collected dollars and small coins, that we may give you, so to speak, a piece of our own flesh, as a measure of our sincerity. Notwithstanding our poverty, to our great surprise we have been able to collect $110.

“And now, Father, once again allow us to open our hearts. Oh, how happy we would be, despite our unworthiness, could we receive a word from your lips, a word that will help us and our wives and children to find an entry into the Heart of Jesus!

“Vincent, of the Stallem family,
“Andrew Seltis, of the family of the Emote.”

Pius’ Reply

If we reflect that the Coeur d’Alénes formally were regarded as the most ferocious of the mountain tribes, we shall see in their simple and generous spirit an extraordinary fruit of grace. The Jesuit Father General presented the letter to Pius IX, who in reading it forgot for the moment the misery of his captivity. If old Europe repudiated the Faith, the Church now beheld new sons coming to her from the other side of the ocean, their fresh souls ignorant of falsehood and opposed to vice and error with a fidelity worthy of the early Christians.
The Holy Father’s reply reads:

Beloved sons, salutation and apostolic benediction!

“The devoted sentiments which you, in the simplicity of your hearts express, have caused us great joy. Your sorrow over the attacks made against the Church, as well as your devotion and filial love for the Holy See, is a striking proof of the faith and charity that fill your hearts, attaching you firmly to the center of unity. For this reason we feel certain that your prayers and supplications which rise unceasingly to God will be efficacious for us and for the Church, and we accept with deep feelings of gratitude the offering of your generous charity.

“The Hand of God protects those who seek Him sincerely, and we believe that your good words will obtain the grace to resist the dangers of corruption that threaten you, and the spiritual help which you desire for y our daughters. We beg God to complete in you the work of grace, and to fill you with His choicest blessings. As a presage of this and a token of our gratitude and paternal favor, we give you from our heart our apostolic benediction.

“Given at Rome, near St. Peter’s, July 31, 1871, in the twenty-sixth year of our Pontificate.
“Pius IX, Pope.”

The Coeur d’Alénes React

In transmitting to Father De Smet these encouraging words, the Father General writes: “This is the first brief that has ever been addressed to an Indian chief by the Sovereign Pontiff.”

It was on August 15, 1872, that the reply of Pius IX was communicated to the Coeur d’Alénes. Father Catoldo had convoked an assembly of several mountain tribes, each one of which was represented by a large delegation. At the appointed hour they formed in procession, headed by twelve acolytes in surplices with tapers in their hands. Then came the missionaries in copes and dalmatics, preceding a statue of the Blessed Virgin, placed on a dais ornamented with flowers and garlands and carried by the four head chiefs. To the right and left of the statue walked two lines of Indian soldiers in full dress and armed. Then followed immense concourse in serried ranks, reciting the Rosary and chanting litanies.

The procession stopped before the improvised altar. High Mass was said in the open and many neophytes received Holy Communion. The ceremony over, one of the missionaries read in Latin the pontifical letter and it was then translated into the dialects of the Coeur d’Alénes, Kalispels, Kettles, Nez Percés and Yakimas.

Every head was bowed to receive the Holy Father’s benediction, and from that time the Indians felt themselves ennobled. The brief that they had just heard read was their charter of admittance into the fold of Christ.

As for Father De Smet, he found in the Holy Father’s benevolence and in the neophytes’ fervor the great recompense for his labors.



From The Life of Father De Smet, Father E. Laveille, S.J.,

published in the January 2015 Catholic Family News


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