30 August 2008

Under a Big Sky

Continuing my eastward trek, I crossed the Pacific Ocean and eventually found my way to Montana, U.S.A., where I made a short visit to the friars working there. Montana is aptly nicknamed “Big Sky Country” because of its vast, sparsely populated areas of semi-arid grasslands and mountains. It is also home to several Native American reservations, which were the original reason for the friars’ presence here. Due to the state’s demographics, the parishes of Montana, with the exception of those in urban centers such as Billings, Helena or Great Falls, tend to be small and far apart. Although the Capuchin friaries of Montana used to have fraternities of three or more friars, the shortage of friars in the United States has made it difficult to maintain traditional fraternities. Most of the eight Capuchins now working in Montana live alone; they do, however, have fraternal gatherings and/or chapters twice monthly.

St. Labre ChurchThree of the friars currently serve as pastors or sacramental ministers on the reservation of the Crow tribe, and another works on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. The other four, although not ministering on a reservation, have a significant number of Native Americans in their parishes. Most of them care for more than one parish, since there are more parishes than priests in the diocese. I was impressed and edified with the ministry of all the friars here, but especially with the ministry on the reservations. From art and architecture to the style of their ministry, the respect of the brothers for the cultures of the Crow and Cheyenne was evident. They are very much “friars of the people” here. For example, if their health permits it, the friars regularly take part in “sweats”, a ceremony that is used to create and maintain a sense of community. More than just respecting the local culture, the friars have tried to improve the life of the communities they serve, especially through education. Thanks to the efforts of the friars, there are three elementary schools and one high school on the Crow and Cheyenne reservations that students can attend free of charge. Many graduates of those schools are now employed as teachers and staff members of those same schools. Although unemployment on the reservations is still very high, the situation would clearly be worse if not for the help provided by the Capuchins.

St. Charles Mission Church and SchoolIn the week I spent in Montana, I was able to spend a day or two each in Crow Agency, the St. Labre Mission near Ashland, the St. Charles Mission in Pryor, and Billings. I learned something about the history of the Crow tribe and its present circumstances while chatting with parishioners in Crow Agency after Sunday Mass and by visiting the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which a group of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors defeated the forces of Gen. Custer and the 7th Cavalry in 1876. That battle and the resulting reaction of the U.S. Army still has repercussions today. I even participated twice in a "sweat" (imagine a prayer meeting held in a sauna). At St. Labre Mission, I toured the fundraising operations (including mailing, receiving and printing departments) that supports its own schools as well as those of the other Capuchin missions in Montana.

What is clear to me after my visit is that the friars have poured their hearts and souls into this mission. Here, as elsewhere, they have become "friars of the people", even among people who have every reason to be wary of white men. While material poverty on the reservations in Montana is probably no worse than it is in sections of any large American city, it is tinged with a particular kind of despair among the Native Americans—a fear that any gains they make might once again be stolen from them. Because of this poverty and because of the fact that the Native Americans are so often found on the fringes of society I feel that this is a ministry where Capuchins belong. Like everywhere else in the United States, however, the friars in Montana are getting older, and there are few younger friars to replace them. While I will be the first to say that, as they become smaller, provinces will need to withdraw from some of their ministry commitments in order to use their manpower more effectively, I would hope that this ministry to the Native Americans is not one of the ministries that is lost. In my humble opinion, the fate of these missions should be a matter of concern for the whole North American-Pacific Capuchin Conference, not just for the Calvary Province. Saving them, may require looking beyond the borders of the Calvary Province, and perhaps even beyond the borders of North America.


ken lamb said...

I enjoyed your account of your visit to the Big Sky Country. For many reasons, some of them covered in my blog: http://thekootenayranger.blogspot.com/
I have always had a specific affection for Montana.
Yours in Christ and Francis,
Ken Lamb,
Nelson, BC, Canada

Brother Paul, OP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brother Paul, OP said...

Sorry, I had a misspelling in my last posting, so I just had to delete it and try again. I do, indeed go to Aquinas Institute in St. Louis. This is my second year there. By the way, if your name is Br. Mark, I'm supposed to tell you hello from Fr. David Wright, OP.

There aren't too many cooperator brothers in formation, in general, but the Central Province is fortunate enough to have two. The eastern province has one.

Thanks, again, for stopping in to see the blog.
Br. Paul, OP~