Josse De Smet was worried about his 13-year-old son, Pierre-Jean (Peter-John), who seemed to have an insatiable appetite for adventure. “May God protect him,” the boy’s father said. “He will either be a soldier or a great traveler, but he will never be able to lead a quiet life!”
Biographer Rev. Edmund R. Cody wrote the prediction differently: “His father feared that he would become a soldier of fortune, a mere wanderer; an adventurer in quest of the ever vanishing horizons of things without purpose.”
Born in 1801 in Dendermonde, Belgium (then Termonde, France) Pierre-Jean was raised in a firm but kindly Catholic family — his father a wealthy ship outfitter. The boy developed a sturdy physique and loved the outdoors, but was indifferent to his studies.
While a teenager, he decided on the priesthood, going to college at Alost (19 miles northwest of Brussels) in 1818 and then on to Preparatory Seminary at Mechelen, Belgium (between Brussels and Antwerp).
At Mechelen, Pierre-Jean heard American Father Charles Nerinckx of Kentucky tell about the great opportunities for missionary work among the American Indians.
“How can it be that Napoleon found millions of men ready to sacrifice their lives to ravage a nation and to aid him to conquer the world while I cannot find a handful of devoted men to save an entire people and extend the reign of God?” Father Nerinckx said.
He was hooked, and at age 20, he and 11 other novitiates arrived in White Marsh, Md., to become Jesuits.
He next moved west to St. Louis for theological studies, and in 1823 begin learning difficult Native American languages. He studied hard and in 1827 took his vows for the priesthood at Florissant, Mo.
The Jesuits were founded in 1534 and in less than a hundred years, the Iroquois Indians in America knew about them.
In Montana, the Salish (AKA Flathead) Tribe heard about the Jesuits and their long black robes when a band of Iroquois trappers who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company joined their community. One of them named Ignace La Mousse told them that the Black Robes could teach them the way to heaven. He was also known as “Big Ignace or Old Ignace,” because of his moral and physical superiority.
In 1831, four of them left for St. Louis to ask that Black Robes be sent to teach them about Christianity. On the way, two got sick and died. The other two made their request known and headed home, but were never to be seen again.
Likewise, the Nez Perce heard about them too, and between 1831 and 1839 sent a delegation of Salish and Nez Perce, but there was no immediate positive response.
The Methodists and Presbyterians responded however and sent a caravan of missionaries to Montana. Hearing that they were coming brought great joy to the tribes.
The joy quickly evaporated when they saw that it was not the Black Robes.
“The missionary gentlemen who stood before them did not tally with the description of the Black Robes given by their adopted brethren, the Iroquois,” wrote Jesuit L. B. Palladino in “A History of Catholicity in Montana 1831 to 1891.”
“The missionaries spoken of by the Iroquois wore long black gowns, carried a crucifix with them, prayed the great prayer (the Mass), and did not marry. But the newcomers wore no black gowns and, upon inquiry, had no cross to show, prayed not the great prayer, and, besides, they married.”
The Nez Perce however did accept the Protestants.
Pierre-Jean’s first assignment was to run a school for Native American children from 1824-1830. Then he became Procurator, Prefect of Studies, and Professor of English at the newly constructed Jesuit college in St. Louis.
During that time, he abhorred the brutality and murders he found among the Indians that were caused by white man’s whisky, and he vowed to fight it.
Before he could really start his ministry, Father De Smet fell ill and spent several years in Europe recuperating. Then he returned to take up his first big assignment, at the Potawatomi Mission. One of his tasks was making peace between the hostile Sioux and the Potawatomi.
Throughout most of the 1830s, the Flathead waited in vain for the Black Robes to come. Meanwhile, Protestants Henry H. Spalding and wife Eliza and Dr. Marcus Whitman and wife Narcissa arrived and set up their missions. Whitman worked among the Cayuse near today’s Walla Walla, while the Spaldings ministered to the Nez Perce near today’s Lewiston.
The Flathead stood firm for the Black Robes. A third Flathead delegation to St. Louis that included Old Ignace was wiped out on the way by rampaging Sioux.
Finally in 1839, a fourth Flathead delegation — Peter Gaucher and Young Ignace — as they were passing through Council Bluffs, Iowa, fortuitously ran into the man that was destined to grant their request — Father De Smet.
The priest was so impressed with their zeal that he vowed to help them get their Black Robes and asked his superiors if he could join them. The request was granted.
Gaucher raced ahead to spread the good news that the Black Robes were coming, while Young Ignace stayed with De Smet to guide him to Flathead country in the spring. A lack of funds however prevented De Smet from bringing a Jesuit companion.
De Smet and Young Ignace stopped at Daniel, Wyo., where the last trapper rendezvous was taking place. On Sunday, July 5, 1840, on the banks of the Beaverhead-Jefferson River, Christianity was first preached and the first Mass celebrated in Wyoming to a motley group of Indians, trappers and traders. It was a historic moment.
Meanwhile, the Flathead sent an advance guard to meet them and they joined up at Pierre’s Hole on the Idaho-Wyoming border, site of an earlier rendezvous.
The excitement of Black Robes coming stirred groups from other tribes to join the Flathead, including the Nez Perce, Pend d’Oreilles and Kalispels — altogether about 1,600 souls.
De Smet remembered the moment: “I wept for joy and admired the wonderful ways of that kind Providence which in His infinite mercy had deigned to send me to these poor people, to announce to them the glad tidings of salvation.”
Eight days later, De Smet arrived at the main Flathead camp in the Bitterroot Valley to a huge welcome. He quickly realized that a mission had to be built and he needed help. Two days later, he headed back to St. Louis for Jesuit manpower and money.
He would eventually return with other Jesuit priests and workers, but his superiors left it up to him to raise the money — and raise it he did. In the years that followed, he made multiple trips to Europe to plead the case of the salvation of the souls of the American Indian.
During his lifetime, he made 19 crossings of the Atlantic.
For the rest of his life, the energetic Belgian traveled an astonishing 180,000 miles, visiting Indian tribes throughout the Northwest and Canada — dealing with them with great skill and compassion.
The U.S. government took advantage of those skills, often calling on him to help negotiate with the Indians. Once he walked alone into dangerous Sioux lands to meet with Chief Sitting Bull — and was warmly received.
In Idaho, he delegated Jesuit Nicolas Point and Brother Charles Huet to establish the Mission of the Sacred Heart on the St. Joe River.
Flooding and mosquitos drove them out four years later and they moved to the Coeur d’Alene Mountains, where Father Antonio Ravalli designed a new mission. With eager help from the Coeur d’Alene Indians and using primitive tools and no nails they built Cataldo Mission.
The location was a good choice, becoming an important stop for traders and miners, and also a port for ships heading up the Coeur d’Alene River.
Throughout history, great leaders have arisen to make a difference during difficult times. Father De Smet was such a person. His extraordinary ability to win the respect, trust and love of virtually all the Indian tribes west of the Mississippi during the turbulent 1800s remains unequalled.
He died in St. Louis in 1873 and is buried there.
In the New World, he may have been the greatest Black Robe of them all.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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The Jesuit Black Robes…
Founded in 1534 as an order of the Roman Catholic Church, the Jesuits thought that education was one of the most important goals in life, and built many institutions of learning. They became excellent teachers, learned to live simply with few material goods, and wore simple ankle-length black robes, earning them the nickname Black Robes.
Plentiful harvest, but few workers…
“How can it be that Napoleon found millions of men ready to sacrifice their lives to ravage a nation and to aid him to conquer the world while I cannot find a handful of devoted men to save an entire people and extend the reign of God?”
— Father Charles Nerinckx, S.J.
Flathead welcome De Smet…
“Speak Black Robe! We are 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.”
— Flathead Chief Big Face upon Father De Smet’s arrival (1840)
The Cataldo Mission…
In 1924, the dilapidating Cataldo Mission was deeded to the Diocese of Boise, and in 2015 was signed over to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe who annually make a pilgrimage to the Old Mission to commemorate the “Coming of the Black Robes.” The mission is now a state park and a national historic landmark, and is also Idaho oldest standing building.
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