Every year on the Feast of the Assumption, Catholics of native descent hold a powwow at Idaho’s oldest building, Sacred Heart Mission in Cataldo. For more than 150 years the Coeur d’Alenes have handed down the story of the Jesuit missionary who healed their chief’s daughter and brought the gospel to their people. This annual gathering of Catholic Native Americans is but one example of the harvest yielded by the seeds of faith planted by Pierre De Smet.
When De Smet was born, January 30, 1801, Belgium was a devoutly Catholic land, the fertile soil that would nourish a bumper crop of saintly missionaries. Father Charles Nerinckx was already working in Kentucky, one of a handful of priests serving the Catholics scattered across the American frontier. Before returning to his native country on one of his recruiting trips, Nerinckx was instructed by the head of the new Jesuit province in the United States to collect some young men from the Society’s Belgian novitiate. Pierre de Smet was one of those who heard the call of God in Nerinckx’s entreaties for help.
The small band of Belgian seminarians snuck away from their dormitories without telling their families of their plans. They didn’t want to risk being blocked from their destination by well-meaning loved ones. As they waited in Amsterdam for passage on a ship that would take them to the United States, they were discovered. Pierre’s older brother, Charles, had been deputed by their father to dissuade the young man from this rash undertaking. Pierre was grieved to hear how keenly his family felt his departure, but he could not be moved. By the end of the meeting, Pierre had brought his brother around to his side; Charles even offered a large donation to further their cause.
To De Smet and his confreres fell the task of building a new Jesuit province in the West. At Florissant, near St. Louis, they studied theology and toiled to provide their own food and shelter. They were supported spiritually and materially by St. Philippine Rose Duchesne and her Sisters of the Sacred Heart. De Smet’s unflagging good cheer in the face of difficulties was clear in the letters he sent home. “I have suffered with the heat,” he wrote, “but then we have other advantages of which you are deprived. In Flanders I had often to be bled … an operation which there required a doctor. It is done here, gratis, by gnats, mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, and flies.”
At Florissant, De Smet was introduced to his life’s work. Missouri still held a large population of Native Americans, and the Jesuits staffed a Catholic school for their children. De Smet began to learn the native tribes’ customs and languages. As the Indians moved farther west in their fruitless search for the land that had been promised to them, the little school’s students disappeared. But De Smet had experienced firsthand the Indians’ desire for the gospel and the sacraments. He would never forget.
In 1929, two years after De Smet’s ordination to the priesthood, the Missouri Jesuits founded a college, the future St. Louis University. The new priest, having hauled the bricks used to construct the school’s building, was appointed its first Procurator, Prefect of Studies, and Professor of English. Shortly thereafter, he was on his way back to Europe, attempting to reproduce Fr. Nerinkx’s success and secure more manpower for the burgeoning Church of the Midwest. It was the first of seven such voyages De Smet undertook.
Returned to the United States, in 1838 De Smet was at last assigned to the task that would consume his substantial energies. He left St. Louis and traveled up the Missouri River into Indian country. His first experience of native hospitality was in an Otoes village, where the chief’s consort served him an unrecognizable stew on a “roughly-cut wooden plate which I think had not seen water since it was made.” Overcoming his revulsion, the priest “took a spoonful of the mess and found it delicious. It was a fricassee of buffalo tongue, mixed with bear’s grease and the flour of wild sweet potatoes.” The guest showed his appreciation by rubbing his stomach and then “returned the plate to her much cleaner than when she gave it to me.”
Meanwhile, deep in the mountains further west, a remarkable enterprise was underway. The people of the Flathead tribe had never seen a white Christian. But they heard of Christ through the tales shared by a transplant Iroquois who had been converted by the Jesuits in French Canada. When the Flatheads learned that Black Robes had come to Missouri, they formed an ambitious plan to send a delegation to St. Louis to invite missionaries to come evangelize the mountain tribes. The Jesuit superiors, though sympathetic to the Indians’ plea, were reluctant to spare any of their few priests who already had so much to do in Missouri. But Fr. De Smet persuaded them to let him go alone. In 1841, he established the first Catholic mission among the tribes of the Rockies, St. Mary’s, in what is now Montana. The mission was a success, and soon Indians from across the plains and mountains were begging for Jesuits to come and teach them about Jesus.
De Smet continued to work his way west. He preached among the Coeur d’Alenes, Nez Perces, and Crows of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Eventually reaching Fort Vancouver on the Pacific, he traded stories and encouragement with the great missionary of the Northwest, Francois Blanchet, who had charge of mission activity in the Oregon country. When the Archdiocese of Oregon City (now Portland) was created in 1846, De Smet’s name surfaced. He begged to be left to his missionary life and Blanchet instead became the first bishop of Oregon.
One need not read long in the annals of early American missionaries to apprehend that the apostolate was not one for the weak of spirit or body. The stocky De Smet’s reputation for physical strength had ample opportunity for confirmation. In one episode, he was attacked by a native who was widely feared for his fighting prowess and savagery. De Smet had no weapon but his hands to confront the tomahawk-wielding adversary. He landed a single blow that knocked the weapon from the Indian; when the latter stooped to retrieve it, De Smet threw him to the ground and pummeled him until he begged for mercy. The combination of shame and respect instilled by the missionary’s thrashing laid the groundwork for reception of the gospel, and soon he requested baptism from the hands that had earlier treated him with violence.
It is not Church history alone in which De Smet deserves a prominent place. The extraordinary respect and trust reaped by his long and dedicated labor among Native Americans granted him status unequalled among white men, and the U.S. government called upon him to be a mediator in its dealings with the native tribes. De Smet’s first service came at the behest of the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, who requested the Jesuit’s presence at the Great Council of Fort Laramie. The council was called to placate the Indians for losses to their lands and livelihoods caused by the rapid increase in the passage across the Plains and Rockies of settlers and adventurers that occurred in the wake of the discovery of gold in California in 1848. De Smet was satisfied with his role in the agreement, still naively believing that the Americans were entirely sincere in their declared desire to treat the Indians justly.
The government would call on De Smet frequently in the ensuing decades. As the Indians naturally became less and less inclined to trust non-Indian Americans, De Smet was nearly alone in retaining their complete faith. His efforts preserved peace on many occasions. Yet relations between Anglo immigrants to the West and his beloved Indians were a source of pain to the dedicated missionary. He blamed the bad example and the avarice of the whites—especially regarding trade in alcohol—for the backsliding of Native American Christians at his once-thriving missions. He also complained bitterly, if ineffectively, to the authorities when the Bureau of Indian Affairs under President Grant absurdly assigned dozens of Catholic Indian missions to Protestant societies.
De Smet’s earthly ministry came to an end May 23, 1873 in St. Louis. As word of his death spread up the Missouri basin—news brought by the steamboat De Smet, christened ten days earlier by its namesake—the mourning of those he had served tirelessly rose from vale and mountain. The Black Robe, “the one whose tongue does not lie,” would come no more.
Sources: Fr. E. Laveille, SJ, The Life of Father De Smet, S.J. (1801–1873): Apostle of the Rocky Mountains, trans. Marian Lindsay (Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books, 2000 [New York, 1915]); Robert C. Carriker, Father Peter John De Smet: Jesuit in the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).