Indian Peoples and Jesuits in the West have participated together in an unfolding story for the past 180 years.
– Patrick J. Twohy, S.J.
Visions came in the late 1700’s to Chief Shining Shirt of the Pend d’Oreille tribe in Mission Valley, Montana, that one day men would come in black robes and teach important new truths about religion. Some years later Catholic Iroquois spread throughout the West working as canoemen for the Hudson’s Bay Company. They too spoke of a new religion and of men in black robes who carried a crucifix and said a great prayer.
These early traditions had a dramatic meeting in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula in 1820. A band of Catholic Mohawk Iroquois had migrated under the leadership of Ignace LaMousse and settled among the Salish Flatheads in their Bitterroot Valley. Old Ignace, as he was known, taught the sign of the cross and Catholic prayers to the Flatheads, baptized their children, and marked their graves with a cross. He urged the need for Blackrobes who could say the great prayer (Mass) among them.
In 1831 a delegation of Flatheads and allied Nez Perce journeyed 1600 miles to St. Louis to seek Blackrobes. The delegates’ deaths prevented the acquisitions of Blackrobes. In 1835, and again in 1837, Old Ignace traveled to St. Louis to petition for Blackrobes. However, a Sioux attack on the South Platte River resulted in the deaths of LaMousse and his traveling companions.
An 1839 delegation encountered Fr. Peter De Smet, a Belgian Jesuit in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and convinced him to come to the Flatheads. Arriving in 1840, De Smet was so impressed with the eagerness of the Flatheads, their knowledge of Christianity, and their morals, he returned to St. Louis to secure funding for the founding of Catholic Missions.
In rapid succession, De Smet of his fellow Jesuits founded missions among the Flatheads in 1841, the Coeur d’Alenes in 1842, the Kalispels in 1844 and the Colviles in 1845.
St. Ignatius Mission Parish was founded in 1845 by Fathers De Smet, S.J. and Adrian Hoecken, S.J. along the Washington/Idaho border and moved to our present location in 1854. The Mission, and the town which grew up around it, were the home to the first Jesuit theologate and industrial arts school in Montana. The home to the first Catholic Sisters, (1864), first Catholic school, and hospital in Montana. St. Ignatius Mission is the oldest continually active Catholic parish, in the Jesuit tradition, in the West.
Excerpted and edited from the pamphlets:
“Visions of Chiefs and the Iroquois Connection: The Northwest Tribes and the Catholic Way” by Rev. Thomas Connolly, S.J.
“St. Ignatius Mission: National Historic Site” by Rev. Joseph Obersinner, S.J. and Judy Griztmacher.