Sr. Grace Ann Rabideau, OSF, sings an indigenous song she remembers from childhood. The Franciscan sister, a member of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe, was honored for her more than 75 years of religious life. She was accompanied by her cousin Michelle Gordon, whose daughter was also present. The women represented three generations of ancestors of Madeline Island’s namesake, Madeleine Cadotte, daughter of Chief White Crane and wife of fur trader Michael Cadotte. Behind the women stands James Pete, who narrated parts of the creation and migration stories of the Ojibwe people. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

On a hot Saturday afternoon in La Pointe, St. Joseph’s Church parochial administrator Fr. Sare Sagar Rajesh welcomed everyone to a “joyous occasion” at the site of the oldest Catholic community in the state of Wisconsin.

The event, which was in part a fundraiser for repairs needed at the historic church, combined celebrations of ancient Indigenous history and culture, missionary activity in the 17th and 19th centuries, and the presence of two of the Diocese of Superior’s newest priests.

As the Sept. 2 Mass began – the last of the summer at the seasonal church – Fr. Rajesh introduced Fr. Dan Tracy and Fr. Julian Druffner. Connie Ross, the only registered parishioner of St. Joseph’s parish, who has a lifelong connection to Madeline Island, read the readings.

As Fr. Dan Tracy began the homily, he introduced himself as a “huge history nerd” and shared how excited he was to dig deeper into the historical significance of the island site. He said how walking into the church and seeing all the photos of Bishop Baraga warmed his heart.

“If you don’t know anything about Bishop Frederic Baraga and this is the first time you’re hearing his name, that is your homework when you leave Mass. Research this man. He is a bishop who spent a lot of his ministry in Michigan, spent time here, and is up for canonization. An American treasure, Bishop Baraga,” he said.

Reflecting on the readings for the day, the priest noted the uncomfortable reality they revealed.
“The most uncomfortable reality that we all experience,” he said and paused. “You are going to die.” He directed himself to the other two priests and then those assembled, “We are all going to die. That is a truth of our existence as human beings. A truth that we encounter at different points in our life, and ultimately in our Gospel, it’s a truth that St. Peter encounters deeply for the first time.”

Jesus turns to his disciples and says that he is going to die, that he is going to be killed. Peter doesn’t accept this truth, Fr. Tracy said. “He doesn’t say, ‘wow, that’s amazing. It sounds like it’s going to be written in a book somewhere and be told for the next 2,000 years.’” Rather, he takes Jesus aside and denounces the assertion.

Placing the Gospel reading in its context, Peter had just declared, in response to Jesus’ question of who the people say that he is, that Jesus is the Christ, son of the living God. Jesus then names Peter as the rock upon which he would build his church.

“Some eight verses later, he rebukes him,” Fr. Tracy said, recalling how Jesus even called Peter “Satan” in telling him to get behind him.

“Brothers and sisters, to believe in Jesus Christ. To truly acknowledge him as the Christ, anointed one, the son of the living God, is to acknowledge that the will of the Father was that he would die. And in his death, he would bring new meaning to death, and bring new meaning to life – ultimately for each one of us if we accept it, eternal life.”

He continued saying he couldn’t help but think of death because of the setting for the day’s Mass. “We’re here on La Pointe, in a place where a little-known Jesuit priest named Fr. Allouez from France first came (in 1655) bringing with him the Gospel of Jesus Christ … It was really one of the first times in our country that a concerted effort was made to bring this Gospel to the people residing here.

“Fr. Claude and Fr. Jacques Marquette had some success but were forced out, and it was some 150 years later that Bishop Baraga would return and again try to plant the seeds of faith deeply here, in those who lived here and those who could come afterwards.”

“It’s great to be a young priest … but ultimately, we stand on the great shoulders of priests like Bishop Baraga, like Fr. Allouez, like Fr. Marquette, like the apostles, like the great saints. Priests don’t operate in a vacuum,” he continued. “We participate in the one unique priesthood of Jesus Christ … I can’t express in words how great a gift that is, but it is a gift we are not meant to keep for ourselves.”

Admitting that he had been thinking about death in preparation for the Mass, Fr. Tracy shared his reflections on the great lengths those men went to: “They left their families; they left their homelands and everything and came to the northern United States, the treacherous conditions of the upper Midwest.”

He shared how Bishop Baraga would most often travel alone by canoe across Lake Superior or by snowshoes and added, “That’s the type of priest I want to be … that I pray I can be. That I acknowledge the truth of death. That I can acknowledge that I am going to die, but ultimately that I want to spend my life sharing the greatest truth than can be shared, which is the love of Jesus Christ and his church.”

Then he mused on how many other Catholic missionaries might have offered their lives in service of the Gospel but met their end before accomplishing anything noteworthy or leaving a known legacy, “but they set off in faith, knowing that they might die to share their faith.

“Brothers and sisters, death is a hard thing to confront for all of us … but praised by Jesus Christ that he has conquered the grave, that death has lost its sting. Sin has no power over us; Jesus Christ has won the war.”

During communion, local musician Dr. Ed Fissinger played Native flute. Mass-goers weaved among some of the tombstones on the front lawn of St. Joseph’s Church to receive communion as the intensity of the day’s heat faded.

In full Native dress, Red Cliff tribal member James Pete, who recited the Our Father in the Ojibwe language as translated by Bishop Baraga, shared “10,000 years of history in 10 minutes.” He offered a presentation incorporating elements of Anishinabe (the original name for the Ojibwe) spirituality and history connected to the Catholic history of the island, which his people have called home for more than 1,000 years. He sang an honor song and introduced Sr. Grace Ann Rabideau and her cousin, Michelle Gordon.

Pete invited those present to learn and participate in some of their cultural spiritual practices directed towards the Great Spirit, the Creator, Gitchi Manitou (pronounced gih-chee muh-nih-doo). He recounted his people’s migration to the island as guided by their spiritual and medicine people’s visions of being led to a land where food (wild rice) grew on the water.

“We have this deep connection here,” he explained and explained how this First Nation had been imposed and encumbered upon by the government and other Christians seeking to change their “pagan and savage” ways.

“Until the early 1,800s when a Jesuit priest, Fr. Frederic Baraga came into the area,” Pete continued. “What he did was to learn our language fluently … which really helped with the conversion of a lot of people.”

He described how the priest accommodated himself to the Ojibwe, learned their oral language and teachings, developed an alphabet and then translated the Catholic prayers, hymns, Bible and other documents into the Ojibwe language. In this way, the Jesuit missionary drew them into Christianity by connecting the Great Spirit with God. Integrating rather than shunning their cultural practices, living among them, aiding them in the transition from a nomadic life as necessitated by governmental land restrictions, he supported the Ojibwe in defending their right to a native homeland.

When Baraga arrived at La Pointe in 1835 he had been a priest for almost 12 years. He re-established the mission on Madeline Island; a log church was built closer to the shoreline. In 1838, a larger church was built but it was destroyed by fire in 1901. The current church replaced it in 1902.
Anyone wishing to donate to the church restoration can do so by writing a check made out to St. Joseph, mailing the donation: c/o Holy Family Church, P.O. Box 1290, Bayfield, WI, 54814.