Carole Kraft, a lifelong member of St. Mary’s Church in Odanah, explained the significance of the beaded squares that adorn the altars behind her. (Catholic Herald photos by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

The cultural heritage and evangelization history of the Northwoods’ Native American population was the topic of a pilgrimage Sept. 18. More than 50 people attended, coming from across the diocese and as far as Duluth, La Crosse, Wausau and Illinois.

Organizers Sr. Marla Lang and Pat Pintens of Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center, Arbor Vitae, designed the pilgrimage around the theme of “Who is my Neighbor?”

Traveling by motor coach, pilgrims began their journey at St. Mary of the Seven Dolors Church in Hurley. Franciscan Fr. Frank Kordek gave an overview of recorded Jesuit missionary efforts in northern Wisconsin dating back to 1661, the last being the renowned Fr. Jacques Marquette, who accompanied French fur traders.

According to Fr. Kordek, there were no priests or missionaries in the region for the next 160 years until Fr. Frederic Baraga arrived on Madeline Island in 1835. La Pointe was the site of the first Catholic Church in Wisconsin; St. Joseph’s Church was dedicated in 1838. That church was destroyed by fire in 1901 and rebuilt in 1902. That church stands today on the island, and Mass is celebrated there weekly during the summer.

The second stop was St. Mary of the Seven Dolors in Odanah. In 1855, seven years after Wisconsin became a state, Fr. Angelus Van Parmel was the first priest to visit the Bad River tribe, visiting from La Pointe. A small log church was used for services until the community’s first church was built and dedicated in 1868.

With many of the Ojibwa settling in Red Cliff in the late 1850s, St. Francis Church was founded in 1861 with about 150 members.

The presence of the Catholic Church was solidified in Northern Wisconsin when Bishop Heiss of La Crosse, diocese of the region at the time, requested that the Franciscan Fathers of St. Louis’ Sacred Heart Province assume responsibility for the established Native American missions.

This presence has continued unbroken to the present.

Sr. Phyllis Wilhelm, OSF has served the Odanah church community and its estimated 125 members since 2008. She spoke of the weather-related challenges for the 118-year-old church building, which sits on a flood plain.

The first of three parishioners to speak to the pilgrims, Carole Kraft brought attention to the Native beadwork that adorned the main and side altars of the church. Handcrafted for the parish’s centennial anniversary, dozens of beaded squares with images of nature and Christian symbols were sewn together to form part of the altar cloths. Some of the patterns had been handed down in Ojibwa families for generations.

“We love our church and have deep respect for the surrounding woodlands, natural resources and natural habitat. (The bead work) was a special way of saying thank you to our Heavenly Father, the Great Spirit, for all the natural things which he has bestowed upon us,” Kraft said.

Imogene Basley, who had received all of her sacraments of initiation at St. Mary, had also attended the convent school, which operated from 1883 until 1969. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration from La Crosse ran the school, teaching the children academics and human formation.

Basley recalled the meaningful gift of new clothes students were given for eighth-grade graduation. It was said that this gesture was made possible by a financial gift of St. Mother Katherine Drexel, a wealthy heiress who gave generously to support various missions after their father’s death in 1885. In 1887, she responded to a vocational call and spent her religious life serving Native and African Americans, founding an order to carry out that work.

Fr. Kevin Gordon was at St. Francis Church in Red Cliff. He is a Diocese of Superior priest and member of the Red Cliff tribe who currently serves the Bayfield cluster, which includes Red Cliff and La Pointe. St. Francis was Fr. Gordon’s home parish from infancy; he also attended the convent school for seven years. He was “delighted to know that there are people who are interested in what we are about up here in the north.”

He shared that in the early years of the mission, four priests covered the entire northern part of Wisconsin, traveling on foot or snow shoes from Bayfield all the way to Chippewa Falls.

Fr. Gordon introduced Joliet Franciscan Sr. Kathy Salewski, the 197th member of the order who has continuously served Red Cliff’s Catholic community since 1879. Salewski told the story of her order’s foundress Catherine Moes, a native of Luxembourg, whose desire to serve Native Americans remained steady through years of difficulty, the fruitfulness of her perseverance through pain.

“Powerful story. And when I walk the streets of Bayfield, I can’t help but think that I am walking in the footsteps of Mother Alfred,” Salewski concluded.

The final presentation before lunch was a slideshow narrated by Deacon Roger Cadotte. Cadotte is also a member of the Red Cliff tribe whose family lived on the nearby Belanger settlement. He spoke about two churches with Native connections that were not visited during the pilgrimage – St. Joseph’s, La Pointe, and his boyhood parish of St. Anthony’s.

St. Anthony’s Church was open from 1898-1963 and now functions as the Belanger Settlement Historical Society. Cadotte said he figures his vocation started in that church, where his father was caretaker and he served Mass on Sundays.

The pilgrims were provided a lunch of native foods – wild rice soup, rice salads and fry bread – in St. Francis’ basement hall.

Attention was brought to the vibrant murals covering the basement walls and ceiling completed 15 years ago by self-taught artist Rita Vandeventer. Themes include St. Francis of Assisi with animals of the region; a Native American depiction of the Nativity; and an entire wall dedicated to St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Across the ceiling are panels modeled on the scenes of St. Francis’s life that can be found in the Upper Basilica in Assisi, Italy.

Sr. Cecilia Fandel, a Servite Sister from Ladysmith, was given the opportunity to speak about her work with the Rusk County Historical Society. Given that the museum’s exhibits date back only to the European settlement of the area, while native artifacts have been found dating to the Copper Age, Fandel has made it her mission to fill in the gaps.

She has received much support and said an elder from the Lac de Flambeau tribe was creating an authentic teepee, to be housed in a geodesic dome built with funds raised in the community. Hoping that the building – part of the museum on the Rusk County Fairgrounds – will be completed by summer 2019, Fandel said, “We want to lift (the Native Americans) up, raise them up.”

To end the visit to Red Cliff, Salewski expressed gratitude to the pilgrimage organizers and participants. She called the place “sacred ground – because of the people who have been here and because you have been here.”

Lastly, at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Ashland, Sr. Peggy Kacvinsky offered a time for questions. Ric Johnson, Business Administrator for the parish’s Catholic school – the only school remaining in the vicinity – spoke about efforts to obtain funding to assist almost 60 students, many from Odanah, so they may attend the Ashland Catholic school.

Literature provided to pilgrims included this quote from Thomas Mails’ “Secret Native American Pathways,” which summarizes the spiritual lesson of the day: “Indians have held, in some form, a belief in a sacred and indissoluble bond between themselves and the land in which their settlements were located. Their attitude toward the Divine becomes gratitude; their attitude toward what has been given is reverence. We, too, are given everything, no to use up and destroy, but to offer back to our spiritual Origin what had been given, to redeem ourselves … Nature, as they see her, is a Theophane, a divine revelation with timeless power. Native American traditions invite us to rediscover the world around us so we may once again become more firmly grounded.”