North Dakota, Catholic Church in

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It is difficult to determine exactly when Roman Catholicism entered into the Dakotas, but the Catholic population has continued to grow steadily. As of the 2000 census, the Roman Catholic population stood at 176,893, or roughly 27.5 percent of the total population of the state, in the two dioceses of Bismarck and Fargo, both suffragan sees of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Minnesota.

French trappers and fur traders, ostensibly Catholic, had been trading with the native peoples of North Dakotathe Arikaras, the Mandans, and the Hidatsasince the mid-18th century, but there is no evidence that they made a concerted effort to evangelize the local tribes. The first Frenchmen the North Dakota natives met were from the expedition of Sieur Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de La Verendrye, a hero of the War of Spanish Succession, in late autumn 1738. "On the morning of the 28th we arrived at the place indicated as a rendezvous for the Mandan, who arrived in the evening, one chief with 30 men and four Assiniboin," La Verendrye recorded in November 1738. "I confess I was greatly surprised, as I expected to see people quite different from the other savages according to the stories that had been told us. They did not differ from the Assiniboin, being naked except for a garment of buffalo skin carelessly worn without any breechcloth. I knew then that there was a large discount to be taken off all that had been told me." La Verendrye failed to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific, but he put the northern Missouri River and North Dakota on the French map.

The first documented Roman Catholic presence for missionary purposes came in the summer of 1818 with the arrival of Father Severe Dumoulin at the fur trading post of Pembina, in which is now the extreme northeast corner of North Dakota. Fearing the effect of the restless and rootless fur trappers, the Bishop of Quebec, J. O. Plessis, sent Dumoulin and Father Joseph Norbert provencher, who set up a mission at Fort Douglas (later St. Boniface). The population of Pembina was composed of nearly 350 indigenous peoples and métis (peoples of Native American and European descentmostly from Chippewa, Cree, and Assiniboin families). As the bishop had suspected, the fur trappers sold alcohol freely to the native peoples, and it was having a significantly adverse affect on the social structures and stability of the native cultures. Though unable to stop the flow of alcohol, the two priests did what they could to ameliorate the damage. In 1819, Dumoulin baptized 30 Native Americans. During his five years at Pembina, he baptized an additional 364 persons and married nearly 70 couples. Dumoulin also established a school, teaching the native and métis children to read and write French and Latin. The priest also said daily Mass (sometimes preaching in Ojibwa) and gave religious instruction to the children. Under the leadership of Dumoulin, the métis had an awakening as a new type of people. Economically, the peoples of Pembina were prospering as farmers, selling their produce to the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). Though the métis predominated in the area, the population continued the traditional buffalo hunt every summer and fall, shortly after the respective plantings and harvests. Usually, a priest would travel with them, enforcing the Sabbath as well as ensuring that the poorer hunters had as much chance to capture the buffalo as the better hunters.

In 1823, under orders from the U.S. Government, Major Stephen H. Long surveyed the U.S.-Canadian border. The new survey line ran through the northern end of Pembina, making most of it lay in U.S. territory. The British, noting Father Dumoulin's ability to attract large numbers of indigenous peoples to Pembina, feared the Americans might use the native and métis population and the community as a base of operations against the Canadians, and so they forced the community to resettle north of the new border. The forced resettlement disrupted community life, and the population of Pembina dispersed. By 1836, Pembina was completely deserted. Upset and frustrated by the geopolitical developments and the disruption of his mission, Dumoulin departed for Quebec.

Despite Dumoulin's departure, other priests attempted to evangelize the region. The most prominent was Father George A. belcourt, who in 1848 established a new mission at Pembina. Unlike Dumoulin who had been driven back to Canada by the British government, Belcourt found himself exiled from Canada when he demanded that the Hudson's Bay Company give up its monopoly on the fur trade. The priest fought for the HBC to allow the non-HBC indigenous peoples to compete in a free and open market, which he considered just. The free traders lost, and as their leader, Belcourt found himself living in the Dakotas. His new mission at Pembina consisted of a log church, large garden, and a rectory. After a serious flood in 1851, Belcourt moved the mission to Walhalla, roughly 30 miles west of Pembina. There, the métis and the natives created a thriving agricultural community, despite frequent attacks by the Sioux. Belcourt continuously impressed the native peoples with his fluency in a variety of Algonquian languages. With the aid of the Sisters of the Propagation of the Faith, Belcourt also started an excellent school.

Other individual priests made their marks as well. One of the most famous missionaries to visit North Dakota was the Jesuit Father Peter John desmet (180173). Though most of the Native Americans in the Dakotas greatly revered and sought the wisdom of DeSmet, he spent more of his energies among the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Fearless and carrying no weapons of self-defense, just his breviary and flag of the Blessed Virgin Mary, DeSmet remains one of the only missionaries to have walked through the Dakotas unharmed. He attempted several times to establish a chain of Jesuit missions along the upper Missouri, but the U.S. government never consented.

At Fort Totten, Sister Mary Clapin and the Sisters of Charity established a school in 1874. As one of the chaplains at the fort, Father Jerome Hunt translated a hymnal, a prayer book, a history of the Bible, and a catechism into Lakota. In 1876, a Benedictine from St. Meinrad's in southern Indiana, Father Martin marty, established a mission at Fort Yates. Three years later, Pope Leo XIII declared all of Dakota Territory a vicariate and named Father Marty the first bishop.

When North Dakota became a state in late 1889, Pope Leo XIII established the region as a single diocese, naming John Shanley, a priest of Irish descent, the first diocesan bishop. Roughly 31,000 North Dakotans were Roman Catholic at the time. His 20-year reign saw considerable growth and prosperity among the Catholic population. The number and diversity of immigrants distinguished North Dakota from every other state in the Union. In 1890, almost 43 percent of its population was foreign-born. Ten years later, that percentage had only dropped to 35.4 percent. At the turn of the century, Norwegians or the children of Norwegians accounted for nearly 23 percent of the population; Germans 10.1 percent; Canadians 9.7 percent; and Germans from Russia, 7.5 percent. While most of the Norwegians were Lutheran, many of the Germans and Germans from Russia were Roman Catholic. Each ethnic group maintained allegiance to cultural patterns and traditions, and Bishop Shanley had to handle the situation delicately. To placate the more easy-going Germans from Russia, for example, Shanley recruited Swiss Benedictines whom the Germans from Russia greatly respected. They feared, however, true Germans, who they saw as harsh and oppressive. Frequently, priests would preach in a variety of languages, including Bohemian, German, and Polish. The tradition of speaking central and eastern European languages in the area continued during the Cold War when clerical refugees from Communist Europe fled to the United States.

Though homesteading reached its zenith in 1906, over 250,000 pioneers migrated to the state between 1898 and 1915. When Bishop Shanley passed away in 1909, the Holy See divided North Dakota into two dioceses, the Diocese of Bismarck and the Diocese of Fargo, reflecting the continued population growth in the state. The pope appointed a popular Benedictine, Vincent wehrle, as bishop of the former, and an Irishman, James O'Reilly, as head of the latter. Between 1910 and 1939, Bishop Wehrle presided over substantial growth in the diocese and fought socialism in all of its varieties, especially during the tumultuous 1920s and 1930s. Using the papal encyclicals Aeterni Patris and Rerum novarum, Wehrle especially objected to and sought to attenuate the power of the radical Non-Partisan League of North Dakota, which attempted to overturn the state constitution and implement a socialist regime in 1916 and 1917. Studious and pensive, Bishop O'Reilly also oversaw significant growth in the church during his reign. His successor in 1935 was the impressive Aloisius muench of Milwaukee. In 1946 Muench became the Holy Father's personal envoy to postwar West Germany and was created a cardinal by John XXIII in 1959. Other bishops in the Diocese of Bismarck have been: Vincent J. Ryan (194051); Lambert A. Hoch (195256); Hilary B. Hacker (195682); John F. Kinney (198295); and Paul A. Zipfel (1996). Other bishops in the Diocese of Fargo have been: Leo F. Dworschak (194770); Justin A. Driscoll (197084); and James D. Sullivan (1985). Samuel J. Aquila, rector of the diocesan seminary in Denver, Colorado, was named a coadjutor bishop of Fargo in 2001.

Bibliography: h. r. lamar, ed., The New Encyclopedia of the American West (New Haven, Conn. 1998). j. a. logan, ed., A Continent Defined (Lincoln, Neb. 1997). f. luebke, ed., European Immigrants in the American West: Community Histories (Albuquerque 1998). r. c. carriker, Father Peter John DeSmet: Jesuit in the West (Norman, Okla. 1995). j. d. lysengen and a. m. rathke, eds., The Centennial Anthology of North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains (Bismarck 1996). e. b. robinson, History of North Dakota (Lincoln, Neb. 1966). w. nugent, Into the Wes The Story of Its People (New York 1999). w. h. goetzmann and g. william, The Atlas of North American Exploration: From the Norse Voyages to the Race to the Pole (New York 1992).

[b. j. birzer]

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