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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 4, 2003 - Issue 97


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Reminiscences of a Pioneer Missionary - By Rev. Chrysostom Verwyst (Part 4)

Reminiscences of a Pioneer Missionary By Rev. Chrysostom Verwyst
Wisconsin Historical Society Founded 1849
The State Historical Society of Wisconsin
Separate No. 173 - From the Proceedings of the Society for 1916

credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

There was but one store and that was the fur company's. They carried in stock everything that was necessary -- groceries, dry goods, hardware, etc. The grocery department occupied a two-story building about the same size as the dry goods department building, one standing on each side of a street leading from a dock about the same place where the present dock is. There was also a banking department, which was situated about 200 feet east of the other buildings. There was no saloon. There were two carpenter shops, one operated by Mr. Perinier and the other by Dufault, also one large cooper shop maintained by the company, one blacksmith shop, etc. There was also one very large warehouse for repacking fish; it was about 200 feet long and was situated on the dock. In the rear of these buildings the company also maintained a very extensive garden and orchard, in which were raised all kinds of garden vegetables, grapes, cherries, crabapples, currants, strawberries, etc. This was enclosed by a high board fence and was in charge of old man Oakes, father of Charles H. Oakes, lately of St. Paul, who was an expert gardener. Antoine Gaudin (Gordon) assisted him one or two years. "Squire Bell" was at La Pointe upon my arrival in 1839. Rabidoux, Charpentier, Dufault (Dénommais) were there before me. Remillard came two or three years after me. Stahls and O'Malley came during Father Chebul's time, about 1860-61. Borup and Oakes were headmen for the fur company (John Jacob Astor). All voyageurs, "runners," as they were called, were employed by said company. They would leave La Pointe about the beginning of September, stay away all fall and winter among the Indians in their respective districts, collect furs, and return about the beginning of June. They would take along blankets, clothes, and guns. Etc., to trade with the Indians for their furs. They took along very little provisions, as they depended mostly on hunting, fishing, wild rice, and trade with the Indians for their support. There were several depots for depositing goods and collecting furs, for instance at Fond du Lac (Minnesota,) Sand Lake, Courte Oreilles, Lac du Flambeau, Mouth of Yellow River, etc. The vessels used on Lake Superior for the fur trade were the "John Jacob Astor," a three-masted schooner, the "Brewster," and the "Siskowit" built by old man Perinier.

The Presbyterian school was then in full operation under Rev. Sherman Hall, the number of scholars at this school was about forty [Note: For this missionary see Wis Hist. Colls. XII, 442-47.].

When I came to the Lake Superior country in 1878, about forty years after Baraga's time, I found La Pointe old, dilapidated, and dead, instead of full of life and stir as it had been in his day. No trading post, no fur traffic, the buildings all gone except some old, tumbling-down structures, no orchard, no garden; the thriving community of 1835 was gone and in its place were a few rickety buildings, some of logs, others, frame structures. One day about the year 1884 I took a walk along the beach and entered the old Presbyterian boarding-school building. It was then open and tenantless. The church was the very picture of dilapidation. I believe some one had stored hay in it. Some years ago it was removed to its present site, and the boarding school has been repaired and remodeled into a neat hotel for summer tourists.

La Pointe is now entering upon new transformation; it is fast becoming a tourist's resort to which in July and August many come from all parts of the South. The time is not far distant when it will become a fashionable pleasure resort. The old church built by Reverend Father Baraga in 1835 and removed in 1841 to the site where the new Catholic Church now stands burned down in 1901. The fire was apparently of incendiary origin as there had been no divine service in the building for some days prior to its destruction. An attractive new church was built on the site of the old one in 1902 by Reverend [Father] Casimir Vogt, O. F. M [Note: Casimir Vogt was born in 1846 at Wurzen, Prussia; he was educated at Breslau and ordained in 1870. In 1875 he joined the Order of St. Francis and the same year came to America and was sent to Lake Superior as a Chippewa missionary in 1878. He made his headquarters at Bayfield from 1878-88, and, ministered throughout the northern country. From 1884-91 he was at Superior. The latter year he returned to Bayfield.].

There have been resident priests in La Pointe and Bayfield for the last eighty years, yet it is a remarkable fact that not a single one has died there in all that time.

In the summer of 1878 Right Reverend Bishop Heiss of La Crosse offered the Indian missions of his diocese to the Franciscan Fathers of the Sacred Heart Province with headquarters at St. Louis, Missouri. The latter order sent Rev. Kilian Schloesser, O. F. M., to investigate the state of affairs among the Chippewa Indians at Bayfield and other places near by. He went to Bad River Reservation and held a council with the Indians, the result of which was that he made a favorable report to the Chapter assembled at St. Louis and it was determined to accept the Indian missions of the Lake Superior region. Fathers Casimir Vogt and John Gafron with Brother Juniper arrived at Bayfield about the middle of October and took charge of the Indians at that place, La Pointe, Bad River, and other inland points. I was then sent to Superior where I arrived about November 6, 1878.

Superior was then a dead town with but few inhabitants and nothing going on. A man might stand a whole day on the principal street of the town without seeing a single wagon or team go by. Most of the houses were empty and there were but a few small stores. A small steamer, about thirty feet long, ran between Superior and Duluth, carrying generally half a dozen passengers going to Duluth to make their purchases. The boat was owned by George Brooks. There were about forty-five Catholic families in the town, of whom fifteen were white and the remainder Indian half-breeds.

For eleven months I had charge of the Catholic people of Duluth and Superior, Father Genin having gone to France to visit relatives. During the year I also attended Fond du Lac (Minnesota), Cloquet Reservation, Barnum, and Moose Lake. There were then about 130 Catholic families in Duluth, of whom about one-half were Poles, the remainder being Irish, Germans, and French-Canadians. There was but one small frame Catholic church in Superior and only one in Duluth, where the cathedral now stand. Now (1916) there are eight Catholic churches in Duluth and eighteen priests, while in Superior there are nine churches and eleven priests; in addition there are two bishops, one in each city.

During the four years I was stationed at Superior the Franciscan Fathers of Bayfield attended the white and Indian missions of northern Wisconsin, then almost fifty in number. These self-sacrificing, zealous Fathers did almost all their traveling on foot, in winter in snowshoes. While one remained in Bayfield to attend to the spiritual wants of the people in that vicinity the other would start out on his trip to the Indians in the region of the St. Croix and Chippewa rivers, the round trip being, at a moderate estimate, a distance of 400 miles. This was kept up summer and winter, in cold weather and in hot, in sunshine and in rain, sleeping in the open air or in some log house or Indian wigwam. The traveling Father would take one or two Indian guides or packers along to help carry his luggage and tent and cooking utensils. He depended for food on supplies he had taken along, or on what was prepared for him by the good Indian and white people -- muskrat, raccoon, bear meat, fish, and venison being common articles of diet. He would go from one Indian hamlet to another situated miles apart on the countless inland lakes and rivers, preach, baptize, marry people, hear confessions, and administer the sacraments; when through at one place he would pack up his belongings and go to the next only to repeat the same multifarious work. And all this for poor Indians, who never realized the hardships and sacrifices that he "Black Gown" was making for them to bring them the light and blessings of Christianity. In those days the Fathers would travel all over the country in their brown, worn-out Franciscan habit, which they would not change till they returned home. Verily, theirs was a hard but apostolic life, traveling without roads, riding in canoes, wading rivers, tormented in the summer by mosquitoes and sand flies, and in winter enduring all the hardships of this inclement season in northern Wisconsin; and all this not for money but to save immortal souls redeemed by the precious blood of our Savior. To them the soul of a poor Indian child was as dear as that of the white millionaire.

To give the reader of these pages some idea of the hardships and dangers those apostolic men incurred, I will narrate here a few incidents that happened to Father Casimir.

One day he was traveling along the Chippewa River, visiting his scattered people, many of who worked during the winter in the logging camps. Incidentally he used to collect among the "boys" for his churches and chapels. In one of the camps he was told that there was another camp about three miles away and that if he could get there in time the "boys" might contribute something. About two hours after midnight he arose and started for the camp. The "boys" had told him about the route and had given him a lighted lantern to take along. After he had walked for a mile or so, he noticed about a dozen dogs, as he thought them to be, circling around him, some running ahead, others following behind, others again running through the woods on both sides of the road. He thought it strange to see so many dogs around these camps, and some inward monitor told him to keep swinging his lantern around him. So he walked on, followed by the animals for two whole miles. A length he arrived at the camp and went inside. A moment later one of the men had occasion to go out. Presently he came in again and remarked, "I wonder why there are so many wolves around." "Wolves!" exclaimed Father Casimir, "I thought they were dogs." It was a lucky thing that the good Father did not realize his danger and that his lantern did not go out, or that he did not stumble or fall to the ground. Had any of these things occurred he would have been devoured in a short time.

The same Father one time planned to go straight through the woods from Big Bend to Flambeau Farm. It was early in the spring after the snow had melted and the bottomlands along the Chippewa River were all under water. Doubtless the Father did not fully realize this fact; otherwise, he would not have undertaken the journey, a distance of about ten miles on foot through those lowlands. He had himself conveyed across the river and started on his journey. It was not long before he came to lower land, all of which was submerged, and the water icy cold. No road or path was to be seen, nothing but water between the trees, which at times was knee deep or even more. At any moment he might have stepped into a hole and drowned. His fatigue and misery were increased, moreover, by the fact that he carried a satchel. Once he climbed a tree to reconnoiter the country through which he was traveling and to see which way to go. But his clothes being wet he slipped and fell, hurting himself badly. He had shortly to cross a creek running into the main river. To wade it would have been dangerous as the water might have been too deep, so he walked along the bank for some distance seeking a place to pass over; finally he found a long pole and with the help of it jumped across the creek. He then continued towards his destination wading through the icy water, until he finally arrived at Flambeau Farm. The good people of the place, whites and Indians, marveled at seeing the Father and learning of his terrible tramp through the bottomlands. Only divine Providence brought him safely through.

After attending Superior for about three years I determined to join the Franciscan Order and in February 1882 I entered upon my novitiate at Teutopolis, Illinois. Having finished my novitiate, I was sent in 1883 to Bayfield, from which place and, later on, from Ashland, I attended Washburn, Odanah, and the Chippewa River country. Ashland was but a mere hamlet in 1878, Washburn did not exist at all, and Odanah was an Indian village with a handful of Indian and white inhabitants, the latter being principally the employees of the Presbyterian Indian boarding school under the care of Reverend Baird [Note: Rev. Isaac Baird reached Odanah under appointment from the Presbyterian mission board, Mar. 15, 1873, and remained in charge of the school and church until 1884, when he was removed to Crystal Falls, Mich.].

There was then but one railroad at Ashland, the Wisconsin Central, built into town about the year 1876. The town was as dead as Superior, only a small steamer plying between Ashland and Bayfield. In fact there was then more stir and business in Bayfield than in Ashland. About the year 1884 the town of Washburn was founded; a large elevator, coal docks, and several sawmills were put up and the town grew rapidly. I erected a small frame church there, which, however, was soon replaced by a large combination church and school erected by Father Marianus Glahn, O. F. M. I also attended Hurley for some years. Here at first I held divine service in private houses and public halls; finally I began the erection of a large frame church, which was finished by my successor, Reverend Father Gilbert Nuono. [Note:  Gilbert Nuono was born in Italy in 1842; he was ordained in 1865 and came to America the same year. He was appointed to the Hurley pastorate in 1886, and after completing the church, built a school in 1891,]

In 1897 I was sent to St. Louis, Missouri, on account of failing health, and about a year and a half later to Los Angeles, California. At first I liked the climate in California very much, but later I grew tired of everlasting sunshine and in 1900 asked to be sent back to Wisconsin. For twelve years thereafter I was stationed at Ashland, engaged in attending outside missions, especially those in the Chippewa and the St. Croix country. But the infirmities of old age making themselves more and more felt, I was obliged to give up missionary life and was sent to Bayfield, where I have resided the last four years and where, perhaps, I shall end my days. I have devoted my spare time these many years to studying and composing works in the Chippewa language, among which I may mention "Chippewa Exercises" and a large Chippewa sermon book, the "Enamiad Gegikimind" or "The Instructed Christian."

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