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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 3, 2004 - Issue 110


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The Indian Priest
Father Philip B. Gordon
Chapter 10 - Ordination and More Problems

by Paula Delfeld
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

After he received his allotment, Philip Gordon went directly to the American College in Rome where he spent one year. He then attended the University of Innsbruck in Austria for two years.

The university was a typical German university, staffed by eminent professors. There was a large student body and many of Philip Gordon's schoolmates became bishops in Germany, Hungary, Austria and several in the United States.

Philip enjoyed traveling and spent two summer vacation periods in France, Germany, Hungary, Australia, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium and made one trip to England. Some of these were walking tours. In the land of his French ancestors, he learned to speak the language fluently and spent much of his time in the French department of Loir-et-Cher. Besides English and French, he spoke fluent German, Italian and numerous Indian dialects.

Philip's vigorous schedule may have brought on a recurrence of his old ailment. He was forced to spend many weeks in a sanatorium in southern Tyrol as a suspected T.B. patient. He carried a scar the rest of his life from surgery on his neck at this time. His Roman collar covered the scar, and so few people were aware of it.

On his trips to France, he visited the shrine of the Little Flower, St. Therese of the Infant Jesus. It is to her he attributed the restoration of his health and numerous great favors. He said, "I have heard the living voice of the blood sisters of St. Therese." After his ordination he said Masses at her tomb.

Following two years at Innsbruck, Phil returned to the United States and again attended St. Paul Seminary, where he studied Indian history and lore. He then spent several months at St. John's University at Collegeville, Minnesota, awaiting his ordination.

On December 8, 1913, the day for which he had been preparing all these years, finally arrived and he hoped he could now begin to help the downtrodden Indians. He was ordained in the cathedral in Superior, Wisconsin, by the second bishop of the diocese, the Most Reverend Joseph Mary Koudelka, D.D.

When Father Gordon read his first Mass on January 6, 1914, at Odanah, on the Bad River Reservation, Father Odoric, the Franciscan missionary who had baptized Philip, preached the sermon of the Mass.

Father Gordon remained as an assistant Indian missionary for a short time in the diocese of Superior. Then after serving a few months as pastor of a white perish at Hayward, Wisconsin. He spent the next year at the Catholic University of America, Washington D.C. Here he made lifelong friends of eminent professors, Dr. Kerby, Dr. Guilday, Dr. John A. Ryan, a former schoolmate at St. Paul Seminary, and others.

He encountered some problems as shown in the following letter he wrote on October 12, 1914, from the Apostolic Mission House at the University, to the vicar general of the Superior dioceses, Very Reverend C.F. Schmit, asking for an extension of his leave of absence:

Very Reverend dear Father:
I write to inquire if you could, in some way or other, make arrangements with His Lordship for an extension of my leave of absence until I am able to finish my course at this University, or rather, at the Mission House. One of the original complaints of Father Odoric was that I did not prepare my sermons and His Lordship also mentioned the same disorder. I am taking a special course in mission-work, sermon-writing in particular, as well as hours at the question-box in preparation for missions to non-Catholics.

I wish you would kindly communicate with me as soon as you have any definite information on the point I ask about. I will need to know a considerable time beforehand so that I can govern myself accordingly,
With kindest best wishes, believe me,
Yours very sincerely,
Philip B. Gordon.

No matter where Father Gordon went, he made friends easily. While at the Catholic University, he also worked as a part time chaplain at Carlisle Institute in Pennsylvania. The school was founded in 1879 by Captain (later General) Pratt, who obtained from the army the use of Carlisle Barracks.

At the Institute Father Gordon became acquainted with Dr. Charles Eastman (Chiyesa), a Santee Indian who began his education without knowing one word of English. With the encouragement of his father, we walked 150 miles through the wilderness to enter the Santee Mission School in Nebraska, when he was about sixteen years old.

At a time when there was considerable hostility toward the Sioux nation, which included the Santees, Eastman went on to graduate with honors from Dartmouth (B.S.) and Boston University Medical School (M.D.). He wrote nine books and then reentered the Indian Service as inspector at Carlisle. Dr. Eastman later investigated the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation while Father Gordon was there.

Also attending Carlisle Institute was Jim Thorpe, named by the elders of his tribe 'Athahuck' (Path Lit by Lightening). He made the school famous for its football team and swept the track and field events at the 1912 Olympics, played professional baseball, and helped organize the earliest pro football teams. He was later the subject of controversy for his pro standing and was stripped of his Olympic medals.

While in the East, Father Gordon was often called upon to speak. The Baltimore Sun, reporting on the Federation of Catholic Societies Convention in 1914, said:

"The Indian priest, Reverend Philip Gordon of Superior, Wisconsin, was also on the program. Father Gordon could not deny his Indian ancestry. Every line of his face revealed the redskin, while his jet-black hair added to the picture of the aborigines of America. However, imagine the surprise of the assembled delegates when Father Gordon entered into the most interesting discussion of the Indian missions in the most faultless English you could have heard. But what was even more striking than his unexpected pure English was his unusual wit, with which he kept his audience in almost continuous convulsions of laughter. He was a living proof of what real civilization has meant to the former wild tribes of our soil." (Editor's Note: Father Gordon says he will take care of the Sun when he comments on this hyperbole.)

Father Gordon now began an active part in Indian Affairs. He was impatient with the mismanagement and tactics of the bureaucracy that had been going on for so many years.

He knew the Indian generally were intelligent and perceptive and learned quickly. These were traits they had developed for generations, necessary for survival in their savage state. Unfortunately, for a hundred years they had been denied the kind of education they needed, largely because white teachers did not understand Indian ways and did not believe Indian children were capable of learning.

Segregated on reservations, the Indians developed a terrible felling of hopelessness and despair. They needed someone to take an interest in their personal problems. Father Gordon always hoped he could help them. He was commended for his work at the Carlisle School by Monsignor William Ketcham, Director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions. On March 6, 1915, Monsignor Ketcham wrote to Bishop Koudelka of Superior:

"Reverend Philip Gordon, of the Diocese of Superior, will soon finish his course at Mission House. The authorities of the Mission House tell me that he is equipped to do efficient missionary work, and I know that for sometime he has been putting his Sundays at the Carlisle Indian School, where he as accomplished a great deal of good. We who are interested in the general work of the Indians believe that if we could employ him for a couple of years to do work in the large non-reservation government schools of the country that a great many Indian children would be saved to the Faith and an impetus given to our work in these institutions."

"I should be glad if Your Lordship would grant me permission to make use of Father Gordon for two years in the work I have mentioned."

Father Gordon had direct contact with the Federal Indian Bureau and the Catholic Bureau to which he was appointed in 1915. He observed the workings of Congress and met various members as well as Indian delegations. He joined the Society of American Indians, a group of educated Indians working for justice for the Redman and later became president of the organization.

The Indian priest knew the Indians needed more patience and understanding than they had been given and it was his earnest wish to spend his life helping them. His ideas did not always go well with church authorities. The Catholic Church, like the government, expected too many changes in too short a time.

Despite his criticism of Father Gordon's work, Bishop Koudelka was influenced by Ketcham's references and his request was granted. On March 25, 1915, Monsignor Ketcham wrote the following letter:

"Your favor of March 17, from Bridgeport, Conn., granting me permission to employ Father Gordon in the special work I have in mind for him, for a time, has been received. I beg to thank Your Lordship for your kindness in this regard."

"I am surprised at your remark, which seems to indicate that Father Gordon was not fulfilling his duties. It may be possible that in a matter of this kind the Indian disposition and character has to be taken into consideration. At any rate, Father Gordon will have a fair chance to do some very good work during the next two years, and this will give him a chance to 'prove his mettle'!"

Father Gordon worked strenuously with the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions and became chairman of the advisory board of the Society of American Indians. He said it was a time of astonishing activity and violent agitation in behalf of the Indians. He travel throughout many Midwestern states as special missionary, covering Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, the Dakotas, Michigan, and Minnesota. He attended many meetings and visited various government schools and private church institutions for Indians.

In the Kansas City Star, June 1, 1917, Father Gordon was called "a charming personality, highly educated and possesses a natural humor which makes his remarks very entertaining as well as interesting and instructive."

He spent some time in Kansas where he acted as chaplain to the Catholic Indian students at Haskell Institute, Lawrence, Kansas. His outrage at conditions there led to an investigation of the school by the government agencies and consequent dismissal of employees for religious discrimination and other irregularities.

His correspondence included caustic letter to high YMCA officials, government officials, and Congressmen. All this agitation caused uneasiness and dismay to the well-known Cardinal Gibbons, president of the Catholic Bureau. The Cardinal eventually asked Father Gordon to retire from the Bureau for the 'good of the cause.'

However he received praise from the Director of the Bureau Wm. H. Ketcham in a letter to Bishop Koudelka of Superior, dated May 1, 1917:

"The Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, in 1915, employed Reverend Philip B. Gordon for special work for a period of two years, an emergency salary having been secured for this specific purpose and period from an outside source."

"This action on the part of the Bureau was taken with your Lordship's permission, and, sometime later, on July 9, 1915, you formerly (sic) granted Father Gordon leave of absence from the Diocese of Superior for a period of two years from that date. Hence, while his engagement with the Bureau is up on June 1st, 1917, his leave of absence extends to July 9, of the same year."

"I have been instructed to notify Father Gordon that after June 1, 1917, we cannot employ a priest for special work and that his connection with the Bureau will cease on that date. This notification will be sent immediately."

"I must thank your Lordship for allowing us the service of one of your priests for two years and will say that Father Gordon has worked diligently at the various tasks that have been given him to do. He is a young man of vast energy and possesses much talent. With the experience he has acquired he ought to be qualified to do very effective work in any diocese. I assure you we all wish him the greatest success possible in whatever work his superiors may assign him."

Father Gordon knew many famous people on a first name basis, but the extreme formality of address required by the church officials was a source of annoyance to him. In the column he later published in the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, he wrote, "In viewing the two previous articles, I see I already have stuck out my neck. For instance, I referred to the Bishop of the Diocese as 'the boss.' This is, according to Webster's Dictionary, 'Slang, U.S.' The correct reference to Catholic Bishop is 'His Excellency, the Most Reverend So-and -So,' with a semi-pietistic bow in writing it. Such is the reverence and respect for authority expected of a priest."

Now that the special assignment was completed, he again hoped that his cherished wish of being assigned an Indian parish would be achieved. But it was again delayed. The Indian priest was sent to collect money for an Orphan Home, an assignment he resented. A letter to his superior showed some bitterness at not being able to work among his people as he had always hoped and planned. This is show in a letter, which was addressed to the Franciscan missionary among the Chippewa, Father Chrysostom Verwyst:

"Dear Father Chrysostom:

You had the kindness to send me a little book by Father Pierz sometime ago. I am going to ask you to allow me to retain this little book a while longer. Just now, I am leaving Washington and will probably be absent from the mission for two months or longer. Did you hear that I have been appointed collector for our Orphan Home? This is not a very pleasant piece of work. Everybody is your critic and sometimes even holy men criticize very unjustly. For instance, I have already been called 'liar' 'abominable liar' etc. by my fellow priests.

"I visited Nett Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota last week with Father Simon O.S.B. Lots of pagans up there and no effort was ever made to convert them until Father Simon went up two years ago. Now a start has been made and much good may come out of it provided that the pagan Indians are not turned against the Mother Church by too harsh methods of evangelization. Sometimes the white priest are too strict with the Redman. They really expect too much from the neophytes. It took several hundred years to make good people out of the Germans and I know some who condemn the Indian because he is not a saint in a generation!!"

I discussed with Father Simon the question of my stay with the Chippewa for good. But dear Father, to the question: "Why doesn't Father Gordon stay with the Chippewas', I must refer to my Bishop. My Bishop is my superior and when the time comes for him to place me with the Chippewas, I suppose I shall be appointed. If I was my own 'boss' you may be sure I would have appointed myself to some Indian place a long time ago. I have frequently been advised by priest to stay with the Chippewas. Now you know how funny such a question sounds when one is working under the orders of another."

"Were I to ask you: Stay with the Norwegians? Or why don't you stay with the Hollanders? You could rightfully retort, ask my Father Provincial! Some priests, strange to say, imagine that I travel about and work here and there motu proprio!! They don't seem to know that I am not an independent church by myself but am only one of a host of common laborers working under orders of Bishops."

After several months of attempting to collect for this cause, probably without much enthusiasm, Father Gordon wrote to the Bishop of Superior from White Earth, Minnesota, on October 17, 1917, admitting his failure in this work and again appealing for an assignment to an Indian mission:

"You will not be surprised to hear that I did not have any success in my collecting-tour. I visited the cities of Kansas City, Chicago, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, but could secure no audiences or having secured a listening was repulsed."

"I am seriously thinking of resigning my position as your special collector. I have several opportunities to do missionary work among my own people. In the meantime, too, I hear that I have been slated for missionary work in our own Diocese. This may mean that I am again to became a mere assistant to the Franciscans, something which had already, I thought, proved unworkable."

"It seems to me that it would be both prudent and feasible to allow me to resume my former work of general missionary to the Indians. In that capacity, I am assured a regular salary as well as certain ell-defined duties.

"While my leave of absence still allows me time to collect for your great Orphanage, I feel that my time is wasted if I attempt to collect just at this time. You know the demands on the public, which rich Americans all feel must be places ahead of all other appeals: Liberty Loans, Red Cross, K.C. & Y.M.C.A., Library, Belgian Relief, Polish Relief, etc., etc. It is possible that I may make another attempt to reach those who could help us by the thousands but this must be later.

"The Indians need me, dear Bishop, and you are not the one to allow the call of the Redman to go unheeded."

Correspondence followed between Father Gordon and the Bishop and friction developed, but harmony was restored by the following letter, written by the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop John Bonzano, on December 15, 1917:

To: Right Reverend Joseph M. Koudelka, D.D.
Bishop of Superior
Superior, Wisconsin

Right Reverend and dear Bishop:

"The Reverend Philip Gordon called on me yesterday morning to explain to me the trouble which has arisen between himself and Your Lordship. He showed me the telegram which was sent to him by your Secretary on October 26th directing him to take charge of the parish in Mellen, Wisconsin, the letter of Your Lordship, dated November 2nd, in which you tell him to look for another Ordinary and give him thirty days' time to find one, and finally the litterae excardinationis which you gave him for this purpose."

"The cause of his trouble, which led up to his asking an exeat and to Your Lordship's sending him the one which he displayed to me was, he asserts, his refusal to resume the work of collecting funds for you new orphanage. To justify this refusal he said that experience had taught him that, as an Indian, he in not capable of performing the work with much success among white people, and that, besides, he wishes to be employed in the Sacred Ministry for which he was raised to the priesthood. And, on my own account, I beg to observe that it doesn't seem to be an act of prudence to send around a young priest who is ordained only four years. But, whatever may be said of the excuse given by the Reverend Father for his refusal to resume the work of collecting, I am sorry to remark, with reference to the litterae excardinationis given him by Your Lordship, even though they were asked for by him, that, since they were not issued to the Ordinary of any particular Diocese nor were preceded by a written statement of any Bishop declaring himself willing to incardinate the Reverend Father, they are of no real canonical value."

"In consequence, therefore, since the Reverend Father has not nor has at present a serious intention of leaving the Diocese of Superior and only in a moment of anger, which in part is explicable, asked Your Lordship for an exeat, it follows that he continues to belong to the Diocese and that you cannot refuse to employ him but must give him an appointment as you previously did; and this the more so since the Diocese is in need of priests, as I have learned on other occasions."

"Awaiting an answer from Your Lordship telling me what you have done in the matter, I am, with sentiments of esteem and best wishes,"

Sincerely yours in Xt.,
John Bonzano
Archbishop of Melitene
Apostolic Delegate

In January 1918, during World War 1, the Indian priest resumed his diocesan missionary work and volunteered as chaplain, awaiting appointment by the Ordinary of the U.S. Army and Navy Chaplains, the Most Reverend Patrick Hayes, D.D., later to become archbishop and then cardinal.

Father Gordon's appointment never materialized as the war ended soon after his appointment as pastor at Reserve and surrounding missions, where his long-time desire would come true, working among his people.

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