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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 12 - The Budding of an Orator

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

"Business as usual describes the coming of a new pastor," Father Gordon wrote in his column in the Inter-County Leader, at Frederic, Wisconsin. However, two weeks after his arrival on May 26, he wrote, "something most significant of the feeling of the real Catholic heart took place in the rectory. The occasion was the feast of Philip Neri. There were gathered a few of the families who came to wish the new pastor a 'Happy Namesday." While the good people missed the day by a few weeks, since we are named after St. Philip the Apostle, May 1, instead of Philip Neri, nevertheless the little gathering will be long remembered.

"Someone had written a poem, a spiritual bouquet was presented and lunch was served. All departed conscious of having performed a good deed. The pastor thanked God that he was in the midst of a devout Catholic people."

Centuria was located in a predominantly Scandinavian community, but the parish to which Father Gordon was assigned was mainly Irish, with some German and French, but no Indians. There were some Indian families in the area but they were not active members in the parish.

When Father Gordon arrived, the church and parish house were at Long Lake, about four miles from the village. They had been built on six acres of land donated by Lawrence Williams and Edward Kelley.

There are a number of people in the area who in 1975 still remember the Indian priest. They all loved Father Gordon.

Charlie Turner, 77, has farmed the shores of the lake for many years. He was treasurer of the Long Lake Church during Father Gordon's time. The official name of the parish was St. Patrick's, but it was generally known as Long Lake Church.

Charlie says, "The church use to be right up here. If you go to Sinon Lynch's, you go right by the cemetery. That's where the church and priest's house originally were. The first church built for $218.00. That burned and they rebuilt it. Then they moved into Balsam Lake. It's on the west side of Balsam Lake. It's really a nice church yet."

Charlie loves to visit and went on philosophizing about the Indians.

"You know Indians aren't very thrifty. They do today and let tomorrow take care of itself. They don't worry about tomorrow and they can't drink. That's their downfall. They had no booze before the white man came. But Father Gordon never drank, or his father, Will Gordon. He stayed with Father for a while. I knew him, too, and he said he had a brother that drank."

"One day Will Gordon's mother was crying," he told me, "and he asked what was the matter. She said her son was drinking again. He knelt down by her chair and told her, 'Mother, you don't have to worry about me because I'll never take a drink.' And I knew him and we had him to the house for many meals, served wine, he wouldn't touch it. Nuthin'. Not even wine."

Charlie said Father Gordon would go into a tavern and drink a short beer. "I knew him real good. I think he did it to be friendly. Everybody liked him and I never in my life knew anybody to say anything against him. I never could see that he was checking. He might have been. But everybody was friendly and I know he did not consider himself any better than anyone else."

When Father Gordon checked the records of his predecessors at St. Patrick's he found many interesting entries. The financial accounts written by Father Wirz in his 'Parish Account Book' detailed every cent taken in and disbursed. Father Gordon decided he was not a trained bookkeeper. His arithmetic seemed to be correct and if not correct, the records were kept straight by various notations, generally in red ink. Here is one:
"N.B. Till January 1, 1880, this mission was taxed (or better the mission taxed itself) $75.00 a year. From the 1st day of January 1880, I taxed this mission only 45 dollars. A collection of oats every year taken. Also some contributions I should get for my horse, buggy, etc."

"A little later on the same page: "1884, August 23. I make a present of the half for having kept horse, buggy, etc. (as above) $131.35 divided by 2 = $65.62."

"Father Wirz has recorded on many pages of his Parish Account Book his various list of contributions and on an opposite page his list of disbursements in the construction of the church to replace the old original log church. It is really remarkable the number of five dollar donations listed. These contributions were continuous beginning in 1873. The church construction apparently took several years as disbursement indicate carpenter bills and lumber bills up into the year 1883. In fact, Father Duren, who was to follow Father Wirz will tell us that the church was only partially complete when he took charge in 1884.

"Among the sources of revenue listed by Father Wirz, there are several put down as "By a kind of Festival." One dated July 4th, 1873 netted $96.12. The following year the 4th of July Festival took in $141.60. I notice this item: 'For Keg of Beer, $2.80.'"

Father Wirz' record of the original contract for constructing the church is interesting in comparison to present day building contracts.

"1875 August 29. Gave the Church of Long Lake to H.M. Lillis to build it according to agreement between him, the Trustees and the Priest. To frame it according to the priest's directions for the sum of $215.00."

He then gave the size of the door and window openings in two more lines… Later on, the same year, the agreement was amended by the addition of these words: 'I agreed with Henry Lillis to pay him $15.00 for extra work. He has had to build an altar, too; and moreover, he has to make some kind of pews into it; he has to make pews only when he has somebody from the congregation to help him." It seems the altar and the pews were an afterthought.

Another of Father Wirz' N.B.'s: "October 24, 1877, Henry Lillis said he would be satisfied with $30 and give the other $15 towards the church."

The final balance Father Wirz has in bright red ink. "Dr. $554.84. Cr. $554.84. N.B. The above accounts were very carefully examined by Emma Connolly, Michael Williams, (Trustee) (partially only) and by me. But should there be nevertheless any error, I am willing to answer for the correction."

"Long Lake, Milltown, Polk County, Wisconsin, United States, America, on Saturday, this 23rd of August, A.D. 1884. Henry Joseph Wirz, Old Pastor, LDAQM." The concluding initials could not be interpreted by Father Gordon.

Beginning in 1926 services were held in Centuria in the old Murphy Store Building and Town Hall until the parish bought the property where the church was built.

The priest's arrival in Centuria began another active period in his life. He had the task of again collecting money for a church. The first assessment for the new chapel was declared to be ten loads of rock and the rock pit on the Hurley farm was designated as having rocks of the desired size. "Rocks the sizes of a baseball to as big as one can lift were acceptable."

Father Gordon had a different set of problems in his new parish, in a Protestant community. He wrote, "It was evident from the attitude of some of my brothers of the cloth that opposition to the Catholic Church was a necessary evil and bound to exist. I do not believe the clergy was agreed on any plan to fight on this particular one of the four freedoms. My own particular and definite way was to initiate a series of lectures. I always believe that a great deal of the antipathy to anything even remotely Catholic, was due in large part to sheer ignorance."

"The whole series of lectures was meant to meet the stereotyped objections hurled against the Catholic Church ever since the founding of the Republic in 1776."

It is hard to believe now that such lack of communication existed between the various religions. There seemed to be a fear that the Pope interfered with American politics, in fact, that there was a contest as to who was going to rule the country, the President or the Pope.

Charlie Turner relates, "You know it was rough. We had Protestants all around us. And they got some of the craziest ideas, just crazy ideas. You know I hired a fellow from Turtle Lake and he was here about three weeks and one Sunday morning we were getting ready to go to church and he says, 'Don you care if I go to church with you?'"

"And boy, you know he sat there and he watched every move and after Mass he says to me, 'Could I see the basement?'"

"Well," I says, "We just finished putting the basement under the church. There ain't nothing in there." But Charlie showed him the basement. Later the man admitted he saw nothing out of the ordinary in the church. He told Charlie, "The stories they told me was the basement was full of rifles and the Catholics were going to take the country over."

"Such damn crazy things and he actually believed it."

There are people who still remember the lectures, Mrs. Marie Mulvaney Hersant, formerly of Hudson, knew Father Gordon personally.

"I was fourteen or fifteen years old and my family would be in Balsam Lake on vacation. We attended Mass at St. Patrick's in Centuria. He always had a message."

Mrs. Edith Anderson, on of the Swedes from Route 1 Frederic, says, "Father Gordon was a hero of mine from the days I worked in Centuria and he was an active local and national figure. We always exchanged greetings and I listened and read everything available. If anyone had charisma, he did." Scipio Wise, Hayward, also spoke of the Indian priest's charisma.

Louis de Angelo was a member of St. Patrick's for many years and remembered the lectures.

"He really spent his life for the good of humanity, for the Indians especially. I know he made a lot of trips to Washington and to Madison and did a lot of things for the Indians that an ordinary person would not have done. He was ahead of his time in his effort to convert the Indians. The church was more straight-laced at that time."

There were also many non-Catholics who attended the lectures. A well-known artist from St. Paul, commented "A systematic hearing of these lectures is a liberal education."

Father Gordon did much to erase the differences between the religious and ethnic groups. He was everybody's friend and had always been broad-minded. He said, of this lectures, "It is certainly not intended to prove that the Catholic religion is better (or as good or worse) than any Protestant denomination, nor is it always the best. As a matter of fact, I believe if I were Pope, I might make a change here or there. And if I happened to be the immediate local boss (the Bishop) I might add some new rules or abolish some old ones."

One of the things he probably would have changed was the matter of parish boundaries. In a preliminary statement to his published parish history, when he explained how the Catholic Church was governed, he suggested that people "Clip these items and preserve them in a scrap book for reference in future days. Perhaps the day may come when this country will no longer be a Democracy but will have some alien method of government thrust upon it. When that day comes (which God forbid!) we might take up our scrap book and as a matter of historical interest read these poorly written, hasty articles to find out how the Catholic Church was run way back in those days when the great American people were fed plenty of lusty alphabetical soup all the way from AAA, and CCC to XYG and BUNK."

The Indian priest not only preached ecumenism. He was a shining example in his actions. The postmaster and his wife, in the village of Luck, were Theosophist, which is an Asian Indian religion. They believed if there is a life hereafter, you come back as something else and they do not believe in Christ as Christians do.

These people lived in the rear of the Post Office, which was common in a small town in those days. Every year at Christmas-time, they would put a picture of the Christ Child in the window. They didn't believe in Christ, but they did this for their friends who were Catholic, Lutheran, and Methodist. It was there way of saying Merry Christmas.

One night in the middle of winter, Father Gordon got a call from the postmaster, "Please come right over." Father Gordon asked what was wrong and he said his wife was sick. Father Gordon traveled through the snow and found his wife was not sick; she was dead. The man had been sitting with his wife's remains for a number of hours. Where was he to turn? He went to an Indian priest.

Father Gordon said, "What have you done about this?"

"What can I do?"

"Well you're going to have to get a doctor to certify that your wife died of natural causes and your going to get her buried."

Father Gordon called the undertaker and arranged for the funeral. He conducted the funeral at the graveside, using the King James' version of the bible. He was criticized for doing it and some said they were going to write to the Bishop.

Father Gordon said, "I will be glad to give you his address."

His liberalism was indicated again when he paid tribute to Chief Kahquados of the Potawatomi tribe. "He was quite typical of the old-fashioned Indian. I don't mean he was a savage, but he always exemplified that type of manhood that believes in honesty and true attachment to ideals, even though these ideals may not have been learned in a Christian Church… He often expressed sadness because of the trend of affairs that concerned the Potawatomi tribe. He lived in poverty himself and he told me more than once that he did not mind penury himself, but suffered much to see the Potawatomi children endure hardship which he thought should have been prevented by the Great White Father."

Father Gordon was concerned about the state of morality throughout the country. "As Catholic pastor in charge of activities and spiritual life, the whole territory is of concern to use. Where ever a healthy religious spirit prevails there will reign community peace and concern, mutual charity, and respect for lawful authority."

"Hence, our anxiety as we witness decline of religion and increase in religious indifference. Religion has truly fallen into descent. At least 70% of our people do not attend church. As an American citizen by reason of my ancestry we bear in mind the old philosophic maxim repeated by George Washington in his farewell address. 'Of all the dispositions and habits that will lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.'"

On December 27, 1925, "A musicale was substituted for the regular lecture. Prof. Clarence Dickopf of St. Thomas College, St. Paul, entertained with a program of selections on the pianoforte and explained each piece before he played. He gave parts from the works of such Catholic composers as Grieg, Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann, and Palestrina. Assisting in the instrumental selections were Helen Reidner, Dorothy Thrill, Lenore Lynch and Edna Towers. Joe Cloutier sang Ave Maria. The program was a benefit for the vaguely contemplated new Chapel at Centuria."

Plans for the chapel developed and on December 7, 1929, Father Gordon wrote to Reverend Eugene J. McGuinness, Vice-president & General Secretary, Catholic Church Extension Society: "It is our plan to construct a little Chapel in the village of Centuria, which is the post office point of our rural St. Patrick's Church. To date the 26 struggling Catholic families in the village have gathered sufficient funds to buy twelve fine village lots and have about $300 in cash in hand besides. We hope to raise about $1500 by subscription. We do not propose to incur any debt. It would seem, therefore, that we will need your kind assistance to the extent of $1,000 at least…"

A small church was built in Centuria, which was later enlarged.

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