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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 14 - Indian Priest and the Irish

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

In January 1926, dear friends of Father Gordon, Major J. Frank Quilty and his wife of Chicago, made it possible for Father Gordon to take a three-week vacation by way of a lecture trip to Florida. He spoke at Daytona Beach, Mr. Dora, Leesburn, Clermont, Winter Haven, Bradenton, Lakeland, and Clearwater. He met many Wisconsin people all over, but found race prejudice strong, with Jim Crow cars used by law on all the railroads. Negroes had their own waiting rooms, cars, places in the busses, etc.

At the time he said, "Give me good old Wisconsin. We have a variety of climates here. Good roads, Bob LaFollette - and as a man told me down in Florida, 'Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.'"

A Florida publication called him "a most fascinating and lovable member of his race as he pointed out to the Open Forum audience last Sunday afternoon interesting and pathetic facts about present day life on reservations."

In writing the History of St. Pat's in the 1940's Father Gordon recalled the lectures in Florida. He said, "I refrain from repeating the address because many will learn how old the joke are that I still use in my talks."

Father Gordon continued to use the old parish house at Long Lake. Charlie Turner said the money was there to build a new one and he asked the priest why he didn't go ahead and build.

"Oh, I won't be here long I wouldn't want to build a house that maybe the next person wouldn't like."

"Charlie was proud to say the parish had the unusual distinction of never being in debt, and he is upset now that some want to build a new church for the tourists. The old building that had housed the chapel had been turned into a tavern and a hardware store.

Sinon Lynch tells of taking the priest from his house at Long Lake to the church in Centuria.

"One Sunday it was snowing terrific and blowing and we were about halfway out and he said, 'Sinon, if next Sunday is like this, we're not going out.' It was snowing and blowing so much the horses had to pick their way. It was about four miles from the old parsonage to the church."

Sinon recalls that Father Gordon was always on time. "Not before, not after. He was always punctual."

The Long Lake cemetery is still there, with names representing many nationalities, but mostly Irish. As Charlie Turner says, "Long Lake was all Irish years ago and almost all related. Centuria was all Swedes; Milltown, all Danes. Between them was the Irish and they kept the Danes and Swedes from fighting." There were others who said it took an Indian to keep the Irish from fighting.

Father Gordon's well-known sense of humor made him compatible with the Irish community. In an article in Badger Trails, No. 24, May 9, 1928, entitled, "Indian Priest Makes Good in Irish Parish," John H. Lienhard wrote, "When a Chippewa Indian priest was sent four years ago to take charge of the Irish parish of St. Patrick's, embracing almost half of Polk County some persons were skeptical."

"But not for long. Father Philip Gordon came down from Reserve and proceeded to show them that anyone who has played left end for St. Thomas College at St. Paul three years is a good enough Irishman to run any kind of parish. Now he ranks with Sheriff Jim Olson at Balsam Lake as one of the two most popular men in the county."

"St. Croix Falls, Luck, Centuria, Balsam Lake, and Milltown are all in Father Gordon's parish as well as Long Lake where he lives in the parish house with his father as housekeeper. There are five public high schools and 25 district schools in his parish."

"He is scout master of Centuria Troop No. 2, Boy Scouts of America. He is largely interested in the work of the Parent Teachers Association and addresses their meetings as well as the various high schools in his parish. Every year he gives a big parish picnic with Indian dances and notable speakers."

"The last one was attended by Governor Fred Zimmerman of Wisconsin, Tommy Gibbons of St. Paul, former heavyweight boxing aspirant, and Chad Smith, St. Paul airmail pilot."

Charlie Turner said if Father had anything to say to anybody he often brought it out in his sermon.

"I had a sister," Charlie said, "that rode to the city with him. So he was telling his sermon, 'I never knew that the ladies of this parish were so religious as they are.' He said. "You know I took a lady down to the city. She wanted to go to the city and I was going down and she rode along. She sat in the backseat and you know, she didn't know I saw it, but I think she blessed herself twenty times on the way.' Oh he drove fast. He was a wonderful driver. I never heard of him having an accident and he always had a big car, a heavy car, but he could see in the looking glass and she blessed herself twenty times." Fast, at the time, was probably 35 miles per hour.

Even his father agreed that Father Gordon was a fast driver. He said, "My how my son drives fast. I do not want to ride with him." But he also said, "My son is a smart Indian." Father Gordon had to drive fast to get to his many activities.

Charlie Turner said, "He was a wonderful person. He had a way of telling you to do things. I never went to a dance during Lent and we were brought up quite strict. But there were about a dozen married couples who went to dances during the year and being I knew Father so well, they wanted me to go and ask if it would be alright to dance on St. Patrick's Day. And you know, I got the most beautiful answer I ever heard. He said, 'you know I don't see no harm in it but I am sure that St. Patrick would not thank you.' And we did not go. Now he didn't say right out, 'No, you can't go.' Now you couldn't go after that."

The priest's aunt, Tressie Lynch, 87, who is living in a nursing home said Father Gordon had many, many friends. Her son was the first baby he baptized in Centuria.

Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Reidner sill lived near the church in 1975. Mrs. Reidner remembered when they had a little hotel in Centuria and Father Gordon would eat dinner there.

"He ate there lots of times. He was always in a hurry. He'd eat and go. He didn't wait for dessert: if you didn't have dessert right there, he'd be gone. He was always busy. The first time I met him, I lived in St. Pal and he brought a basketball team down to St. James Church in our neighborhood. After a while I got pretty well acquainted with him. He sponsored a girl's team, too."

The Reidner's described Father Gordon as being a big man, a little on the plump side, but his father, who lived with him for some years, was a tall slender man.

Father Gordon liked good food, and Mrs. Reidner recalls that, back in those days, Catholics had strictly enforced abstinence from meat on Fridays. Those were the days when the 'thrashing' crew moved from farm to farm with a gigantic threshing machine run by a long belt attached to a powerful, chugging steam engine. Farmers' wives loaded the tables with huge platters of meat, bowls of mash potatoes, gravy, vegetables, homemade pickles, and pies and cakes.

When the farmer knew the threshing crew would be coming on Friday, he would get permission to serve meat to the large group of men they would have for meals. So the priest always knew where the good meals were going to be served. That was where Father Gordon had dinner that Friday. In fact, he was known to ask one of his friends to try to have the threshers on Friday.

Father Gordon loved children and had an impact on them. Russell H. Johnson, now senior vice-president of the First National Bank of St. Paul, tells how Father Gordon made a bow and arrow for him. Mr. Johnson's parents had a store in Centuria. When he was seven or eight years old, around 1925, the priest sat in the back room of the store and whittled out Russell's first bow and arrow from an apple crate. No doubt he made many more for other children.

Even with his busy schedule, the priest found time to sponsor both boy's and girl's basketball teams and other athletics. He was Scout Master, which eventually led to the presentation of the drum and peace pipe to the St. Paul Troop, which finally went to President Kennedy.

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