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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 17 - More KKK and Other Problems

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

There were many who had considered the priest's appointment to the little town in northwestern Wisconsin a place of isolation, but it did not prove so to Father Gordon. He was forty-eight when he came to Long Lake, but he began his most active period of public life. He was in demand as a public speaker; he maintained hi interest in Indian affairs; he took an active part in farmer's organizations and especially the Farmers' Union; he was interested in politics in which he was a liberal in the La Follette tradition. He supported Franklin Roosevelt and was a firm backer of Henry A. Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture. The Wallace and Gordon families became good friends.

The Indian priest loved to travel and did so at every opportunity. He often made trips to the reservations and was asked to speak at many different events. On several occasions he attended the Eucharistic Congress in Europe and the United States.

One of the first ones in which he was involved was in Chicago in 1926. He made the trip of automobile, taking along a number of Indians. They were guest there at the Slovenian meeting. This was the nationality of the first missionary to bring the gospel to the Chippewa Indians and to do effective work among them, Bishop Baraga. Father Gordon spoke in German at the Innsbruck Alumni meeting at the Congress.

A newspaper account dramatically described the Congress "a historical painting such as one comes upon in galleries of the old world was now touched to life and to actuality."

"Banners softly swaying; high aloft enormous golden garlands of grape leaves and bunches of grapes; sheaves of the goodly wheat; triple crowns of gold interlaces with silver fabric; Knights of the Holy See in ceremonial cloaks partly revealing coat sleeves heavily embroidered with gold and silver; colossal replicas of the papal arms… and here --- ah, marvelous continuity and comprehensiveness of the Church's story - an American Indian wearing the feathered ceremonial headdress of the Chippewas. That Indian is a priest now and known and loved among his people and your people at Centuria, Wisconsin, as Father Philip Gordon…"

It was during this week, June 20-24, 1926, that the KKK activities caused some commotion in the neighboring county of St. Croix. A Mr. Alfred Brown was engaged in a series of violent anti-Catholic talks in that county.

Father Gordon wrote, "I do not know if he disgraced any Protestant ministry by calling himself a Reverend or attached himself to any particular denomination."

On June 11, Mr. Fred L. Rothgeber, editor of the newspaper in Clear Lake, Polk County, wrote the following letter to Father Gordon:
"Dear Sir: I would be pleased to have the pleasure of arranging a debate between yourself and Mr. Alfred Brown in the immediate future on the following subject: Resolve that the Roman hierarchy is an un-American organization. Please advise me of you acceptance or objection of the opportunity to debate Mr. Brown on the above subject at your earliest convenience. Respectfully - Fred L. Rothgeber, PO Box 56"

Father Gordon replied and suggested a date after the Eucharistic Congress, which he planned to attend. After an exchange of letters, on June 21, Mr. Rothgeber wrote, "It is my opinion and I believe you will agree with me that it is advisable to abandon further effort to complete arrangements for a debate on the subject mentioned in previous letters, after the recent happenings at Northline, because it may incite, or create, religious hatred."

The "recent happenings" referred to was the burning of Mr. Brown's tent by a group from Hudson. Some of the disturbers of the peace were subsequently arrested and court proceedings initiated. Father Rice, then of Hudson, was instrumental in abolishing the KKK in the area.

When Father Gordon traveled to Dublin, Ireland, in 1932 to attend the Eucharistic Congress there, he was a member of a party of about a hundred pilgrims from St. Paul.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press noted, "A full-blooded Indian priest of the Chippewa tribe who appeared in the regalia of his people in a procession of the Congress, is the star of the film made there."

"Reverend Gordon of Centuria, Wisconsin… steals the show from the conventionally dressed cardinals and the pope's legate who marched in the procession. More than a million persons from all parts of the world attended the Congress…"

The film, which also included scenes taken in Germany, was filmed by Leon M. Linden of Aurora, Illinois and was exhibited for the benefit of the unemployed workers of St. Paul.

While in Ireland, Father Gordon met prominent Irishmen and spent a day as the guest of Eamon de Valera, prime minister, who had visited a mission at Reserve.

The following year the St. Paul Dispatch published an article, which stated: "The only American Indian Catholic priest in the world, Reverend Philip Gordon of Centuria, Wisconsin, will help lead a Holy Year mission pilgrimage from St. Paul to Rome in July."

"He will assist Reverend James A. Troy, 244 Dayton Avenue, director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, in guiding Northwest pilgrims along European travel trails far different from the trails trod by his ancestors through the Chippewa forests."

The tour included visits to many historic places as well as a four-day stay in Rome where they had an audience with Pope Pius XI, the Pope of Missions.

Wherever he went, Father Gordon always rated write-ups in the newspapers. Of these he said, "The so-called 'write-ups' that always were bound to appear in the local newspapers 'on a visit of an Indian priest' and which had become sort of stereotyped must by not become a nuisance to the patient readers of these historic notes."

But they always appeared. In 1929, on an eastern trip, he was quoted in the Trenton Times, "The poverty existing among the Indian tribes in the United States is simply appalling. He quoted the survey recently completed by the Bureau of Government research to prove that widespread poverty, which verges upon actual starvation, can be found on many Indian Reservations."

Another sidelight to that trip which amused him was what he called a literary curiosity, a write-up in a Hungarian newspaper, published in Trenton, called "Uj Vilag." There were about twenty-five paragraphs, which he said amounted to this, "The fellow is alright."

Like all clergy, Father Gordon constantly encountered problems, but his sense off humor helped to carry him through many of his trials. In his History of St. Pat's he mentioned 'two remarkable letters, but not unusual. It would be rich reading if these letters could be submitted, but they deal more or less with private, almost confidential matters. I mention them, however, because it is indicative of the fact that the priest is sometimes bombarded with propaganda and subjected to quite a bit of pressure if someone's feelings have been hurt by enforcement of Church rules and regulations."

"One of the above letters was in response to a statement sent out by the then secretary of the parish, William Cosgrove. He was dunning members. One such member (it happened to be a woman) wrote a long and involved statement full of dates and figures and additions and subtractions with considerable sarcasm and even bitterness… The letter was so long and hefty that it took 4 cents postage. The woman subsequently died and I often prayed that I hope St. Peter was a good mathematician to figure out if the family in questions had all the pew rent paid up."

"The second letter was an involved marriage case. It was written by an irate Irishman who talked plenty tough. However, the eventual outcome of this matter was that the state law in Minnesota intervened and the marriage was dissolved when one of the parties landed in the state 'pen,' and thereafter the pastor could sleep without wild dreams."

"It might be interesting to note that an average of about three or four goody letters reach a priest each month from all sorts of odd characters. While I love to receive friendly and good letters, I also get a kick out of reading some of the effusions of people who may disagree with me. At the worst, it can be said that most correspondence is meant to be sincere."

Some of the members of Father Gordon's perish felt there was discrimination against Catholics in the public schools. Now and then it was brought to his attentions that applicants for a position were asked what religious denomination he or she belonged to and the applicant failed to land the job.

"I had this particular complaint with reference to the St. Croix Falls College and High School. We never entered into the allegations against this school but there was this bald fact that often caused me to wonder. In all the eighteen years of pastorate of this writer in Polk County, there has been but one Catholic, to our knowledge, reaching in St. Croix Falls, although all neighboring schools - Luck, Milltown, Balsam Lake, Centuria, Frederic, Amery, Osceola, Webster, Cumberland, etc. - are seldom without teachers and instructors and even principles who practice the Catholic religion. Not that the school boards are respectively Catholic or anti-Catholic."

"Incidentally, it might be put down as a most remarkable coincidence that the pastor (of St. Patrick's Church, which includes St. Croix Falls) has not once been invited to offer and invocation, give a benediction, recite a baccalaureate, offer a commencement address (our charge have only bee for gas and oil instead of the $25.00 given to out-of-town speakers) in that school in his parish."

"This fact has never been interpreted as meant to be a deliberate slight but matched with the other happenings might give rise to suspicions in sensitive minds, particularly to the Catholics patronizing a particular school, inasmuch as the writer has often been called upon to help with his poor talents in Public Schools of various kinds in the high school located in the parish, as well as elsewhere…"

In an answer to a letter, State Superintendent John Callahan explained that "the question of religious denomination is never considered in applications for positions as teachers in the public schools…"

"The department is, however, well aware that in some sections of the state applications for positions are rejected on account of religious preference, and the selection is probably decided to a greater or less extent by community disposition…"

Often unhappy events caused the priest sorrow, but they never made him submissive. As a "sample of the 'doings' in some parts of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave." He entered the following in his reminiscences:
"From the Polk County Ledger, Balsam Lake, Wisconsin - OPEN FORUM (Opinions expressed and statements made are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the view of the paper.)"
"We, the people of Georgetown and Johnsonville, living near Big Round Lake, are very bitter against having an Indian Reserve put in up here. We have no canned heat factory up here to keep them warm."

"A much better place is at Balsam Lake, if they must be kept in the county. There they could have the benefit of good schools, county nurse, everlasting job for the relief department which is so well established in the county garage, and by putting in floor on the beams of the supports of the roof in the county garage, they could house the whole tribe and keep them warm and save canned heat. We have too many Indians here now such as they are. It will only mean a long war to the bitter end. Not only with the Indians, but with the people who are trying to put them on us."

"We have a wonderful place for a game refuge and intend to establish one here. Already we have plenty of deer, a start of beavers, muskrat, ring necks, and grouse. We are about the center of a large deer territory. We have a fish reserve in Big Round Lake and everybody respects it, and thinks it is a good thing. - A Subscriber."

The Game preserve was established near Big Round Lake.

"Editor's Note: WE can well leave it to the prowess of Father Gordon to take car of 'Subscriber' when the time comes to talk about the matter."

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