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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 18 - An Unforgettable Journey

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

Many people from St. Paul, Minnesota, who vacationed at summer resorts or private cabins at the lakes in his parish, became acquainted with Father Gordon. Among them was the family of Louis Villaume, descendant of one of St. Paul's pioneer families.

Their names are still on the register at The Shores Resort (formerly Calderwood Springs) on Bone Lake. On June 23, 1925, the Villaume family is listed, with Father Gordon directly underneath. The next year the name of Thomas Gibbons appears. He was the world heavyweight contender who fought and was defeated by Jack Dempsey. He was there to buy land that later became St. Luke's Camp for St. Luke's Church in St. Paul. He became a good friend of Father Gordon.

Paul Villaume vividly remembers the priest. He says, "My first memory of Father Philip Gordon was in 1925 at Calderwood Springs Resort at Bone Lake in Polk County. Father Gordon came on Sunday morning to conduct Mass on the front porch of Mr. Calder's summer cabin. At that time he had already begun to form a Boy Scout troop and my brother Louis was one of the original members."

All the Villaume children were confirmed in St. Patrick's Church; and Paul says, "It was a great honor to have William Gordon, the priest's father, as my sponsor."

After his confirmation, Paul Villaume made the first of many trips with Father Gordon to the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, near Hayward, Wisconsin. The Indians gave him the name Ka-wah-din, which is the Chippewa name for the 'North Wind.'

"There was an informal ceremony," he says. "'The Chief' and a number of Indians beat the drum. I was thirteen years old, and I'm sure I was more impressed than they were about the occasions." The priest was affectionately known by the family as 'the Chief.'

Late, Paul's ego was somewhat deflated when his father told him his Indian name actually meant 'Hot Air.'

From 1929 to 1936 the Villaume family spent the summers at Perry Mound on Balsam Lake. They became close friends of the Indian priest and Paul was often in his company. In fact, he had a room at the rectory for many years. At that time William Gordon was the housekeeper. He was 75 when his priest son was assigned to St. Patrick's.

The Chief later reminisced, "My father was a great cook. Good, plain, substantial cooking-the sort he used to do when he was a cook in the lumber camps. I don't believe there was anyone who could bake a pot of beans lumber camp style like he could. That was his specialty. I think of him still, out there in the kitchen, frequently stirring the pot of beans in the oven so that they would be just right. And when it came to cooking wild game he was the equal of the best."

The was always wild rice on the table, an Indian staple from which Father Gordon was never far removed. He made may visits to the reservation and kept in touch with his Indian friends and their customs. He also frequently visited his mother, who had gone back to the reservation.

He liked to hunt and fish and would always be seen wearing a hat, but still he suffered a sunburned nose. He often wore a hat on other occasions, too, and especially liked a straw hat known as a 'sailor.'

Even with all his activities the priest had not forgotten his old college days. On May 21, 1931, he was among 175 former St. Thomas athletes who attended the first annual homecoming of the Monogram Club. Athletic teams from as far back as 1896 were represented in the group. They decided to make the reunion an annual affair. Before the 1933 reunion, when Father Gordon was to be given an honorary Doctor's degree, he wrote to Reverend W.F. Cunningham, C.S.C., Dean of Studies at St. Thomas, "It is indeed a great privilege for me to be associated with the activities of the Holy Cross Fathers in their educational work at my old College. Of course, it is a matter of extreme pleasure to me to think that I have been designated by the Administration for the honor of an honorary degree. I feel myself an unworthy candidate for such a distinction. In reply to your suggestion as to ordering a Doctor's gown, I should lke to have one at the minimum price. The specifications you asked for are as follows: Weight 220; Height 5'11 ½
Size of Hat 6 7/8 or 7. As I expect to participate in the Monogram Banquet. I shall endeavor to have a check for the gown to give you then."

It was apparent from the letter he no longer had the trim athletic figure of his college days. One of his classmates had been urging him to write a book on the religious opportunities among the Indians or any related subject. He chided the priest, "Next to my solicitude to have you regain your previous athletic slim figure, this other ambition of mine to have you write, ranks second."

Paul Villaume says, "The Chief was a big man. In the 1930's and early 40's he weighted in excess of 200 pounds. He always drove a big car. The first car I recall he had was an Auburn touring car. Then he had a Chevrolet coupe', the first one the made in 1926, I believe."

"But the car he loved most, I think because of the color, was a Lincoln Zephyr coupe' which was fire-engine red. One of the local chiefs wanted him to paint it another color because in those days they didn't have red automobiles. Father Gordon claimed that since red was an Indian color he thought he would keep his car red. When anybody saw a red car it was either Chief Gordon or the fire chief."

The priest's reputation as a driver was not the best' but he never had an accident, which was probably only accountable to the sparse traffic at the time. Paul told his father, after a trip with Father Gordon, "I'm going to become a priest because I could drive on either side of the road and get there."

In 1934, Father Gordon and Paul Villaume sailed on a three-month's trip to the Mediterranean. Everyone realized what a splendid opportunity this would be for a young man of eighteen. Among the letters he received was one from his mother, which shows the high regard the family had for the priest. She sent the letter so he would receive it as his ship sailed.

"My dear boy: When you receive this letter, you will have started on one of life's great journeys. You are a very lucky boy to have a friend like Father Gordon. It means much in life to know such a person. We are all happy to number him among our friends and it is our wish that you do all in your power to make Father Gordon's trip a perfect one."

"I am so glad you father will be able to wave to you as your boat departs as it does so warm the heart…"

"Make the most of each day and have rest and be happy. We shall all miss you. Love your Mother."

A friend in the mayor's office, Catherine Aynsley, wrote at length of the "marvelous opportunity," Se said, "… I know you are going to see many sights and learn many things to enrich your mind that you will carry through your entire life. You are most fortunate in having so fine a traveling companion as Father Gordon and I wil be glad if you will give my best wishes to him."

"You are traveling a long ways from the home territory and I know there will be days when you will wish you were under your home roof, but try and get as much as you can out of each day and your friends, as well as your family, will be most glad to welcome you back to our fair city when your journey is ended."

"I hope the 'bombardment' now going on in Austria and France are going to be over and settled soon so as not to interfere with your plans."

"We are still enjoying the same mild sunshiny sort of weather and it is beginning to look like we aren't going to have any winter, but I think a good old fashioned Minnesota snowstorm should be most welcome."

"Georgie and your friend Joe Kilroy, are sill running the P.S.P.A. with a little assistance from Mr. Roosevelt."

"My ever best wish for you and I just hope this wonderful opportunity that has come to you will be followed by others and bring to you much happiness throughout your life."

Paul said, "If we couldn't get in somewhere, we used use the letter from the mayor's office. It looked official."

There were two items, which Paul carried all over during their trip. One was his mouth organ and the other was the priest's Indian headdress, which he transported in a wooden box. Father Gordon wore it on any and all occasions.

Paul recalls, "He wore it to a dinner which was given in honor of the Egyptian Ambassador to the United States and the ambassador delighted in it. Another time that stands out in my memory was on Easter Sunday, 1934, the day after Father Gordon's birthday. We visited St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. I suggested he put on his headdress and 10,000 people followed him out onto St. Paul's Square. It was the first time they had ever seen an American Indian headdress other than in American movies."

Although Paul had not learned the prayers or even attended a Catholic school, he served Mass for the Chief during the three months of their trip.

One of the memories, which Paul says is indelibly printed in his mind, was when Father Gordon was given special permission to say mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site of the crucifixion and burial of Christ.

It was an unforgettable journey for two pals with thirty years difference in their ages. They sailed from New York and shared a stateroom on a North German Lloyd liner, the Columbus, which was the largest ship until the Bremen and the Europa were built.

Paul recalls, "the fare at the time was $346 round trip. The ship was our hotel. We visited Maderia, Casablanca, Gibraltar, went back to Algiers, Tunis, to the French Riviera, Nice, Monte Carlo, Tripoli, the island of Malta, Sicily, Naples, over to St. Louis where King Louis of France died. Then we went all the way to the end of the Mediterranean to Lebanon. Then to Palestine where they were building the city of Tel Aviv and from Jerusalem to Cairo, came back and caught the ship at Haifa, to Alexandria and then to Constantinople, through the Dardanelles and the Black Sea. We came to Athens and through the Yugo-Slavia, Albania, Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence, Milan, Switzerland, Paris, Lisieux and sailed from Le Havre."

They met many interesting people wherever they went and had numerous adventures, some rather exciting. One of these is describe by who wrote under the name of Paul Light in the Pioneer Press. He was a good friend of Paul Villaume and often mentioned Father Gordon in his column.

In his column of August 29, 1946, he wrote: "Father Gordon and Paul Villaume (the latter accompanied by his constant companion, a mouth organ)… visited Mediterranean countries a few years ago. The priest says he almost lost Paul at Casablanca. The latter decided, as long as he was in the Moroccan metropolis, he should call on the Moroccan sultan. SO he went to the palace and rang a bell in the grille doorway.

"A turbaned, bloomered servant responded. Paul showed him a letter from Bill Mahoney, then mayor of St. Paul. The letter bore a gold seal of St. Paul and a red, white and blue ribbon. Paul thinks the servant thought he was a high French official because of the ribbon. The servant admitted him…"

"There was a long delay during which Paul felt many eyes peering at him through peepholes."

"Finally he heard a beating drum. Then he saw a huge Moroccan approaching. Once glance told him it was not the sultan. The man was in uniform of the sultan's guard. He was swinging what was probably the biggest knife in the world."

"Paul departed immediately for elsewhere. He decided the only person in Casablanca he wanted to see was Father Gordon."

"The latter was surprised when Paul returned to their hotel with his head still attached to his body…"

When he returned home, Paul's mother wrote, "How I should love to be there to greet you upon your arrival in your own country which after all is the finest in the world."

The year of the Mediterranean tour was also eventful for Father Gordon's brother who made headlines for a trip he made. James Montreal Gordon, a World War I veteran, known in the American Legions circles as 'Mike,' built a birchbark canoe and learned first hand the arduous journey his ancestors had made from Lake Superior on the Brule and the St. Croix Rivers.

He found the route had not changed too much since his voyageur ancestors arrived in northern Wisconsin. Even today, paddling against the current up the wild Brule, portaging around falls, over the continental divide, down the St. Croix, drifting at times, but backstroking much of the time against the swift current, was strenuous.

He then traveled the entire length of the mighty Mississippi and continued by way of the Inland Waterway to Miami, Florida to attend a convention of the American Legion. An article in the Badger Legionnaire, November 10, 1934, described some of his experiences on the trip:
"… Mike, as we call him - and by which name the Miami crowd will remember him to their dying days - started on his "See Wisconsin First" missionary career when he decided to attend the Miami Convention, and to transport himself there by the means employed by his forefathers; namely, the birchbark canoe. He went up the Brule, portaged to the St. Croix and thus to the Mississippi. He paddled down the to New Orleans and by canal into the Gulf to the west cost of Florida to the east coast and down to Miami. He spent 81 days paddling 2,939 miles.

"On his way down Mike had 22 speaking engagements before cambers of commerce, high school and college classes, stressing in each the beauty of the good old Badger state which gave him birth, and explaining the ideals of The American Legion of which he was a proud and faithful member."

Orrin McGrath, who was eighty-four in 1975, lived in northern Wisconsin and knew the Gordons. He says, "Jim was a smart fellow. He stared out with a big supply of post cards, pictures of himself with his canoe. He sold these and then the various Legion Posts took care of him along the way. He was a congenial cuss. Before he left Miami, he auctioned off his canoe and if I remember correctly, he got somewhere between $350 and $400 for that canoe. He was the last canoe builder that I knew."

After their return from the Mediterranean countries, Paul traveled many places with the Chief - to the reservations, to the North Shore of Lake Superior, to Sault Ste. Marie for ceremonies honoring St. Isaac Jogues, the great Jesuit missionary martyr. In 1941, Paul was chairman of a trip from St. Paul civic leaders to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, for the 100th anniversary of the first Mass to be said in St. Paul by Father Lucien Galtier who is buried in front of the church and Father Gordon gave the blessing over the grave.

The Indian priest always attended the Bastille Day celebration in St. Paul, and event originated by Paul. He was interested in all the ethnic celebrations. He was proud of being an Indian and so he understood why the Germans were drinking beer and singing and why the Irish had a big parade. He always like to celebrate with his friends.

In a letter he wrote, "I was much interested in that Bastille Day idea, Good idea, Paul. More than one have asked me why we couldn't have another such blowout. You go ahead and arrange it and I will be there. Could get Father Frank Burns there to make another speech in French and many other things could happen. By all means, get things going for such a gathering. Incidentally, it would please your Dad. Of course, there is supposed to be a ban on non-essential driving but a meeting like that is a help to the war-effort…"

After the eighth annual celebration, the Pioneer Press published a photo of some of the participants - Father Gordon: Henri Melancon, New Canada; Paul Villaume, chairman of the celebration; and Dr. Thomas Gehan - with the caption "Bon Conversation, B'Gorra - You could hardly see the Frenchmen for the Irish… Residents of French descent followed their traditional policy of inviting friends of various nationalities to help mark the 159th anniversary of the storming of the ancient Paris prison during the French revolution. Friends conversed amid mix choruses of 'La Medelon' and 'My Wild Irish Rose.'"

Paul Light continued to write an occasional item about Father Gordon. In one he mentioned a rain drum Dan Wallace had in his collection of Indian artifacts.

"It once belonged to Two Moons, one of the four Indian Chiefs who participated in the Custer massacre. 'It always rains the day after it is played,' Dan insists. 'Father Gordon is very covetous of it. He even offered to take it to Rome and have it blessed by the Pope. But I'm afraid if I let him he won't bring it back."

"The drum only failed Dan once… when he let Father Gordon play it as an accompaniment to some Chippewa songs. It didn't rain, but on the following morning a 3-day blizzard that blocked all road developed."

"'Thus,' says Dan, 'you will see the potency of two such medicine men as myself and Father Gordon.'"

Another time the column read, "If you want to order cranberry pie in the Chippewa Indian tongue you ask (approximately) for maski-nin-bash-ki-min-a-si-gun-wi-we-ga-si-gun-pa-kwe-ji-gun. It's about the longest word in the Chippewa language, I use the word 'approximately' because Father Philip Gordon wrote it down for me and I had some difficulty reading his writing… the 45 letter word translates something like this: 'Swamp-berry-cooked-till-it-bursts-wrapped-in-dough-sliced.'"

The priest had a ready wit and zest for life, but his main interest was always helping those in need - first of all Indians, but also Blacks, and the farmers.

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