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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 20 - Last Days of a Great Man

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

The unique friendship between the Chief and Paul continued after the war. They knew each other intimately and understood each other in a way no one else did. Paul had heard Father Gordon's great oratory; but he had also been with him when he would drive for a half hour without saying a word, then apologize because he had been thinking.

He was with the Chief when he visited his mother or other relatives on the reservation and the only word he heard spoken was 'Ba Zhu' (Phonetically spoken probably not a written word) A few gestures may have passed between them, a shake of the head, a smile, but when they left he knew that his aunt was alright, his mother's cousin was fine, everything was o.k.

In 1941 Father Gordon was in Chicago visiting Paul when he received a call that his mother, A-te-ge-kwe, had died of pneumonia at the age of 86. She had gone back to the reservation many years ago and later lived in her little house Gordon, where Catherine Gordon McDonald now spends the summer. Catherine, who was home in Superior, is a daughter of Father Gordon's brother Joe. She says, 'this was his mother's house. She lived here until she died. She used to do all kinds of work, beadwork, tanning hides, she made jackets and sold them. People would bring their hides and she would tan them and make jackets. I don't know how she did it. She's soak them and then scrap them. She was a beautiful sewer, knitter, she could do anything. The funny par of it was she never had to have glasses."

Father Gordon continued to visit the reservation as often as possible, keeping in touch with his remaining friends and relatives. But his age and the ravages of his illness were taking their toll.

In 1946 after the war ended, Paul spent a great deal of time visiting the Chief at his home at Long Lake. The priest would light a cigar - he loved to smoke cigars but couldn't learn to smoke a pipe 00 and was ready to discuss anything.

Paul said, "The only Catholic education I received was from my parents as a child and from Father Gordon. On many occasions, whenever we discussed religion, if I had a question, he had the answer. He was an eloquent speaker on any subject. Certainly he was an authority on his own religion."

"We had different political views. He was a liberal and my family was always conservative. We spent long hours far into the night discussing politics and the merits of candidates. It had nothing to do with our friendship. This went on whether we were talking politics, religion or history. He loved history and had an extensive library of Indian history."

"Father Gordon had an uncanny sense of humor. He saw a great deal of humor in things that other people didn't even think were funny. I think that's one reason he and I got along so well. We laughed and got a kick out of living."

In 1946 Father Gordon mentioned in a letter to Paul that maybe the war would be over and then they could travel again. But when Paul returned to Europe in 1947 the Chief was too ill to go. When Paul visited some of the countries they had traveled through twelve years earlier, many people remembered the Indian priest and his feathered headdress.

Paul's visit to Pope Pius XII was written up in Paul Light's column: "… Paul was informed by Vatican officials that the Pope was in summer residence and was holding no audiences."

"Please get word to him," the St. Paul visitor said, "I came all the way from St. Paul to see him."

"It will do no good," he was told.

"Tell him I met him when he was in St. Paul as Cardinal Pacelli 11 years ago and that he invited me to see him if I ever came to Rome."

Paul was summoned for a private audience with the Pope who recalled that Paul's grandfather had restored a village church in the Vosges mountains of France after World War I. He asked many questions about the United States and expressed apprehension over the spread of Communism.

Father Gordon was in and out of the hospital from then on. He had planned to officiate at Paul's marriage in the chapel of St. Joseph's Hospital the latter part of November, but he was too sick.

After a long period in the hospital, November 6, 1946 to January 3, 1947, he wrote a letter for publication, thanking all his friends from their solicitude. He named a long list, including the Sisters of St. Joseph, Dr. William Carroll; Dr. Richard M. Leick; Dr. James V. Wilson; nurses and hospital personnel; and the Most Reverend Archbishop of St. Paul; Governor and Mrs. Ed Thye, Can and Cecil Wallace; Harry and Jen Carson; Monsignor Ed Casey; Fathers Peter Rice and Philip Krembs; Fathers Richard Doherty, James Guinney and Francis Missia; school children from many places; and many, many others, including Paul of course, who was a daily visitor.

"My debt to each and all can never be repaid. Left in our weak power is but to promise each a memento in my yet-to-be-read Holy Mass (may they be many) ere the twilight comes - prelude to the Great Adventure - 'and the evening comes, and the busy world hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in His mercy may He give us safe lodging and a holy rest, and peace at the last!"

Paul recalls one of his visits at the hospital: "I walked in one day and he had tears in his eyes. I asked him what happened. He said, 'The Bishop was just here and he gave me the last rites of the church and I'm going to die and I'm happy about it.'"

"I told him if I had a son I was going to call him Philip Gordon (Philip Gordon Villaume is living in St. Paul today)."

"Father Gordon suffered a lot and was in and out of the hospital and it was hard on him. But the Sisters of St. Joseph's took good car of him."

Even during the intermittent periods out of the hospital, Father Gordon was still in there fighting, or at any rate, lending his support to others taking up the cause. On January 4, he appeared in a picture with others, although he was evidently a very sick man. More than 100 Chippewa Indians had joined the Inter Tribal Organization to outline their claims for approximately 235 million dollars which they say is due them for their original lands.

On May 2, 1948, Paul drove the Chief home to St. Patrick's for the last time. He was home a few weeks when he called to tell Paul he had return to the hospital. But somehow he attended Bastille Day on July 14. He arrived in a wheel chair. It was his last public appearance.

Paul spent the evening of September 30 with the priest and left at midnight.

"I received a call the following morning, October1, 1948, telling me that Father Gordon was dying. Ten minutes later I was in the room and I had the privilege of joining the nuns in final prayer. The nuns tell me that he recognized my voice. He died peacefully soon after."

Although he never received worldwide acclaim, Father Gordon had put up a good fight for human rights and the caused he believed in. The first Indian priest in the United States was loved by all who knew him. They loved him because he loved everyone. They loved him because of his broad-minded, ecumenical views. They respected him for his struggle of rights of the Indians, the farmers, and anyone else who rights were being violated; for his love of children; for his magic oratory.

Father Gordon was a man ahead of his time. If he were alive today, he would be disappointed that the cause he fought for is still not resolved. He would, no doubt, still be in there fighting. He was truly a man of two words - the white and the Indian, as well ass the worldly and the spiritual.

Ti-bish-ko-gi-jik, the first American Indian in the country to become a priest, was honored when a new Knights of Columbus Council was established, comprising a number of area parishes, including St. Patrick's Centuria. The unanimous choice of a name was "Father Philip Gordon Council 6370 of Knights of Columbus."

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